Pennsylvania boasts a large array of different geographic regions. It features tracts of the Appalachian Mountains in it’s middle, Lake Erie to it’s north, and the Delaware River to it’s east. The state is home to many species of birds, including birds of prey. However, for now let’s take a closer look at a favorite bird of prey — the hawk. There are 8 species of hawks in Pennsylvania and in this article, we’re going to cover them all.
Species of Hawks in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has 8 species of Hawks that are either found year-round, or during a specific season of the year. These Hawks include Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Goshawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and Rough-legged Hawks. Keep on reading to learn more about where they live, what times of the year to find them, and what they’re like.
1. Northern Harrier
Length: 18.1-19.7 in
Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz
Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in
Northern Harriers are a unique type of hawk and the only type of Harrier found in North America. They have owl-like faces with round facial discs that aid in their hunting by enhancing their sense of hearing. They’re often spotted flying low to the ground, swooping back and forth in open areas in search of prey such as rodents and other small to medium sized animals.
Unlike many other hawks, they don’t tend to perch while hunting in favor of catching prey on the move. In Pennsylvania they’re found year-round in marshes, fields, and prairies.
Northern Harriers have slender bodies with long, broad wings and a long, rounded tail. A white patch on their rump near the base of their tail makes it easy to identify them at a distance — as well as the way they hold their wings in a dihedral “V” shape during flight. Adult males are mostly a light, grayish-brown throughout with white undersides. Females are mostly light brown. The gray coloring of the male Northern Harrier is why they are sometimes referred to as “gray-ghosts.”
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2. Red-Tailed Hawk
Length: 17.7-25.6 in
Weight: 24.3-51.5 oz
Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in
Red-tailed Hawks are one of the largest and widespread hawks in North America. They’re very common throughout the country and are year-round hawks in Pennsylvania. Their frequent presence along highways and interstates is why they’re sometimes referred to as “roadside hawks.” Chances are you’ve probably seen them while driving, either soaring above the treetops in slow, graceful circles, or perched upon tall light posts or poles.
Red-tailed Hawks are adaptable to a wide range of habitats and don’t seem to be too frightened of humans, so they’re a great bird of prey to observe for beginner birdwatchers. Look for them in most areas that feature woodlands as well as open clearings for hunting.
Red-tailed Hawks are large buteos with stocky bodies and large, broad wings with rounded edges. Most hawks have pale, whitish undersides with brown plumage on their backs and upper parts, but color can be variable. Like many other hawks, there are light and dark morphs. These hawks get their name from the reddish upper sides of their tails, often with dark brown banding at the tip.
3. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Length: 9.4-13.4 in
Weight: 31.-7.7 oz
Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in
Sharp-shinned Hawks are small accipiter hawks —in fact, they’re the smallest hawks in the United States. They have slender bodies, short, rounded wings, and long, square-tipped tails that help them quickly navigate through dense forests. They feature nearly identical coloration to Cooper’s Hawks and telling these two birds apart proves to be quite a challenge even for experienced birders. Both hawks have bluish-gray plumage on their uppers, with light-orange barring on their pale undersides.
Though they’re year-round hawks in Pennsylvania, finding Sharp-shinned Hawks is often difficult due to their compact size —roughly the same size as a Blue Jay— and their stealthy, secretive nature. They mostly occupy deep woodlands and forests, where they rely on the element of surprise to hunt prey.
For this reason, the best time to watch them is typically during migration when they travel in large numbers. Sharp-shinned Hawks are also notorious for ambushing congregations of songbirds at backyard bird feeders, so be sure to take your feeders down for a few days if you see this happening.
4. Cooper’s Hawk
Length: 14.6-17.7 in
Weight: 7.8-24.0 oz
Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in
Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized accipiters that look very similar to Sharp-shinned Hawks, but with slightly larger heads, longer tails, and longer frames. Both birds have grayish upper parts and pale undersides with rufous barring, and red-orange eyes (in adults). However, a close examination of the tails of these hawks will show that the tips of Cooper’s Hawks’ tails are rounded, where Sharp-shinned Hawks’ are square.
