Most people are able to point out a hawk if they see one. Their hooked bills, large talons, fierce demeanors, and conspicuous presence while perched on a telephone pole or dead tree limb are easy to recognize. In this article we’ll talk specifically about hawks in North Carolina and what species can be found in the state.
Let’s take a look at some pictures and learn a little bit about each species to help you identify them.
The 6 species of hawks in North Carolina
Hawks belong to the family Accipitridae. Out of the 6 species of hawks in North Carolina, 2 of those belong to the genus Accipiter (Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk) and are ambush hunters. They fly very fast through trees and use long legs to snatch their prey—usually birds.
Buteos, genus Buteo, include the other 4 species on this list (Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Northern Harrier, and Red-tailed Hawk.) These birds soar high in the air and swoop down on prey from perches. Unlike the accipiters, buteos prefer non-bird prey.
1. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Length: 9.4 – 13.4 in
Weight: 3.1 – 7.7 oz
Wingspan: 16.9 – 22.1 in
Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest accipiters and are fondly referred to as “sharpies.”
They have copper barring on their white underparts and blue grey feathering on their backs, nape, and crown, giving it a hooded look. Their eyes are distinctly red.
Unlike some larger hawks that swoop down on their prey from high above, these agile hawks are small and quick enough to dart through woods to sneak up on their prey or burst from a tree limb to chase them. Because of this, they are known as “pursuit hunters.”
After performing their acrobatics through the trees and catching a meal with their catlike talons, sharpies will take its prey back to a perch and de-feather it. If the catch is for their mate or nestlings, they will often remove and eat the head first before giving the rest away.
Sharpies are found year-round in western North Carolina. The rest of the state is home to wintering migrants.
2. Cooper’s Hawk
Length: 14.6 – 15.3 in
Weight: 7.8 – 14.5 oz
Wingspan: 24.4 – 35.4 in
Very similar to the Sharpies in looks, but Cooper’s are larger overall. However, there’s likely to be discrepancies between large female sharpies and small male Cooper’s, since female hawks are larger than males.
Cooper’s hawks are some of the most able and skilled fliers in the bird world. Their power, paired with agility and stealth, make them formidable predators and they can shoot through the treetops, chasing prey at super speeds.
Don’t be surprised if a Cooper’s hawk (or Sharpie) swoops down onto your backyard feeders. Little birds out in the open, focused on stuffing their bills? The hawks are practically being fed on a silver platter!
Cooper’s Hawks can be found in all of North Carolina year-round.
Hawks have four types of color receptors in their eyes. These allow them to perceive light on the visible spectrum (like humans) and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. What’s more, is other adaptations allow them to detect polarized light and magnetic fields. With all of these adaptations, it’s no wonder that these raptors are incredible at hunting!
3. Red-shouldered Hawk
Length: 16.9 – 24.0 in
Weight: 17.1 – 27.3 oz
Wingspan: 37.0 – 43.7 in
These hawks have deep, reddish chestnut colored feathers that appear marbled on the wings with bars on the breast. They have stark bars on the tail and pitch black eyes.
Red-shouldered Hawks live in wet deciduous woodlands. If you’re out and about and catch sight of this bird, you can expect to find water of some sort—swamps, rivers, marshes—to be nearby.
Unlike the previous species that feed on birds, Red-shoulders prefer non-feathered prey if they can. They eat small mammals, snakes, lizards, and amphibians.
Red-shouldered Hawk nestlings often fall victim to Great Horned Owls. Occasionally these hawks and crows (also victims of the owl) will work together to mob and chase off Great Horned Owls.
Red-shouldered Hawks can be found year-round in all of North Carolina.
4. Broad-winged Hawk
Length: 13.4 – 17.3 in
Weight: 9.3 – 19.8 oz
Wingspan: 31.9 – 39.4 in
These stocky birds have pale underbellies with almond colored barring. They have dark backs and narrow white bars on their tails.
Broad-winged hawks have a varied diet, but mostly stick to frogs, toads, and small rodents. The rest of their meals are rounded out with insects, reptiles and other amphibians and mammals.
Broad-wings spend the breeding season in North Carolina before migrating back to South America for the winter. This species played a huge part in making hawk-watching famous.
Huge, migrating flocks of these birds, also known as “kettles” can contain thousands of birds and are a wonderful sight to see. All the birds in the kettle circle in the sky and are akin to a cauldron being stirred with an invisible spoon.
5. Red-tailed Hawk
Length: 17.7 – 25.6 in
Weight: 24.3 – 51.5 oz
Wingspan: 44.9 – 52.4 in
This large hawk is pretty conspicuous with their contrasting red tail against their brown bodies above and white bellies below. There are several morphs of this species that have varying degrees of streaking on the belly and markings on the head. The Eastern morph—the one found in North Carolina—has a well defined belly band and a white throat.
Red-tailed Hawk pairs are the epitome of the perfect couple. They perform a cool sky dance when courting each other, clasping talons and spiraling to the ground. Red-tailed Hawks then build their nest together and mate for life. They have also been seen hunting together, working as a unit to catch squirrels from a tree. The pair will stay together until one of them dies.
Red-tailed Hawks have that classic, raspy cry that people associate with raptors. Not all raptors sound like how they’re portrayed in the movies (ahem, I’m talking about you, Bald Eagle.) In fact, it’s often the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk that’s used in the soundtrack to portray the fierce birds of prey. I bet you can even hear it in your head now as you read this!
Red-tailed Hawks can be found year round in North Carolina. Sightings typically increase in the winter as migrants from Canada come down and mingle with the year-round residents.
6. Northern Harrier
Length: 18.1-19.7 in
Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz
Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in
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 climates, including North Carolina. They like living and hunting in fields and marshes.
Like owls, Northern Harriers rely on their hearing as well as their vision to hunt, and they sometimes subdue their larger prey by drowning them. Males can have up to five female partners at once, although it’s more common for them to have just one or two.
Northern Harriers are the most owl-like hawks in North Carolina and North America. They rely heavily on their acute hearing as well as their excellent vision to hunt for prey.