9 Hawks in South Dakota (with Photos)

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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 9 species of hawks in South Dakota, plus one bonus hawk-like bird.

9 Hawks in South Dakota

The 9 species of hawks that can be found in South Dakota are the broad-winged hawk, 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. Broad-winged Hawk

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

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, traveling from Central and South America where they spend the winter, to the eastern U.S. and Canada to breed in the spring and summer. While they don’t stick around in South Dakota to breed (except along the far eastern border), they do travel through most of the state during migration. So look for them passing through in spring and fall, especially in the east or the Black Hills Forest area of the west. 

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 fall migration on their way back South America. Flocks 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. Coopers Hawk

coopers hawk on deck railing
Cooper’s Hawk | image by S0MEBODY 3LSE via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific nameAccipiter 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 Dakota where they come to spend the summer breeding season. Some stick around all year in the southeast corner. 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. 


3. Ferruginous Hawk 

Image: reitz27 | pixabay.com

Length: 22.1-27.2 in
Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz
Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in

Ferruginous Hawks come to South Dakota to breed during the spring and summer, although they aren’t as commonly seen in the southeastern corner. 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.


4. Northern Goshawk

northern goshawk
Northern Goshawk | image by Andrey Gulivanov via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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 South Dakota during the fall and winter season. But you likely won’t have an easy time finding one, since they prefer to stay in large sections of mature forest and avoid populated areas. 

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.


5. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier | Pixabay.com

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 Dakota during the spring and summer breeding season, and sometimes all year in the southern part of the state. These hawks breed all throughout Canada and Alaska, and South Dakota is at the bottom of its summer range. 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. 


6. Red Tailed Hawk

red-shouldered hawk in flight from below
Red-tailed Hawk in Flight | image by Don Owens via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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. In South Dakota they can always be found in the southeast, but may be more common in the northwest during the summer.

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. 


7. Rough-legged Hawk

two rough legged hawks
Two color-morphs of the Rough Legged Hawk | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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 South Dakota 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.


8. Sharp shinned Hawks

sharp-shinned hawk
Image by dbadry from Pixabay

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. Technically, only the northeastern corner of the state is within their official range. However, they have been spotted throughout most of South Dakota. Look for them in the spring and summer when they come north to breed. 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. 


9. Swainsons Hawk

Image: 272447 | pixabay.com

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 South Dakota 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. 


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About Melanie

Melanie has been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and photographing birds of all types.