Hawks are impressive predators with keen hearing, exceptional eye sight, sharp beaks, and powerful talons that make them expert birds of prey. There are approximately 16 kinds of hawks living across the United States. But in this article, we’re going to discuss the types of hawks in South Carolina.
The 6 species of hawks that can be found in South Carolina are the broad-winged hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, and sharp-shinned hawk.
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.
1. Broad-winged hawk
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 migratory, and only travel north into South Carolina during the spring-summer breeding season. These smaller hawks have a brown head and chest, barred underparts and black and white bands on their tail. In flight you can note their short tail and broad wings with pointed tips.
These hawks like to be in a secluded area during breeding season. They will nest in forests and along bodies of water far from humans. Their diet is a variety of small mammals, insects, and amphibians such as frogs and toads.
If you are hoping to see the broad-winged hawk, your best bet is during their spring or fall migrations to or from South America. Flocks of them called “kettles”, that can contain thousands of birds, circle in the sky. If you are not in their migration line, you can catch sight of them in forests. Just listen for their piercing whistles.
2. 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 South Carolina where they are year-round 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. Despite this, their remarkable resilience allows them to recover and continue hunting, showing their toughness in the face of natural challenges.
3. 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 in South Carolina mainly in the winter. They are most often found along the coast, but can be seen throughout the state. 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.
4. 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, including South Carolina. Their population increases even more during the winter, when birds that have spent their summer in Canada come down to join the others in the U.S.
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.
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.
5. 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. In western parts of South Carolina they can be found year-round, but may only be winter residents as you get closer to the east coast. 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.
6. Red-shouldered Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
Length: 16.9-24.0 in
Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
Red-shouldered hawks are common in their range, which is the eastern U.S. and the western coast of California. In South Carolina, they remain year-round.
A good identifying feature is the heavy red coloring on the breast that extends all the way down their belly with red barring. They have dark, nearly black feathers down their back and wings.
At the top of their back and “shoulders” this will be mixed with reddish feathers (hence their name). From the mid-back down there will be a lot of white barring mixed in with the dark feathers, ending in a strongly banded tail.
You may hear this hawk before you spot it. They give a loud “kee-aah” call that is usually repeated several times in a row. Some people think it sounds a bit like a seagull. They will loudly call to mark territory or when alarmed.
These hawks live and hunt in the forest, and especially like flooded areas and wetlands. They can also be found in suburban areas where woods are mixed in with buildings. Sometimes mistaken for red-tailed hawks, once you know the differences to look for they aren’t so hard to tell apart.
Osprey (the sea hawk)
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. This means they aren’t really hawks, but a fun addition to the list nonetheless. 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 remain year-round in most of South Carolina. Find them near any shallow, fish-laden waters such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs and marshes. In South Carolina they are plentiful along the coast, and large water bodies such as Lake Marion, Lake Moultrie, Lake Murray and Lake Wateree, 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.
Related articles you may also enjoy:
- Owls in South Carolina
- Hummingbirds in South Carolina
- Backyard Birds in South Carolina
- Woodpeckers in South Carolina
Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.