8 Hawk Species In North Carolina

Birds of prey are some of the most unique species of birds found in the world. There’s nothing quite like watching a bird of prey soaring over you before it begins to hover just above its chosen prey. Problem is, it’s not always easy to distinguish the species. Turns out, there’s a lot more birds of prey species than we know about. 

North Carolina, for example, is home to 8 species of hawks, with each species looking and acting differently to another.

It’s important that we recognize the differences between the species, from their habitats to reproductive behavior, to better understand their relevance to the ecosystem. Plus, it’s always fun to surprise your friends with unique facts about hawks.

Here are the 8 hawk species in North Carolina!

Red-Tailed Hawks

Male

  • Wingspan: 44.9-52.4”
  • Length: 17.7-22.1”
  • Weight: 24.3-45.9 oz

Female

  • Wingspan: 44.9-52.4”
  • Length: 19.7-25.6”
  • Weight: 31.8-51.5 oz

The red-tailed hawk is the most common hawk species found in North Carolina. Native to North America, these hawks are commonly found circling over open fields or perched on a telephone pole on the side of a road.

The red-tailed hawk plumage comes in a variety of colors and shades, but once they reach adulthood, their tails are a distinctive reddish-brown color (as the name suggests!). 

The wings of a red-tailed hawk are large and broad, making the hawk resemble something between a goose and a crow. Like most birds, this species is sexually monomorphic, with the key difference between the sexes being that females are generally larger than males.

After a series of courtship rituals, including distinctive aerial performances and calls, a male and female will mate on a treetop or the edge of a cliff. 

Red-tailed hawks aren’t fussy eaters, with their diet consisting of a range of prey including small birds, rodents (especially squirrels), snakes, insects, and carrion.

In terms of predators, the red-tailed hawk is often considered prey by the great horned owl. Farmers will also commonly kill red-tailed hawks who pose a threat to their livestock and agricultural farms. 

Cooper’s Hawk

Male

  • Wingspan: 24.4-35.4”
  • Length: 14.6-15.3”
  • Weight: 7.8-14.5 oz

Female

  • Wingspan: 29.5-35.4”
  • Length: 16.5-17.7”
  • Weight: 11.6-24.0 oz

Cooper’s Hawks are most commonly found in North Carolina in the winter months. This is a medium-sized hawk with a classic shape and size – rounded and broad wings with an elongated, slim tail. The females are generally always larger than the males, which is the only physical difference between the sexes. 

As juveniles, the Cooper’s Hawk are brown all over except for a lighter upper breast, which is flecked with dark patches. As adults, the color fades to a steel blue-gray color with thick dark bands on the tail and faint reddish bars on the upper breast.

The main habitat of this species is dense woodlands and backyards, and they tend to avoid open fields. They can often be aggressive when hunting for food against other hawks. Speaking of diet, the cooper’s hawk primarily feasts on small mammals, reptiles, small birds, insects, and even fish. 

During the mating season, these birds are monogamous and will lay between 2-6 eggs on the fork of a tall tree. The mating season is generally between April and June and doesn’t occur in North Carolina, as they will use North Carolina as a pit stop as they travel south during the winter migration. 

Broad-Winged Hawk

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 31.9-39.4”
  • Length: 13.4-17.3”
  • Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz

Broad-winged hawks are one of the least spotted hawk species found in North Carolina, as this species breed in this state before migrating down to South America. The mating season is between April and August. If you’re going to spot this species in North Carolina, it’ll be in the western part of the state. 

As their name suggests, these hawks are most distinguishable for their broad wings that, when in flight, produce a pointed tip. Their tails are wide and square-shaped. As for their coloring, this species features barred breasts, a reddish-brown head, and dark banding on their tails and wings.

The broad-winged hawk is one of the smallest hawk species found in North Carolina, and unlike most birds of prey, the males and females are generally the same size. 

Another reason why it’s not always easy to see a broad-winged hawk in North Carolina is because they typically reside under the canopies of dense forests or on mountain ridges. However, when they migrate, they travel in large flocks called a kettle. 

During the mating season, the males will perform aerial displays in an attempt to court the females below. If successful, the female will meet the male mid-air, hook their feet together, and soar down to the nest. They usually reuse nests of other animals as they are migratory birds before the female lays 2-3 eggs. 

Northern Goshawk

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 40.5-46.1”
  • Length: 20.9-25.2”
  • Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz

Like the broad-winged hawk, the northern goshawk is rarely found in North Carolina as these northeastern states are the species’ winter territory. So, if you identify a northern goshawk, consider yourself lucky as these birds are seen in less than 1% of hawk sightings in North Carolina!

Northern goshawks live in dense coniferous and deciduous forests, which only adds to their secretive and elusive nature. Plus, they tend to be aggressive towards humans, which is why there is a lack of research about the species.

They are also incredibly fast as a result of their streamlined long tails and broad wings. This species is predominantly gray except for their piercing yellow eyes and distinctive yellow stripe above their eyes resembling cartoonish eyebrows. 

