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9 Types of Hawks Found in Missouri (Pictures)

 Last Reviewed by Jesse Foutch on 02-21-2024

There are at least 16 different species of hawks in the United States. Due to different states having different climates and food sources for the various species, each state may have its own collection of hawks that live there at various times of the year. In this article we’ll discuss hawks in Missouri. We’ll learn how many species can be found in the state, and a little bit about each one.

In this article, we refer to both accipiters and buteos 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. So when we say hawks, we don’t mean accipiters exclusively. 

There are 9 types of hawks in Missouri; the Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, and the Swainson’s Hawk.

Keep reading to learn about these Missouri hawks. 

1. Red-tailed Hawk

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

Red-tailed Hawks are the most common hawks around with almost 2 million nesting hawks in North America. This number accounts for about 90% of the global Red-tailed Hawk population.

These large hawks live in Missouri and most of North America all year long. Red-tailed Hawks are most active during the day or early morning and are commonly seen soaring above looking for prey with their amazing vision or perched along the roadside on telephone poles.

red tailed hawk in a tree
red tailed hawk in a tree | credit: Jason Gillman

Red-tailed Hawks in Missouri benefit from the state’s diverse habitats, ranging from dense forests and open woodlands to agricultural fields and urban areas. This adaptability allows them to thrive across the region. In Missouri, they play a crucial role in controlling rodent populations, aligning with their diet primarily consisting of small mammals.

The state’s geography, offering both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, along with numerous state parks and conservation areas, provides ample hunting grounds and nesting sites. The presence of Red-tailed Hawks in Missouri is a testament to the state’s rich biodiversity and the importance of maintaining diverse ecosystems to support such widespread raptor species. 


2. Red-shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
  • Length: 16.9-24.0 in
  • Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
  • Wingspan: 37-43.7 in  

The Red-shouldered hawk is a year-round resident to southeastern Missouri, and much of the eastern half of the United States. They eat mostly small mammals, other birds, reptiles, and amphibians. They are known for living and nesting in wooded areas and forests. Red-shouldered Hawks will commonly re-use the same nest year after year.

The population of Red-shouldered hawks has increased over the last 50 years in their range. The biggest threat to this species is the clearing of wooded areas where they nest and breed.

red shouldered hawk
red shouldered hawk | credit: ALAN SCHMIERER

Red-shouldered hawks thrive in the varied landscapes of Missouri, from its dense forests to the riparian zones that crisscross the state. Their diet is diverse, reflecting the rich biodiversity of their habitats, where they skillfully hunt small mammals, birds, and even amphibians.

Known for their loyalty to nesting sites, these hawks often return to the same nests annually, a testament to their adaptability and resilience. Despite their growing numbers, they face challenges from habitat destruction, underscoring the need for conservation efforts to preserve the wooded areas crucial for their survival and prosperity. 


3. Sharp-shinned Hawk

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

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest hawk in Canada and the United States. They can be found all over North America, including Missouri. They have a non-breeding population in all of Missouri where you may see them in the winter as they migrate north to Canada and Alaska to breed each year. 

sharp shinned hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk (juvenile) | image by NPS Photo/ Tim Rains via Flickr
 

These hawks are adept at navigating both dense forests and suburban landscapes, often appear around backyard feeders in search of food. This behavior suggests a fascinating aspect of their adaptation to human environments, leading to recommendations for homeowners to temporarily remove feeders, aiding in the hawks’ natural hunting instincts and movement.

Their seasonal visits underscore the critical habitats provided by Missouri for these migratory raptors, emphasizing the interconnectedness of wildlife and human-influenced spaces. If you see a sharp-shinned hawk in your backyard, consider taking down your feeders for a week or two and allowing the hawk to move on.


4. Cooper’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
  • Length: 14.6-17.7 in
  • Weight: 7.8-24.0 oz
  • Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in

Cooper’s Hawks often appear to be a larger version of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, but they are an entirely different species. These hawks can be found in Missouri year-round and their range covers most of North America.

Cooper’s Hawks are a common sight across Missouri’s landscapes, from dense forests to suburban backyards. This adaptability allows them to thrive in a variety of environments, where their skill in hunting birds near feeders has become well-known.

juvenile coppers hawk tree
juvenile Cooper’s hawk

Their ability to blend into both natural and human-modified habitats speaks to their versatility as predators. In Missouri, their nesting habits in both secluded wooded areas and closer human quarters illustrate the hawk’s flexible approach to finding safe havens for raising their young. This behavior highlights the intricate balance between maintaining natural habitats and accommodating wildlife in increasingly urbanized areas. 


5. Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged hawk (Image: Andrew Cannizzaro | CC BY 2.0 | wikicommons)
  • Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
  • Length: 13.4-17.3 in
  • Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz
  • Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in

If you want to spot a Broad-winged Hawk while they’re in Missouri, try walking through a forest during the summer and listening for their piercing whistle. The Broad-winged Hawk’s lifecycle is deeply intertwined with Missouri’s natural landscapes, where they breed throughout the state. These hawks are known for their impressive migratory behavior, forming massive flocks known as “kettles,” a sight that captivates observers each year.

