The state of Pennsylvania is located on the East Coast of the United States, bordering New York City and the state of New Jersey.
Pennsylvania is primarily known for its industrial history, featuring some of the most prominent railroads and coal production centers in the United States. It’s also home to some of the world’s most famous inventors, including Robert Fulton and Benjamin Franklin.
However, Pennsylvania actually has more rural counties than industrial ones. Dubbed the ‘mushroom capital of the world’, Pennsylvania has plenty of natural beauty and resources to offer.
Pennsylvania’s wildlife comprises over 25,000 individual species, 8 of which are hawks. The most populous hawk species in Pennsylvania is the Red-Tailed Hawk, but there are 7 other beautiful hawk species to discover in PA.
Keep reading to learn all about Pennsylvania’s 8 resident hawks!
Hawks in Pennsylvania
The Red-Tailed Hawk
Given that the Red-Tailed Hawk population is the largest of all hawks in Pennsylvania, it makes sense to kick off our guide to Pennsylvania’s hawks with this species.
Red-Tailed Hawks are not migratory, so they reside in Pennsylvania year-round.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many Red-Tailed Hawks are currently in Pennsylvania, but researchers estimate that approximately 15% of all Pennsylvanian hawk sightings are of Red-Tailed Hawks.
While the Red-Tailed Hawk population in Pennsylvania is dense, the frequency of these sightings may be partially attributed to this bird’s distinctive appearance.
Red-Tailed Hawks have red plumage on their wide, short tails, which is where the species gets its name. The plumage on the top of this hawk’s body and wings is brown, but the feathers underneath are pale.
The Red-Tailed Hawk is on the larger end of the hawk size spectrum. Females can reach up to 25.6 inches in length with a maximum wingspan of 52.4 inches. The males are smaller on average, growing up to 22.1 inches and weighing approximately 5 ounces less than the females.
You might also be able to identify the Red-Tailed Hawk by its characteristic screeching call. Fun fact: filmmakers often use the cry of the Red-Tailed Hawk to create raptor sound effects!
Female Red-Tailed Hawks keep their species’ population thriving by laying between 2 and 3 eggs per clutch and keeping them safe in high-up nesting places such as cliffs and large trees.
The Red-Shouldered Hawk
Not to be confused with the Red-Tailed Hawk, the Red-Shouldered Hawk is another very common hawk species found in Pennsylvania.
The Red-Shouldered Hawk isn’t sighted as often as the Red-Tailed Hawk because while the latter often flies out into the open, the former prefers to live and hunt in forest areas.
In fact, Red-Shouldered Hawks rarely stray far from their chosen nesting tree. These hawks will usually choose a tree near a body of water and build a nest, which they reuse for several consecutive years. Clutches range in size from 2 to 5 eggs.
Red-Shouldered Hawks can be distinguished by the reddish-brown coloration across the breast and undersides of the wings. The red plumage is restricted to the ‘shoulder’ area, with the lower feathers sporting a white and gray checkered pattern.
The Red-Shouldered Hawk’s tail is also easy to identify, with bold white and gray horizontal stripes.
Male and female Red-Shouldered Hawks tend to be roughly equal in size, ranging from 16.9 inches to 24 inches in length. The average wingspan for both sexes is between 37 and 47.3 inches.
These birds vary significantly when it comes to weight, with smaller members of the species weighing just over 17 ounces, whereas larger specimens can weigh in at over 27 ounces.
The Sharp-Shinned Hawk
A slightly less common hawk species that you may not have heard of is the Sharp-Shinned Hawk.
This hawk is a year-round resident of Pennsylvania, but it’s quite elusive, making up just 3% of total hawk sightings. However, if you venture near the woodland areas of Pennsylvania, you might be able to spot one flying overhead.
You’ll recognize the Sharp-Shinned Hawk by its gray and black striped tail, checkered underwings, and speckled breast.
The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is notable for being the smallest hawk species in Pennsylvania. Neither the males nor the females usually surpass 13.4 inches in length or 7.7 ounces in weight. The maximum wingspan for the species is 22.1 inches.
This species’ smaller size makes them vulnerable to larger predators, but it also gives them an advantage in terms of speed and agility, which helps them to catch their prey. They mainly eat small songbirds that they catch mid-flight, although when food is scarce, Sharp-Shinned Hawks have been known to wait by feeders and ambush other unsuspecting birds.
Apart from when they need to go out into the open to catch prey, Sharp-Shinned Hawks usually stay hidden in densely planted woods, building their nests high up amongst the foliage. They can lay up to 8 eggs at a time.
You might initially mistake Cooper’s Hawk for the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, but these are 2 entirely separate species.
Cooper’s Hawk is thought to be more widespread than the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, accounting for 5% of Pennsylvanian hawk sightings compared to the latter’s 3%.
The reason Cooper’s Hawk is frequently confused for the Sharp-Shinned Hawk is that they have similar markings. They have the same black and gray striped pattern on their tails and speckles on their chests.
There are also similarities between the behaviors of Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-Shinned Hawk. Cooper’s Hawk also preys on other birds in forest areas and, like its rarer counterpart, will sometimes target bird feeders for easy prey.
The most obvious difference between Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-Shinned Hawk is size. Cooper’s Hawk is significantly larger, with the females growing up to 17.7 inches lengthwise. The males don’t get quite as big, but both sexes can achieve a wingspan of 35.4 inches.