These hawks are notoriously aggressive, especially during the breeding season. Their aggression has been known for centuries – even Attila the Hun’s helmet carried the image of a northern goshawk.

This aggression is mirrored in their diet, as they feast on a range of small mammals (including rabbits, hares, and squirrels) and other medium-sized birds.

Like most birds of prey, this species exhibits sexual monomorphism, with the only key difference between the sexes being the females are generally 25% larger than the males. 

Rough-Legged Hawk

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 52.0-54.3”
  • Length: 18.5-20.5”
  • Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz

Rough-legged hawks are originally from the Arctic, but they migrate down to northeastern America during winter, including parts of North Carolina. It’s not common to see this species as North Carolina is the southern edge of their migratory range.

If you do spot a rough-legged hawk, however, you’re most likely to see them perched on fence posts or hovering over open fields and marshes. 

This species has an impressive wingspan for its size, as well as a broad tail, which are probably most beneficial for their migration season.

The rough-legged hawk is a particularly feathered bird due to its cold habitat, and they come in a variety of light and dark morphs, though the males tend to be more mottled than females. To match their snowscape habitats, these birds look something like snow capped mountains. 

The rough-legged hawk typically feeds off animals they can source in open fields such as small rodents like mice, voles, and rats. These rodents provide the best source of fat and energy to get them through the migration season.

When hunting, it’s common for the rough-legged hawk to hover into the wind before catching their prey.

They will also perch on tall poles and tree tops before swooping down to the ground. The breeding season generally occurs just after winter when courtship displays are performed in the air. Then, the female will lay 3-5 eggs. 

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 16.9-22.1”
  • Length: 9.4-13.4”
  • Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz

The smallest hawk found in North Carolina is the sharp-shinned hawk, weighing only around 10 oz.

This species isn’t a common hawk species found in the state, but they are most often found in winter during their migration season. They will breed in the northern parts of North America, including parts of North Carolina, and then will migrate down to Panama in winter.

These hawks are so small that the males are said to be the smallest hawk species found in the United States and Canada!

As juveniles, the sharp-shinned hawk is predominantly brown with white underparts bearing brown vertical streaks.

When they reach adulthood, the plumage turns to a blue-gray slate color with a white underpart bearing reddish bars. These birds have small heads, rounded wings, and long streamlined tails. Like most birds of prey, the female is generally bigger than the male. 

The sharp-shinned hawk is an elusive bird as it spends most of its time in dense forests. However, if you’re lucky, you might see them flying around open areas on the outskirts of the forests. Their size comes in handy when hunting for fast prey such as songbirds, finches, wrens, and tits through the trees.

It’s also fairly common for these birds to catch small birds mid-flight in backyards as the birds surround the bird feeders. After catching their prey, the hawk will pluck the feathers of the bird while perched on a pole before devouring it. 

This species will use the dense forests during the breeding season, where the vegetation provides a suitable support for the nests. The females will lay between 3-8 eggs. 

Northern Harrier

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 40.2-46.5”
  • Length: 18.1-19.7”
  • Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz

Like most hawks on this list, the northern harrier is most commonly found in winter in North Carolina. This species is the only harrier species native to North America, with breeding grounds as north as Canada and as south as North Carolina. It’s most common to see these birds flying low over marshes and open fields. 

The most unique feature of the northern harrier is its owl-like face. With the shape of the feathers near the ears, this bird has easier access to hearing the sounds of even the smallest prey, including mice and voles, beneath the vegetation. They are a generally slender bird with long, pointed wings. 

The eye color of the northern harrier is what changes most throughout their lifetime. Juvenile females have chocolate brown eyes, while juvenile males have pale greenish-yellow eyes. When they age to adults, both sexes develop lemon-yellow eyes. 

Unlike a lot of birds of prey, the northern harrier is a polyamorous bird. Males have been recorded to have up to 5 mates during the breeding season, which is a heavy task considering they provide the food for their mates and offspring. 

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 37.0-43.7”
  • Length: 16.9-24.0”
  • Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz

Last but not least, the red-shouldered hawk can be found anywhere in North Carolina throughout the year, though they are most commonly found by the coast in winter.

As their name suggests, these birds are most distinguishable for their distinctive reddish breast barring and brown and white checkered wings. Their tails are particularly strongly banded and fan out into a medium length when in flight, while their wings remain rounded and broad. 

The ideal habitat for a red-shouldered hawk is a wet forestland as they prefer to hunt near rivers and streams. Their ideal diet consists of small mammals, reptiles, frogs, and often fish. Their love for wet areas is why they move to the coast in winter.

In terms of how they catch their prey, this species will both hover above their prey or sit on a perch before swooping down to grab it. 

The red-shouldered hawk will make sturdy nests in these wet forests, marshlands, and swamps, which they generally reuse during every breeding season between April and July. This species is monogamous and territorial, and the male will perform impressive aerial displays to court the female.

Once successful, the female will generally lay between 2-5 eggs.