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6 Types of Hawks Found in North Carolina (Pictures)

 Last Reviewed by Jesse Foutch on 02-22-2024

Hawks, known for their sharp beaks, powerful talons, and imposing demeanors, stand out as majestic figures in the avian world. This article explores the species of hawks that live in North Carolina, offering insights into their habitats and behaviors.

The six types of hawks that reside in North Carolina are the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and the Northern Harrier.

Belonging to the family Accipitridae, hawks in this context encompass both accipiters and buteos, following the North American (New World) tradition of referring to these groups of birds of prey collectively as ‘hawks.’

This terminology aligns with regional naming conventions and is not meant to diminish the taxonomic distinctions between these groups. Through this article, we aim to provide a closer look at these majestic birds and their presence in North Carolina.

1. Sharp-shinned Hawk

adult 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, affectionately known as “sharpies,” hold the distinction of being the smallest hawks on this list. Their appearance is marked by striking copper barring on their white underparts and a sleek blue-grey feathering on their backs, nape, and crown, which imparts a distinctive hooded look. Their eyes are a vivid red, adding to their intense demeanor.

These hawks are adept at a hunting style that sets them apart from their larger counterparts. Instead of diving down from great heights, sharpies utilize their small size and agility to navigate through forests, sneaking up on or bursting out from hiding to pursue their prey. This method of hunting, relying on surprise and speed, earns them the title of “pursuit hunters.”

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

Sharpies demonstrate remarkable skill in maneuvering through trees to catch their prey, using their catlike talons with precision. Once they have secured a meal, they return to a perch to meticulously de-feather their catch. In instances where the prey is intended for their mate or nestlings, they typically consume the head first before offering the remainder to their family.

In western North Carolina, sharpies are a year-round presence, blending into the local avifauna seamlessly. Meanwhile, the rest of the state welcomes these agile hunters as winter migrants, adding a dynamic element to the region’s bird-watching opportunities. Their adaptability and hunting prowess make sharpies a fascinating species for observers and nature enthusiasts to study and appreciate.


2. Cooper’s Hawk

adult Cooper’s hawk
  • Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
  • Length: 14.6 – 15.3 in
  • Weight: 7.8 – 14.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 24.4 – 35.4 in

Cooper’s Hawks bear a strong resemblance to Sharp-shinned Hawks in appearance, but they are generally larger. However, distinguishing between the two can be challenging due to the size overlap, with large female Sharp-shinned Hawks and small male Cooper’s Hawks sometimes causing confusion, given that female hawks are typically larger than males.

Among the raptor community, Cooper’s Hawks are renowned for their exceptional flying abilities. Their combination of power, agility, and stealth makes them formidable predators. Capable of navigating through dense treetops at high speeds, they excel in pursuing prey, showcasing their adeptness in aerial maneuverability.

coopers hawk juvenile pole
Cooper’s Hawk (juvenile) | image by Robert Nunnally via Flickr

It’s not uncommon for Cooper’s Hawks, as well as Sharp-shinned Hawks, to make appearances at backyard feeders. Small birds, distracted by feeding and vulnerable in the open, present an easy target. For these hawks, it’s akin to having their meals served on a silver platter, illustrating their opportunistic hunting strategy.

Cooper’s Hawks are a year-round presence throughout North Carolina, adapting to various habitats across the state. Their prowess as predators and their adaptability to different environments make them a fascinating subject for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts alike.


3. Red-shouldered Hawk

Image: peteyp8 | pixabay.com
  • Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
  • Length: 16.9 – 24.0 in
  • Weight: 17.1 – 27.3 oz
  • Wingspan: 37.0 – 43.7 in

Red-shouldered Hawks are distinguished by their deep, reddish-chestnut feathers, which display a marbled pattern on the wings, complemented by bars on the breast. Their tails are marked with stark bars, and they possess pitch-black eyes, adding to their striking appearance.

These hawks are primarily found in wet deciduous woodlands, indicating a close association with water bodies such as swamps, rivers, and marshes. The presence of a Red-shouldered Hawk is often a reliable indicator of nearby water sources, making them a fascinating species for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts exploring such habitats. With that in mind, red-shouldered hawks may also visit backyards, but won’t typically hang around bird feeders. 

red shouldered hawk
red shouldered hawk | credit: ALAN SCHMIERER

In terms of diet, Red-shouldered Hawks show a preference for non-feathered prey, predominantly feeding on small mammals, snakes, lizards, and amphibians. This contrasts with some other hawk species that might include birds in their diet, highlighting the Red-shouldered Hawk’s adaptability and specialized hunting skills.

An interesting aspect of their behavior involves their interactions with Great Horned Owls. Red-shouldered Hawk nestlings are sometimes preyed upon by these owls.

In a remarkable display of avian cooperation, Red-shouldered Hawks and crows, both of which are victims of the Great Horned Owl, have been known to collaborate in mobbing and chasing off this common predator.

