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8 Species of Hawks in Mississippi (Photos)

 Updated by Melanie Cruff on 03-01-2024

Nestled within the diverse tapestry of Mississippi’s landscapes, a remarkable array of hawk species gracefully soar through the skies, embodying the state’s rich biodiversity. From the mighty red-tailed hawk to the agile cooper’s hawk, Mississippi provides a haven for these magnificent birds of prey.

The magnolia state’s many habitats, ranging from expansive pine forests and bottomland hardwoods to coastal marshes and open grasslands, offer an ideal mosaic for various hawk species to thrive. This article showcases the species of hawks that live in Mississippi.

There are approximately 16 species of hawks living across the United States, with 8 of them found in Mississippi. Those species are the broad-winged hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Swainson’s hawk and rough-legged hawk.

Please note, in this article we refer to both accipiters and buteos as ‘hawks’ in alignment with North American terminology. This reflects regional naming conventions and is not intended to overlook the taxonomic distinctions among these groups of birds of prey.

1. Broad-winged Hawk

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

Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
Length: 13.4-17.3 in
Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz 
Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in

Broad-winged hawks are migratory. They travel north into Mississippi during the spring-summer to breed, then head back south to Central and South America in the fall. If you are hoping to see the broad-winged hawk, your best bet is during fall migration on their way back South America. Flocks called “kettles”, that can contain thousands of birds, circle in the sky. If you are not in their migration line, you can catch sight of them in forests. Just listen for their piercing whistles.

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

These smaller hawks have a brown head that transitions into a brown barred chest and white lower belly. In flight, look for their short tail with large bands of black and white, and broad wings with pointed tips. From below, you can see a dark outline around the wings.

These hawks like to be in a secluded area during breeding season. They will nest in forests and along bodies of water far from humans. Their diet is a variety of small mammals, insects, and amphibians such as frogs and toads.

2. 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 can be found across most of North America, including Mississippi where they are year-round residents throughout most of the state. Adults have a bluish-gray back, heavy orange barring on the chest, a red eye, and squared-off head with black cap.  They look a lot like the Sharp-shinned hawk, but have a more “square-shape” head and the tip of their tail is rounded. Immature birds have a yellow eye, brown back and head, and white underparts with heavy brown streaks.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

Their habitat is forests and woodlands, but they also seem fairly at home in the suburbs. Their main food source is small birds, which they deftly hunt in the tree canopy. Many people encounter the Cooper’s hawk in their backyard, where they have been known to go after birds at a bird feeder, especially starlings, doves and pigeons. 

Crashing through trees and foliage on a high speed chase after birds does take its toll. Studies of Cooper’s hawk skeletons reveal that many of them had at one point broken bones in their chest from impacts with branches and trees while chasing birds. 

3. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier |

Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
Length: 18.1-19.7 in
Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz 
Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in

The northern harrier has 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”. 

northern harrier female

After spending the summer breeding in Canada and the northern U.S., the northern harrier will travel down to Mississippi to spend the winter months. You’re likely to see them over marshes, fields, and other wide-open areas. 

Unlike many hawks that nest in trees, this hawk builds a platform on the ground in dense vegetation like reeds, willows, sedges and cattails. Males can have two (sometimes more) mates at once, and they will provide food for the female and offspring. 

4. Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-tailed hawk perched with wings spread
Red-tailed Hawk | image by Pawsitive Candie_N via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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

Red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk found on the North American continent, living year-round in almost every state, including Mississippi. Their population increases even more during the winter, when birds that have spent their summer in Canada come down to join the others in the U.S. 

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 tailed hawk adult flying

Adults have a brick-red tail that is easy to identify. However as juveniles, these hawks have a brown and white striped tail. Red-tailed hawks have a wide range of plumage variation around the country, but there are some common characteristics you can look for. In general these hawks have pale underparts with a dark brown back. They have brown streaking on their breast, often with a band of darker brown streaks going across their belly. 

The red-tailed hawk gives out a long screech that has become a representation for all raptors. In movies and TV, their screech is almost always used as the sound for any hawk or eagle shown on screen. 

5. 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 are common in their range, which is the eastern U.S. and the western coast of California. In Mississippi, they remain year-round.

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. 

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. 

These hawks live and hunt in the forest, and especially like flooded areas and wetlands. They can also be found in suburban areas where woods are mixed in with buildings. Sometimes mistaken for red-tailed hawks, once you know the differences to look for they aren’t so hard to tell apart. 

6. Sharp-shinned Hawks

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

Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest hawk in the United States. They may stick around all year in northern Mississippi, but for most of the state they are only seen during the winter. 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.

Sharp-shinned Hawks, aka “Sharpies”, are notorious for stalking backyards and bird feeders as songbirds make up about 90% of their diet. If you see one in your yard be sure to take down your feeders for a few days and allow the hawk to move on before putting them back up.

sharp shinned hawk perched snowy day
sharp-shinned hawk

Adults have a dark head, nape and back, with a banded tail. Their lower face and breast is white with heavy orange barring. Note their small, rounded head, large red eye and long tail. Juveniles have a brown back with brown streaking down the chest. They look very similar to the Cooper’s hawk, but with a more rounded head and squared-off tail. 

7. Rough-legged Hawk

rough legged hawk
Rough-legged Hawk | image by Tom Koerner/USFWS via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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

The Rough-legged Hawk breeds far north to the arctic regions of Alaska and northern Canada, then migrate down into the United States during the winter in most states except for the southeast. Technically Mississippi is not within their normal range, however we’ve included them here because they will periodically wander into the state. Most of the sightings occur in the northwestern corner of the state and at points along the Mississippi River. 

rough legged hawks
Rough-legged Hawk | image by Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr

They can be identified by their feathered legs that go all the way down to their toes. The only other species of hawk with this trait in North America is the Ferruginous Hawk. Rough-legged hawks come in two color morphs, dark and light. 

The plumage of males and females look quite different in both morphs. Light morphs are overall lighter colored with a somewhat mottled pattern, and dark morphs are a dark chocolate brown color with two-toned light/dark under their wings and tails.

8. 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. Mississippi 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 coastal cities and in the southwest close to the Louisiana border. So if you are a hawk-watcher there is a rare 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.

Bonus Bird – The Osprey

Osprey perched
Osprey | image by Glacier National Park via Flickr

Scientific name: Pandion haliaetus
Length: 21.3-22.8 in
Weight: 49.4-70.5 oz 
Wingspan: 59.1-70.9 in

They certainly look like a hawk, and are indeed closely related, but osprey’s are genetically different enough that they get their own classification. You’ll only spot this raptor if you are near water, as osprey’s diet consists almost exclusively of fish. They have an outer toe that can shift to grip forward or backward. This adaptation allows them a much better grip on the slippery fish they catch.

Osprey’s breed in Mississippi during the summer. Find them near any shallow, fish-laden waters such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs and marshes. Their coloring makes them fairly easy to distinguish from hawks.

osprey catching fish
Osprey catching a fish | image by Caroline Legg via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

They have a white head with a large dark brown stripe across each eye, and a very hooked beak. Their back and wings are a dark brown from above, with a pure white underparts. When flying, the underside of their wings appear speckled, with a dark brown patch at the “wrist”. 

Osprey build their nests in treetops or on cliffs, but will also use human-built platforms. Many states put up osprey platforms near rivers and lakes to aid in conservation of the species. 

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