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9 Types of Hawks To See in Louisiana (Pictures)

 Updated by Melanie Cruff on 02-23-2024

Louisiana is home to a diverse array of hawk species, each uniquely adapted to thrive in the rich and varied habitats that characterize the pelican state. From the expansive wetlands and marshes of the Gulf Coast to the pine forests and agricultural lands further inland, Louisiana offers a mosaic of environments that support a wide range of hawks. Hawks can be observed gliding over the wetlands, perched in the dense forests, and hunting in the open fields, showcasing their adaptability to the state’s diverse landscapes.

Not counting extremely rare vagrants, the 9 species of hawks in Louisiana are the Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk and Swainson’s Hawk.

The majority of these are accipiters or buteos. We refer to both genera as ‘hawks’ in alignment with North American terminology. This usage reflects regional naming conventions and is not intended to overlook the taxonomic distinctions among these groups of birds of prey. In Europe you’ll hear buteos referred to as buzzards. 

Some species migrate thousands of miles during the year and are only in the state for a short time, while others stick around all year. Let’s dive into the 8 amazing species of hawks in Louisiana!

1. Cooper’s Hawk

Coopers hawk adult perching
Adult Coopers Hawk

Scientific nameAccipiter cooperii
Length: 14.6 – 17.7 in
Weight: 7.8 – 24.0 oz
Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in

Cooper’s Hawks are year-round residents in most of Louisiana, although along the Gulf they may mostly be seen during the winter months. Cooper’s Hawks are found not just in woodlands, but in many suburban neighborhoods as well, feasting on the smaller birds visiting backyard bird feeders.

Adults have a bluish-gray back, heavy orange barring on the chest, a red eye, and squared-off head with dark cap. Immature birds have a yellow eye, brown back and head, and white underparts with heavy brown streaks.

cooper hawk
Cooper’s Hawk | image by Ken Pitts via Flickr

Since birds make up much of this hawks diet, they have to go on high speed chases through the forest. Studies of Cooper’s hawk skeletons reveal that many of them had at one point broken bones in their chest, likely from crashing into branches. These birds kill their prey by squeezing them to death with their strong feet instead of biting them like some other raptors do. 

2. Northern Harrier

northern harrier dive
Northern Harrier | image by Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr

Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
Length: 18.1-19.7 in (46-50 cm)
Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz (300-750 g)
Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in (102-118 cm)

The Northern Harrier is the only harrier variety of hawks indigenous to North America. Its breeding grounds range as far north as Canada, but it winters in more southern climes. This why you’ll only spot them in the state during the non-breeding months.

Northern harriers have an elegant, almost owl-like face. This disc-shaped face functions similarly to an owls, directing sound into their ears to help them hunt by sound as well as sight. Two helpful identifying features are their long tail, and white patch above the tail. They have a signature flying style, holding their wings in the shape of a “V”. Majestic is an excellent word to describe these birds. 

northern harrier face
northern harrier

The male northern harrier, also known as the “gray ghost,” displays distinctive plumage characterized by predominantly gray upperparts and a white rump. Its underparts are pale gray with a streaked pattern, and it features black wingtips. In contrast, the female northern harrier exhibits a more mottled brown plumage with streaked underparts and a noticeable white rump. 

3. Sharp-shinned Hawk

image: Dennis Murphy | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
Length: 9.4-13.4 in
Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz 
Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in

These tiny hawks prefer woodlands and forests. They migrate from Canada south to warmer climates including Louisiana for the winter. Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest hawk in the United States. They prey on small birds and rodents they chase through the forest. Many people refer to them by their shortened nickname, Sharpies. 

Sharp-shinned hawks have a blue-gray back with reddish-orange barring on their cream colored chests and dark banding on their tails. They look very similar to the Cooper’s hawk, but with a more rounded head and squared-off tail. 

sharp shinned hawk perched snowy day
sharp-shinned hawk

While nesting, they are hard to find as they stick to forests with dense canopies. They do sometimes visit backyards to hunt birds at feeders. The best time to spot them though is during fall migration. They travel south into the U.S. from their summer range in Canada, and are seen in large numbers at hawk watch sites.

4. Red-shouldered Hawk

Image: peteyp8 |

Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
Length: 16.9-24.0 in
Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
Wingspan: 37.0-43.7

Red-shouldered Hawks live year-round in Louisiana, and enjoy its swamps, bottomland woods, and deciduous forest areas near streams and rivers. They return to their same nesting areas for multiple years.

A good identifying feature is the heavy red coloring on the breast that extends all the way down their belly with red barring. They have dark, nearly black feathers down their back and wings.

At the top of their back and “shoulders” this will be mixed with reddish feathers (hence their name). From the mid-back down there will be a lot of white barring mixed in with the dark feathers, ending in a strongly banded tail. 

red shouldered hawk perch
Red-shouldered Hawk | image by jeannetteyvonne via Flickr

You may hear this hawk before you spot it. They give a loud “kee-aah” call that is usually repeated several times in a row. Some people think it sounds a bit like a seagull. They will loudly call to mark territory or when alarmed. 

5. White-tailed Hawk

Scientific name: Geranoaetus albicaudatus
Length: 18.1-22.8 in 
Weight: 31.0-43.6 oz 
Wingspan: 50.4-51.6 in 

The White-tailed Hawk is a striking raptor found in the open savannas and grasslands of coastal southeastern Texas. While uncommon, they are sometimes seen along the coastal areas of Louisiana, especially in the southwest near the Texas border. Their main range extends from parts of Mexico down into South America. 

