Hawks are a member of the carnivorous family of hunting birds we call birds-of-prey. Everything from their keen hearing and eye sight to their sharp beak and talons comes together to make them expert predators. There are approximately 16 species of hawks living across the United States. But in this article, we’re going to discuss the 8 species of hawks in Montana, plus one bonus hawk-like bird.
8 Hawks in Montana
The 8 species of hawks that can be found in Montana are the Cooper’s hawk, ferruginous hawk, northern goshawk, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and Swainson’s hawk.
Let’s take a look at each one.
1. 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 can be found across most of North America, including Montana where they are mainly summer residents. Adults have a bluish-gray back, heavy orange barring on the chest, a red eye, and squared-off head with black cap. Immature birds have a yellow eye, brown back and head, and white underparts with heavy brown streaks.
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, and studies of Cooper’s hawk skeletons reveal that many of them had at one point broken bones in their chest.
2. Ferruginous Hawk
Length: 22.1-27.2 in
Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz
Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in
Ferruginous Hawks come to Montana to breed during the spring and summer. They are mostly absent from the western portion of the state, but can be found in central and eastern Montana. They tend to stay in open spaces like fields and plains, soaring above looking for small mammals or hunting on the ground.
These hawks are the largest of all North American hawks. They have gray streaked heads, white underparts, and rusty red plumage on their backs, shoulders, underwings and legs that earned them their name. “Ferruginous” meaning rust-colored.
Ferruginous Hawks are known for gathering in groups of 5-10 to ambush prairie dogs. They perch and wait for prey to peek out their burrows before striking. This creates quite a scene as the hawks begin hopping and flapping their wings, often attracting other hawks and birds of prey.
3. Northern Goshawk
Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
Length: 20.9-25.2 in
Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
Goshawks have a gray back, gray barring on the chest that extends all the way down the belly, and a thick what stripe over each eye. They are considered larger and fiercer relatives of the sharp-shinned and cooper’s hawk. But unlike those hawks that are common in backyards, goshawks are quite secretive and tend to remain in the forest, avoiding human populated areas.
Northern Goshawks can be found in western and southern Montana all year, but tend to only be seen in the northeast during the non-breeding season. But you likely won’t have an easy time finding one, since they prefer to nest in old-growth forest with dense canopy. They have been known to attack humans who get too close to their nests. So when searching for these raptors during the breeding season, be careful.
The northern goshawk has a varied diet of smaller hawks, birds, mammals, reptiles and even insects and carrion. They are considered uncommon, and their population is hard to estimate due to their secretive nature.
4. 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”. Majestic is an excellent word to describe these birds.
You can find this hawk year-round in Montana. 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.
5. Red Tailed Hawk
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. However in Montana, most that don’t live in the forests of the west move further south during the winter months.
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. They may also eat birds and snakes.
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. They 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.
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.
6. Rough-legged Hawk
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 Montana during the fall and winter months. 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 the states 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.
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. 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
Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest hawk in the United States, and can be found in the western half of Montana. These hawks prey on small birds and rodents they chase through the forest.
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.
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.
8. Swainsons Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
Length: 18.9-22.1 in
Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz (
Wingspan: 45-55 in
Swainson’s Hawks can be found across Montana during breeding season. You are likely to find them during the summer, over large areas of open country. They’ll perch on telephone poles, wires, and secluded trees.
Migrating hawks are called kettles, and these Hawks have kettles as large as tens of thousands. If you thought Broad-winged hawks were something to see, you should view these raptors during their migration.
Swainson’s Hawks have converted well to agricultural settings as their habitat has changed over the years. You can find them foraging for prey in crops and fields.
They have a gray head, with white on the chin, a brown bib, and a white belly streaked with rust. When viewed from below look for the brown chest, and wings that appear extra long with dark edges.
Bonus Bird – The Osprey
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 western and parts of central Montana during the summer months. Find them near any shallow, fish-laden waters such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs and marshes. In Montana, some common places to see them would be along the Yellowstone River, Missouri River and Flathead Lake, to name a few.
Their coloring makes them fairly easy to distinguish from hawks. 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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