There are at least 16 hawk species distributed throughout the United States and the rest of North America. Hawks are medium-sized to large birds of prey that generally belong to two categories — accipiters and buteos. You can find both kinds of hawks in Virginia, and in this article we’re going to cover them all.
The reason we refer to accipiters and buteos both as ‘hawks’ is simply 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.
There are 7 types of Hawks in Virginia; sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, northern goshawks, red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, and broad-winged hawks.
For a quick overview of each species such as the best times to look for each kind, keep reading below!
1. 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
Non-breeding populations of sharp-shinned hawks are found during winter throughout the majority of Virginia, with a small, resident population year-round in the southwestern portion of the state, particularly in areas like the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains.
The best time to catch a glimpse of these accipiter hawks is during the fall when they migrate. It’s during migration that they travel southwards in large numbers, giving you a better chance of seeing them. They typically spend their time nesting in thick forests, occasionally coming out into open land to look for prey.
Watch out if you keep bird feeders in the yard, these guys are well-known for snatching up unsuspecting songbirds. If you notice them perched in your yard, remove your bird feeder and replace it after a few weeks. The hawks will search for food elsewhere and the songbirds will eventually return.
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 are very similar in appearance to sharp-shinned hawks, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Both birds even share the same flap-flap-glide flying style. However, Cooper’s hawks are larger with slightly broader wings.
They’re about the size of a crow and have an accipiter shape with broad, rounded wings and a long tail. Cooper’s hawks are incredible flyers, able to quickly navigate dense forests to chase after smaller birds.
They’re found year-round in Virginia, most often on the edge of forests, but sometimes in backyards, too. Though they used to avoid populated areas, these hawks are becoming more and more common in towns, suburbs, and other urban areas — preying on the many pigeons and doves that live there.
3. Northern Goshawk
- Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
- Length: 20.9-25.2 in
- Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
- Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
Northern goshawks are more secretive than many other hawks, making them quite hard to find. To make things more difficult, they’re only ever scarcely seen in Virginia — during winter after migration.
They’re closely related to sharp-shinned and cooper’s hawks — except larger and more aggressive. Their coloration is mostly gray with white stripes above their red-orange eyes.
They possess an accipiter form, with short, broad wings, and a long tail that helps them make quick maneuvers when chasing after their main prey; small birds. Their fierce nature extends to humans as well. Northern goshawks are known to attack people that get a little too close to their nests.
4. Red-shouldered Hawk
- Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
- Length: 16.9-24.0 in
- Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
- Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in
Like their name implies, Red-shouldered hawks feature light, reddish barring on their pale undersides as well as white banding on their tails. Their colorful plumage makes these hawks fairly easy to identify. Another defining characteristic is their translucent crescents near their wingtips that are visible during flight.
These year-round hawks of Virginia live in wet forests — often along streams and creeks. In the spring they’re often spotted circling over their nesting area. The translucent crescents near their wingtips are a great way to identify them.
Red-shouldered hawks and crows don’t exactly get along. They often fight and try to steal food from one another, though sometimes they do pair-up to eliminate a common enemy.
5. 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
You’ve probably seen several Red-tailed hawks before, as they’re one of the most common hawks in North America. Catch them year-round in Virginias, often perched on tall vantage points or circling overhead. Chances are you can even spot them on roadside telephone poles during your daily drive.
They feature white, creamy undersides with light, reddish brown markings as well as their namesake tail full of red feathers. When in flight you can observe their broad, rounded wings and short tail, a signature buteo hawk silhouette.
Listen for their iconic raptor screech — you’ll surely recognize it as the same call used for hawks, and other birds of prey, in most movies and television shows. This page has even more interesting facts about red-tailed hawks.
6. Rough-legged Hawk
- Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
- Length: 18.5-20.5 in
- Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
- Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in
You’ll only be able to catch the non-breeding population of rough-legged hawks in Virginia during the winter. During the summer these hawks reside in the arctic tundra, hunting and raising their young before migrating south to escape the cold.
They often fly up and face the wind while hunting, hovering and scanning the ground for prey. They share the buteo shape along with the red-tailed hawk, but with longer, more narrow wings.
Rough-legged hawks feature dark-brown patterns, though they also occur in light and dark morphs. Their fully feathered legs are what earned them the name “rough-legged.”
7. 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 can only be found during breeding season in Virginia from around April to August. However, if you’re lucky you’ll catch their fall migration, when large flocks of hundreds of thousands travel to South America.
These hawks are on the smaller side with stocky bodies and large, reddish heads. Broad-winged hawks have similar barring as the red-shouldered hawk, but with brown coloration rather than red. They also have bold, white and black banding on their tails.
You may be able to find a broad-winged hawk by listening for it’s piercing, single-pitched whistle it makes when hunting. They often circle high above the treetops, scanning the ground for small mammals.
Other articles you might enjoy:
- Owls in Virginia
- Falcons in Virginia
- Backyard birds in Virginia
- Woodpeckers in Virginia
- Hummingbirds in Virginia
Jesse has been feeding birds in his backyard and bird watching across the country for years. He loves learning about the different species and sharing his knowledge and experiences on this website.