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9 Types of Hawks Found in Wisconsin (Photos)

 Last Reviewed by Jesse Foutch on 02-06-2024

Wisconsin’s varied landscapes and rich ecosystems provide a haven for an impressive array of hawks. With around 16 species of hawks known in the United States, Wisconsin boasts its own unique subset of these majestic raptors. This article dives into the hawks of Wisconsin, detailing the species you might encounter across the state and offering insights into their habits and habitats.

In this article, we primarily refer to 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.

In Wisconsin, you can spot 9 distinct types of hawks: the Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, and the Swainson’s Hawk.

Curious about where to find them in Wisconsin, and what makes each species unique? Continue reading to discover more.

1. 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

Red-tailed Hawks are probably the most common hawks in the U.S. with almost 2 million nesting hawks in North America. This number accounts for about 90% of the global Red-tailed Hawk population.

These large hawks live in Wisconsin and most of North America all year long. The northern parts of Wisconsin have a breeding population of Red-tailed Hawks and those birds may fly further south in the winter.

red tailed hawk perch
Red-tailed Hawk | image by NPS / Daniel Leifheit via Flickr

Red-tailed Hawks are most active during the day or early morning and are commonly seen soaring above looking for prey with their amazing vision or perched along the roadside on telephone poles. They aren’t often seen in backyards lurking around feeders because they prey on larger animals that just songbirds.

Here’s a quick video we got of a Red-tailed Hawk who had a squirrel trapped under a sign post. Very clever Mr Hawk…


2. 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

The Red-shouldered hawk is a year-round resident to Wisconsin, and much of the eastern half of the United States. In the northern part of Wisconsin these hawks have a mostly breeding population.

Their range doesn’t go much further west than the border of Wisconsin, in this part of the country. They eat mostly small mammals, other birds, as well as reptiles and amphibians.

red-shouldered hawk standing on top of dead opossum
Red-shouldered Hawk with its prey | image by birdfeederhub.com

The population of Red-shouldered hawks has increased over the last 50 years in their range. Red-shouldered Hawks are known for living and nesting in wooded areas and forests.

The biggest threat to this species is the clearing of wooded areas where they nest and breed. Red-shouldered Hawks will commonly re-use the same nest year after year.


3. 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

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest hawk in Canada and the United States, and can be found all over North America. Many sharpies migrate north to Canada and Alaska to breed each year, and then south to Central America in the winter time.

Sharp-shinned hawks can be found throughout the state of Wisconsin. In the northern half of the state they are mostly migratory while in the southern half they stick around all year.

sharp shinned hawk perched snowy day
sharp-shinned hawk

As you can tell, they are very migratory birds but you do have a couple of optimal times to see them each year as they are passing through your state.  These small hawks are notorious for stalking backyard feeders. If you see one, consider taking down your feeders for a week or two and allowing the hawk to move on.


4. 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 sometimes appear to be just a larger version of the Sharp-shinned Hawk (see video below to tell the difference between Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks).

They can be found year-round in the southern half of Wisconsin with a breeding range in northern Wisconsin. Their range covers all of North America.

 
Photo: Pixabay.com

They are also notorious for stalking feeders and feed almost exclusively on other birds. Their preferred habitat is forests and wooded areas but will also nest in suburban wooded areas and backyards too. Females tend to be larger and more dominant over the males of this species.


5. Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged hawk (Image: Andrew Cannizzaro | CC BY 2.0 | wikicommons)
  • Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
  • Length: 13.4-17.3 in
  • Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz
  • Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in

The Broad-winged Hawk has a breeding-only range throughout the entire state of Wisconsin. Look for them along the shores of Lake Michigan in both the Spring and Fall each year.

broad-winged hawk perched
Broad-winged hawk | image by Courtney Celley/USFWS via Flickr

Broad-winged Hawks migrate each year by the thousands, these large flocks are called “kettles”. Another way to spot a Broad-winged Hawk while they’re in Wisconsin is to simply try walking through a forest during the summer and listening for their piercing whistle.

Broad-winged Hawks have one brood each year with 1-5 eggs. The female is in charge of constructing the nest, with help from the male. They will fiercely protect their nesting site and build their nests with at least a half-mile of separation from other birds of prey. Their diet is consistent with that of most other birds of prey.


6. Northern Goshawk

photo by: Iosto Doneddu | CC 2.0
  • 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 large birds of prey, similar in size to Red-tailed Hawks. The Northern Goshawk found in most of the state, with a year-round population in northern Wisconsin.

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

They live in large forests and may be hard to find, but your best chance is to quietly walk and listen in mature forests with large trees.  They are also known for fiercely protecting their nests and young, even attacking people who come too close.

Adults are dark slate gray on top with barred light gray underparts, and have a light stripe over their eyes. Northern Goshawks live and nest in forests high up in the trees. They are mostly opportunistic eaters with a wide range of prey including other birds, mammals, carrion, and insects.


7. Rough-legged Hawk

photo by: DickDaniels | CC 3.0
  • 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 and Ferruginous Hawks are the only American hawks to have feathered legs all the way down to their toes. The Rough-legged Hawk comes in two distinct variations; light morph and dark morph.

rough legged hawks
Rough-legged Hawk | image by Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr

The plumage of males and females look quite different in both morphs. As you might expect, light morphs are overall lighter colored with a somewhat mottled pattern, and dark morphs are a dark chocolate brown color with two-toned light/dark under their wings and tails.

Rough-legged Hawks are migratory birds. They spend their winters in Wisconsin and most of the U.S. making this the best time to see one in your state or the rest of the United States. They migrate far north to the arctic regions of Alaska and northern Canada each season to breed.


8. Swainson’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
  • Length: 18.9-22.1 in
  • Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz
  • Wingspan: 48 in

Swainson’s Hawks have a breeding range only in the far western parts of Wisconsin. April and September is the best time to see them as they are flying into or out of their North American breeding grounds.

However they will around all summer long if you live within their range. They perch on telephone poles, fence posts, and tree branches scanning the ground for signs of food.

swainsons hawk
Swainson’s Hawk | image by NPS/Patrick Myers via Flickr

They have one of the longest migrations of any North American raptor. Swainson’s Hawks migrate all the way from southern South America by the thousands in flocks called “kettles” each year to breed in North America. They have long wings, short tails, light underbellies, reddish-brown chests, and typically have brown and gray upper parts.


9. 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. 

Northern Harrier | Pixabay.com

The Northern Harrier is a year-round resident in Wisconsin, often seen in open habitats like marshes, fields, and grasslands across the state. While they are widespread, their presence is particularly notable in areas that offer wide, open spaces for their low, gliding flight as they hunt.

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. 

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