Red-shouldered Hawks are a year-round presence throughout North Carolina, making them a familiar sight across the state’s diverse ecosystems. Their adaptability and the dynamics of their interactions with other species contribute to the rich tapestry of North Carolina’s avian community.


4. 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

Broad-winged Hawks are known for their stocky build, sporting pale underbellies with almond-colored barring that contrasts against their dark backs. Their tails feature distinctive narrow white bars, adding to their unique appearance.

Broad-winged Hawks prey on frogs, toads, small rodents, insects, reptiles, and other small mammals and amphibians. This varied diet underscores their adaptability and skill in hunting a range of prey across different environments.

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

During the breeding season, North Carolina serves as a home to these hawks before they embark on their remarkable migration journey to South America for the winter. It’s this migratory behavior that has significantly contributed to the popularity of hawk-watching as a pastime.

The phenomenon of seeing massive flocks, or “kettles,” of Broad-winged Hawks during migration is truly spectacular. These kettles, sometimes comprising thousands of birds, create an awe-inspiring spectacle as they circle in the sky, reminiscent of a giant cauldron stirred by an unseen force. Witnessing such a natural event is a testament to the incredible patterns of avian migration and the beauty of the natural world.


5. Red-tailed Hawk

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

The Red-tailed Hawk has a striking red tail contrasting against its brown back and white underbelly. This species exhibits various morphs, each distinguished by the degree of streaking across the belly and specific head markings. In North Carolina, the Eastern morph is widespread, characterized by a distinct belly band and a bright white throat.

The iconic, raspy cry of the Red-tailed Hawk is what many people envision when they think of raptors. Unlike the misrepresented vocalizations of other birds of prey in popular media (notably the Bald Eagle), it is the Red-tailed Hawk’s call that filmmakers frequently use to embody the quintessential sound of fierceness in the wild. This cry is so ingrained in popular culture that it’s likely echoing in your mind even as you read these lines.

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

Throughout the year, Red-tailed Hawks grace the North Carolina skies, with their numbers swelling in winter as migrants from Canada join the local population. This seasonal influx adds to the opportunity for residents and visitors alike to witness these majestic birds in their natural habitat, further solidifying the Red-tailed Hawk’s status as a symbol of the wild and a fixture in the North American landscape.


6. 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 stands out as not only the only hawk on this list that isn’t a buteo or accipiter, but the sole representative of the harrier group of hawks native to North America.

With breeding territories extending into the northern reaches of Canada, these hawks migrate southward to spend the winter months in warmer climates, including North Carolina. Their preferred habitats are the expansive fields and marshes, where they are often seen gliding low in search of prey.

What sets the Northern Harrier apart is its distinctive hunting strategy, occasionally employing a remarkable technique to subdue larger prey by drowning them. Socially, these birds exhibit a fascinating aspect of polygyny; while males are known to mate with up to five females simultaneously, it is more typical for them to be paired with just one or two.

northern harrier face
northern harrier

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Northern Harrier is its resemblance to owls, particularly in its hunting methods. This resemblance is not just superficial; Northern Harriers leverage their exceptionally sharp hearing in tandem with their acute vision to detect and capture prey, making them one of the most adept hunters among hawks in North Carolina and the broader North American region. This owl-like hunting prowess underscores the Northern Harrier’s unique place in the avian world, blending the best of both hawks and owls in their ecological niche.

4 thoughts on “6 Types of Hawks Found in North Carolina (Pictures)”

  1. Help! My friend and I enjoy bird sightings/watching. We live in a country town, Robersonville, NC. We are considered “inner coastal plains giving way to the eastern peidmont. We have seen hawks circling and landing in tall trees. They are gray in their undercarriage and sport wings that are more akin to the sharp shapes of shore birds….but are definitely hawk like in flight patterns. What in the world? Cooper’s juveniles? Sharpies? HELP!!

    Reply
    • Unfortunately without more detail we can’t identify that for you. It’s likely the undercarriage isn’t gray, but that it looks that way while they are flying due to the sunlight coming from above. If you can get a closer look and see the patterns on the underside of the wings that will help you figure it out. If you think it looks a little more sleek and graceful than a standard hawk it could be a falcon such as a Kestrel, Peregrin falcon or Merlin. Depending how far away you are it might be hard to judge size, vultures also soar and circle like hawks. Good luck!

      Reply
    • Examine details of the Mississippi Kite for comparison to your observations. These kites migrate and we see a pair perching in tall oak trees around in our yard each summer in eastern NC. I used a Peterson guide for identification and got agreement from a local birding store. Their soaring is very graceful and fun to watch. You mentioned narrow wings and seabird-ish gray silhouette which immediately brought this kite to mind.

      Reply
  2. I have a bunch of them living in the trees behind my house. Saw one just now, it looks like a red shouldered hawk. They sit on my front lawn waiting for bird to go to my feeder. I stopped filling the feeder because of it.

    Reply

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