They like to soar on breezy days, watching below for prey. They also perch on utility poles, shrubs and small trees. White-tailed hawks eat mainly small mammals like gophers, rats, mice, shrews and rabbits. However they do include birds like rails, meadowlarks, roadrunners and bobwhites.

white tailed hawk
White-tailed Hawk | image by Alan Schmierer via Flickr

Adults have dark gray on their head, back and wings with a red patch on each shoulder. Their underparts are white, with a white tail that has a dark tip. 

6. Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged hawk (Image: Tom Koerner/USFWS | CC BY 2.0 | flickr)

Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
Length: 18.5-20.5 in
Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz 
Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in 

Rough-legged hawks can be seen in Louisiana during the fall and winter months, and aren’t super common in the state. When it’s time to move to their breeding grounds, they travel all the way to the northern Arctic! There, they will nest on cliffs and rocky outcroppings.

In the winter, you’ll find them in wide-open spaces, perching on poles and fence posts. Here they hunt for mice, voles and shrews. Rough-legged hawks are known to turn into the wind and flap their wings to achieve a hover-in-place vantage point they can use to scan the ground below them for their prey.

two rough legged hawks
Two color-morphs of the Rough Legged Hawk | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Rough-legged hawks get their names from the feathers on their legs. Very few American raptors have feathers that run all the way down their legs. Most have heavily mottled dark brown and white, sometimes with a thick black belly patch. In flight, you’ll see a dark patch as the “wrist” against a pale background. There is also a dark-morph that appears almost black, and looks two-toned from below.

7. Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged hawk (Image: Andrew Cannizzaro | CC BY 2.0 | wikicommons)

Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
Length: 13.4-17.3 in (34-44 cm)
Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz (265-560 g)
Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in (81-100 cm)

Broad-winged Hawks migrate south to Central and South America for the winter, but spend their breeding season (spring and summer) in eastern North America, including Louisiana. They leave en masse in the fall, sometimes thousands at a time, and attract many hawk-watching parties along their migration route.

During the nesting season, these hawks like wooded areas and can be hard to spot. They like more secluded spots near water. In addition to small rodents, reptiles, and amphibians, they eat quite a few insects. The Broad-winged Hawk prefers to catch its prey on the ground, rather than snatching anything out of the air.

broad winged hawk flight
Broad-winged Hawk | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

These smaller hawks have a brown head and chest, barred underparts and black and white bands on their tail. In flight you can note their short tail and broad wings with pointed tips. They also have a dark outline around the edge of their wings as seen from below. Their overall body shape is compact with a chunky body. 

8. Red-tailed Hawk

red tailed hawk perched on tree
Image: Mark Bohn, USFWS |

Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
Length: 17.7 – 25.6 in
Weight:  24.3oz – 51.5 oz
Wingspan:  44.9-52.4 in

The Red-tailed Hawk is possibly the most common hawk in North America. A resident in Louisiana year-round, they prefer open ground areas with high places for perching to look for prey.

Red-tailed hawks are most active during the day or early morning and are commonly seen soaring looking for prey with their amazing vision or perched along the roadside on telephone poles. Their diet is mainly small to medium sized mammals like mice, rats, rabbits and squirrels. 

red-shouldered hawk in flight from below
Red-tailed Hawk in Flight | image by Don Owens via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Adults have a brick-red tail that is easy to identify, however while still juveniles their tail is brown and white striped. In general these hawks are pale below and dark brown above.

Red-tailed hawks have brown streaking on their breast, often with a band of darker brown streaks going across their belly area that can be another good identifying factor. Because these hawks are so widespread, there are many color variations across the country.

9. Swainson’s Hawk

Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
Length: 18.9-22.1 in
Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz
Wingspan: 48 in

Swainson’s Hawks spend the winter in South America, then migrate up to western North America to breed for the summer. Louisiana is not within their range, however they have been spotted in recent years during the spring and fall migration. Most of the sightings occur in the far south, west of Lafayette and close to the Texas border in the southwest corner. So if you are a hawk-watcher there is a chance you may spot a Swainson’s Hawk during migration if you head down to the coast.

swainsons hawk flying
Swainson’s Hawk | image by NPS / Jacob W. Frank via Flickr

Swainson’s Harks are large birds with long wings that appear pointed at the end. they have dark flight feathers that give their wings a thick, dark edge when viewed from below. Their head and upper breast are brown, and their belly and throat are white, giving them a hooded appearance.

Where to See Hawks in Louisiana:

Some hawks are easy to spot- you may see a Cooper’s Hawk swooping down in your backyard after smaller birds, or a Red-tailed Hawk perched on a telephone pole when you head to the grocery store. However, the more elusive species may take a bit of special care to find. Louisiana is full of nature reserves, parks, and other areas to go bird-watching.

Because so many hawks are migratory visitors to and from Louisiana, there are opportunities to see these traveling groups in different parts of the state during the autumn. Broad-winged Hawks can be seen in the thousands in September and October along the southwestern coastal areas of the state.

In November, incoming visitors include the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and Northern Harrier. Local organizations like the Baton Rouge Audubon Society or the Orleans Audubon Society are excellent resources to find places in your area where you may be able to see the hawks mentioned here.

Events like the Great Louisiana Birdfest in Mandeville can also be not only a great place to see hawks and other birds, but a fun way to meet other birding enthusiasts.

Many Louisiana State Parks offer a variety of wildlife viewing opportunities, and some of them may have special programs specifically for hawk-watching. There are a variety of birding trails that crisscross through every area of the state as well. Audubon Louisiana also has great resources for starting your birding trips and a lot of great information about other wildlife.

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