Another key difference is that Cooper’s Hawk has a larger head than the Sharp-Shinned Hawk.
The average clutch for Cooper’s Hawk has between 2 and 6 eggs, and these hawks will often build their own nests on top of the discarded nests of other species.
The Broad-Winged Hawk
Contrary to what its name might lead you to believe, the Broad-Winged Hawk does not have a particularly large wingspan.
In fact, this is a relatively small hawk species, rarely growing in excess of 17.3 inches in length, with a maximum wingspan of 39.4 inches. This is the same for both males and females.
The best way to identify a Broad-Winged Hawk is by looking at the size of its body and tail. Its markings are not especially distinctive, but you’ll know a Broad-Winged Hawk when you see one thanks to its remarkably stocky body and short, fan-like tail.
Despite not being particularly eye-catching, the Broad-Winged Hawk is still a notable sight in Pennsylvania because it’s quite rare in this area. If you look at Pennsylvania’s wildlife checklists, you’ll see that the Broad-Winged Hawk is present in just 2% of them.
Broad-Winged Hawks are migratory and usually only come to Pennsylvania for the nesting season. These hawks usually take over abandoned nests and lay up to 3 eggs at a time. When breeding season is over, Broad-Winged Hawks will migrate back to South America for warmth.
This hawk species is definitely not picky when it comes to food, preying on mammals, reptiles, and amphibians alike. Frogs, turtles, snakes, and rodents make up most of their diet.
The Northern Goshawk
The Northern Goshawk, like the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, is a rarer sight in Pennsylvania because it is a forest-dwelling species.
Northern Goshawks are also not particularly keen on being approached by humans and have been known to behave aggressively towards people who come near their nests.
With that being said, if you are in Pennsylvania and spot a gray hawk with proportionally short wings and golden eyes, you’re probably looking at a Northern Goshawk.
There is no significant sexual dimorphism with this hawk species, so the males and females are roughly the same size. They can grow to between 20.9 and 25.2 inches in length, weigh up to 48.1 ounces, and have a maximum wingspan of 46.1 inches.
Northern Goshawks favor coniferous forests for nesting and hunting, preying on other birds and smaller mammals.
For the Northern Goshawk, nesting is a serious business. These birds only lay up 4 eggs per clutch, but they will build as many as 8 nests, which they will reuse and alternate between.
The Rough-Legged Hawk
Possibly the rarest of all hawk species in Pennsylvania, the Rough-Legged Hawk accounts for fewer than 1% of all hawk sightings in this state.
This is mainly because the Rough-Legged Hawk only comes to Pennsylvania for the winter months, quickly migrating back to its arctic habitat when the weather begins to warm up again.
Unlike some other hawk species, however, these hawks don’t conceal themselves in woodland areas. Instead, they can be seen searching open plains and fields for prey, as well as marshlands. They mainly eat rodents such as mice, squirrels, and voles.
The Rough-Legged Hawk is quite large. While it rarely grows beyond 20.5 inches in length, it has a sizable wingspan of up to 54.3 inches and can weigh almost 50 ounces.
You’ll easily be able to recognize a Rough-Legged Hawk – the clue is in the name. These hawks have dense plumage on their legs to protect them from arctic temperatures.
The coloring of their feathers varies, with some birds appearing darker than others. However, Rough-Legged Hawks consistently have dark areas of plumage on their bellies and at the tips of their wings and tails.
The Northern Harrier
Our 8th and final Pennsylvanian hawk species is the Northern Harrier.
The Northern Harrier is a constant presence in Pennsylvania, but it’s not a commonly sighted species despite being low-flying and hunting in open areas such as marshes and grasslands.
Northern Harriers mainly prey on mammals such as voles and mice, and birds that are smaller than they are.
This hawk species’ streamlined body is framed by proportionally large wings. Although it’s rare to find a Northern Harrier with a body longer than 19.7 inches, the wingspan of this bird can easily surpass 40 inches, reaching 46.5 inches in some cases. The wings are broad as well as long, making the Northern Harrier a very efficient flier.
Northern Harriers display sexual dimorphism in terms of coloring. The males of the species have gray feathers while the females are brown in color. Males also have white areas of plumage on their rumps and bellies.
How Do I Identify A Hawk?
As you can see from the identifying features we’ve listed for each hawk species mentioned above, there are many different ways to identify a hawk.
One of the most common strategies for identification is to look for certain markings in specific areas, but not all hawks have easily recognizable markings.
Other ways to identify a hawk include body shape and size as well as the size and shape of the wings and tail. The shape that the bird creates with its wings in flight can also be used as an indicator of species.
It helps to consider all of these features simultaneously for the most accurate identification.
How Can I Tell A Hawk From A Falcon?
If you come across a hawk-like bird in Pennsylvania that doesn’t seem to match any of the above descriptions, it could be that you’re looking at a falcon, not a hawk.
The easiest way to tell a hawk from a falcon is to look at the tips of the wings if you’re close enough to do so. If it’s a falcon, the tips of the wings will come to a clean point. The tips of hawks’ wings, on the other hand, fan out into individual feathers that almost look like fingers.
Are Hawks Friendly To Humans?
If you encounter a hawk in Pennsylvania, there’s no reason to be afraid in most cases. The majority of hawks in Pennsylvania are more avoidant of humans than aggressive towards them.
With that being said, some species, such as the Northern Goshawk, can become aggressive if they perceive a threat to themselves or their young.