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

This migration, coupled with their unique breeding habits in Missouri, emphasizes the state’s critical role in their annual journey. The construction of their nests, a collaborative effort between mates, and the fierce protection of their chosen sites, which are deliberately spaced apart from other predators, highlight their adaptability and the necessity of preserving diverse, undisturbed wooded habitats for their continued survival. 

Broad-winged Hawks have one brood each year with 1-5 eggs. The female is in charge of constructing the nest, with help from the male. They will fiercely protect their nesting site and build their nests with at least a half-mile of seperation from other birds of prey. Their diet is consistent with that of most other birds of prey.


6. American Goshawk

Northern goshawk – photo by: Iosto Doneddu | CC 2.0
  • Scientific name: Accipiter atricapillus
  • Length: 20.9-25.2 in
  • Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
  • Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in

American Goshawks, newly identified as a species separate from their Eurasian kin, stand out as formidable birds of prey in Missouri’s extensive forests. Comparable in size to the Red-tailed Hawk, these goshawks are a rare find, primarily noted outside the breeding season for their elusive nature.

american goshawk
juvenile American goshawk | image: ALAN SCHMIERER

They favor the solitude of mature, large-tree forests, where their secretive behavior and fierce defense of nests against intruders—including humans—make encounters with them both challenging and rewarding. Characterized by striking dark slate gray plumage with barred light gray underparts and a distinct light stripe over their eyes, American Goshawks adapt to life high in the forest canopy.

Their nests are carefully constructed in tall trees, and as opportunistic hunters, their diet includes a diverse range of prey, from birds and mammals to carrion and insects, showcasing their adaptability to Missouri’s biodiverse habitats. The recent classification of the American Goshawk highlights the dynamic nature of bird species understanding and conservation, emphasizing their unique role in Missouri’s ecological framework.


7. Rough-legged Hawk

photo by: DickDaniels | CC 3.0
  • 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, alongside Ferruginous Hawks, are distinguished in the American raptor community by their fully feathered legs down to their toes, an adaptation for their cold, Arctic breeding grounds. This unique feature provides insulation against frigid temperatures, setting them apart in the raptor world.

Rough-legged Hawks display two distinct variations: the light and dark morphs. Light morphs exhibit a lighter, somewhat mottled pattern, while dark morphs feature a rich chocolate brown with contrasting light and dark patterns under their wings and tails.

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

In Missouri, Rough-legged Hawks are known for their non-breeding presence throughout the state, making winter an ideal season for sightings. They undertake a remarkable migration from the Arctic regions of Alaska and northern Canada to breed, a journey that showcases their incredible endurance and navigational abilities.

During their stay in Missouri, these hawks play a crucial role in the local ecosystem by preying on small rodents, thus helping to control these populations. Observing Rough-legged Hawks in Missouri not only provides insight into the diversity of raptor morphologies but also highlights the broader ecological dynamics of migration and predator-prey relationships, offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these adept predators.


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 have a breeding range only in the northwestern corner of Missouri and can frequently be seen during the summer and warmer months. April and September is the best time to see them as they are coming in and out of their North American breeding grounds. They perch on telephone poles, fence posts, and tree branches scanning the ground for signs of food.

They have one of the longest migrations of any North American raptor. Swainson’s Hawks migrate all the way from southern South America by the thousands in flocks called “kettles” each year to breed in North America. They have long wings, short tails, light underbellies, reddish-brown chests, and typically have brown and gray upper parts.

swainsons haw perched
credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Swainson’s Hawks exhibit a fascinating dietary shift during their migration, uniquely adapting their feeding habits to the available resources. While in North America, they primarily feed on small mammals and insects, their diet dramatically changes during their stay in South America, where they often group in agricultural fields to feast on large insects and other prey disturbed by farming activities.

This adaptability in feeding behavior showcases their remarkable ability to exploit different ecological niches across continents, ensuring their survival and successful migration over such extensive distances. 


9. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier | Pixabay.com
  • 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 stands out as North America’s sole harrier species, thriving across a broad range from the Canadian expanses down to more temperate zones for wintering, including Missouri. These birds favor the expansive fields and marshlands for their habitats, adeptly navigating these open spaces in their search for food.

northern harrier face
northern harrier

Employing a unique hunting strategy that mirrors that of owls, Northern Harriers utilize both their sharp vision and remarkable hearing to locate prey, a trait that distinguishes them in the raptor family. They are known for their unusual method of dealing with larger prey, which includes drowning them to make for an easier catch. In terms of mating, males are polygynous, sometimes partnering with up to five females during a breeding season, though typically they will pair with one or two.

An interesting aspect of Northern Harriers is their owl-like nature; they are often referred to as the “owls of the hawk world” within Missouri and beyond, due to their reliance on auditory cues in conjunction with visual ones to pinpoint prey. This unique blend of characteristics makes the Northern Harrier a fascinating subject of study in the avian world.

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