Cooper’s Hawks are also found year-round in Pennsylvania, in thick forests and woodlands that also offer clearings and open grounds. As accipiters, these hawks rely on other birds as a large part of their diet. Common prey for Cooper’s Hawks include Blue Jays, Starlings and American Robins in addition to rodents, reptiles, and other small animals. Like Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks are secretive and elusive, so going to hawk watches during migration times is often the easiest way to observe them.
5. Northern Goshawk
Length: 20.9-25.2 in
Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
In the majority of Pennsylvania, Northern Goshawks are found year-round — though there are a few areas in the southern portion of the state where they’re only found in the winter. Like Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Goshawks are also accipiters, and have rounded wings and long tails. However, Northern Goshawks are much bigger than these other accipiters, and are in fact the largest accipiters in North America.
Like the other accipiters we’ve mentioned so far, Northern Goshawks are secretive birds. Though they are the most widespread accipiter in the world, they live in large, dense forests and tend to remain out of sight, so finding them is not easy. These hawks have mostly gray plumage, with bright red eyes and bold white stripes that give them the appearance of having eyebrows. They are often considered to be symbols of strength, and even Attila the Hun had the image of one adorned on his helmet.
6. Red-Shouldered Hawk
Length: 16.9-24.0 in
Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in
Red-shouldered Hawks are found year-round in the eastern half of Pennsylvania, but in the western half of the state they’re only found during breeding season. They tend to occupy wet forests and woodlands near bodies of water such as swamps and rivers.
Like Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks are buteos, although smaller in size and with generally longer tails. Their bodies are also slimmer than most other buteo hawks, and their flight pattern tends to be more similar to an accipiter’s; quick wingbeats followed by a glide.
Red-shouldered Hawks have a distinct call that makes locating them a little easier. It’s a loud “kee-ah” sound that Blue Jays will even mimic. They also have colorful, reddish-brown plumage, with dark brown patterning on the wings and bold, black and white barring on their tails. Look for the unique, translucent crescents near the tips of their underwings while they’re in flight
7. Broad-Winged Hawk
Length: 13.4-17.3 in
Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz
Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in
Out of all the buteos in North America, Broad-winged Hawks are among the most migratory. In fact, the best time to observe them is in the fall, when they make their southern migration down to Central and South America. This large fall migration features gigantic flocks of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks known as kettles. Birders from all over gather at hawk watching points to witness these magnificent displays. These hawks are also found during the breeding season in Pennsylvania, but they’re harder to spot as they tend to stick to the insides of forests.
Broad-winged Hawks are small hawks with broad wings, as their name implies, that come to a point, and short tails. Their dark brown tails feature a main, thick white band that serves as a good field marker. The undersides of their wings and their bellies are typically pale, and their chests have light orange baring. If you’re very lucky, you’ll come across the extremely rare dark-morph variety of this hawk, whose plumage is a dark —nearly black— brown throughout.
8. Rough-Legged Hawk
Length: 18.5-20.5 in
Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in
Rough-legged Hawks aren’t very common in Pennsylvania. For most of the year they’re found in the open Arctic tundra, where they also breed. However, during the fall they migrate south to spend the winter in the northern United States and southern Canada. It’s during the winter they’re found in Pennsylvania, though they tend to be uncommon. Their populations are pretty variable from year to year and often depend on how abundant lemmings, a major food source, are in the Arctic.
Rough-legged Hawks get their name from their feathered legs that help them stay warm in the frigid north. Along with Golden Eagles, these hawks are the only raptors in America that feature feathers along their legs and all the way down to their talons. Rough-legged Hawks are large buteo hawks, with stocky bodies and long, broad wings. Their tails are longer than most buteos, though, and their feet and beaks are small.
When in flight they hold their wings in a “V” shape, and their tails fan out. In North America there are many color variations in plumage, including light and dark morphs. Adult light-morph males feature white underparts and gray-brown uppers, while dark-morphs are typically dark brown all over with the exception of their underwings.