The 7 Hawk Species In Tennessee

While most people know Tennessee for hot chicken and whiskey, what you might not know about is Tennessee’s impressive range of hawk species. Hawks are one of the most fascinating birds of prey, and with around 20 recognized species, there’s an abundance of information out there about the iconic bird of prey. 

If you’ve come across this guide, odds are you’ve spotted a hawk-shaped bird while driving or wandering around parts of Tennessee. In an attempt to impress your friends, you’re probably using this guide to become the next David Attenborough. Even if you’re merely wondering how many hawk species can be found in Tennessee, you’ve come to the right place. 

Here is everything you need to know about the 7 hawk species in Tennessee!

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 35-50”
  • Length: 16.9-24.0”
  • Weight: 1.21-1.5 lb

Found all year round in Tennessee, the red-shouldered hawk is categorized by its distinctive markings. This species exhibits a reddish-brown chest with red barring on the underparts, hence the name.

When in flight, the wings feature a black-and-white checkered pattern, and the wide tail exhibits thick black bands. It is a medium-sized raptor. Unlike most hawks that have bright amber eyes, the red-shouldered hawk has big, dark brown eyes. 

This hawk species is found throughout the eastern part of North America, spanning from southern Canada to eastern Mexico, including Tennessee. The eastern variant of these hawks is migratory, but only travels distances of 300 to 1,500 km each way.

You are most likely to see a red-shouldered hawk in deciduous-conifer forests, which isn’t always the easiest place to spot a raptor when you’re on the road.

Their main habitats also include flooded swamps, dense woodlands, and often eucalyptus groves. However, while they primarily hunt in forests, you might see one soaring around the edge or even in suburban areas. 

The red-shouldered hawk is one of the noisiest raptors, exhibiting around 7 different calls. Most of these calls are made during the courtship rituals and mating season between April and July, wherein the male will perform aerial displays to woo the female.

Once successful, the pair will build a nest out of sticks and bark on the fork of a tree, where the female will lay a clutch of 3-4 eggs. While the female broods the chicks after they hatch, the male hunts for food and guards the nest. The young will leave the nest anywhere between 6-19 weeks after hatching. 

Red-Tailed Hawk

Male

  • Wingspan: 41.3-55.5”
  • Length: 8-24”
  • Weight: 1.52-2.87 lbs

Female

  • Wingspan: 41.3-55.5”
  • Length: 19-26”
  • Weight: 1.76-3.79 lbs

Often mistaken for the red-shouldered hawk, the red-tailed hawk is responsible for 13% of Tennessee’s total hawk sightings. This species can be found in Tennessee throughout the year, and is most commonly found by people driving through the countryside.

If you’ve ever seen a hawk hovering over an open field in Tennessee, odds are you’ve just seen a red-tailed hawk. 

This species is aptly named thanks to its distinctive short and wide red tail. Unlike the red-shouldered hawk, however, this is often the only red part of the red-tailed hawk.

The rest of the bird comes in three morphs – dark, light, and occasionally rufous. Their underparts are pale with few dark speckles, and the large, wide wings feature a dark band on the edge. This species is recognized as the second-largest hawk in North America. 

Red-tailed hawks are most commonly found circling over open fields in search of food. However, this is an adaptable species that can be found in most habitats. These hawks are far from picky, and will eat anything from rodents (especially squirrels), small birds, reptiles, insects, and carrion. 

This species is monogamous and will commit to courtship rituals to establish and re-establish their relationship. Both males and females will build the nest on the fork of a tall tree before the female lays between 1-3 eggs. The parents become aggressively territorial as young red-tailed hawks are hunted by the great horned owl. 

Cooper’s Hawk

Male

  • Wingspan: 24-39”
  • Length: 14-18”
  • Weight: 220-410 g

Female

  • Wingspan: 24-39”
  • Length: 17-20”
  • Weight: 330-680 g

Unlike the previous species, the Cooper’s hawk can only be found in Tennessee during winter. This is because they are migratory birds who travel south during these months, stopping in Tennessee throughout late August to November and early December.

Named after ornithologist William Cooper, the Cooper’s hawk is responsible for 6% of total hawk sightings in Tennessee. 

The Cooper’s hawk is a medium-sized hawk that is often mistaken for the sharp-shinned hawk due to their similar physical characteristics.

Cooper’s hawks are predominantly bluish-gray all over with a reddish (or rufous) chest, steel blue wide wings, and dark bands spread over their tails. This species exhibits bright amber eyes and matching yellow legs and feet. 

Cooper’s hawks are an elusive hawk species that spends most of their time in woodland areas, often scouting the edges for easier food access.

These birds are adaptable hunters, with the ability to hunt aggressively through open clearings to dense vegetation. They will mostly prey on small birds (particularly chicken hawks) and bats, which they catch mid-flight. This species can also be found in suburban areas and agricultural farmlands. 

Most Cooper’s hawks will mate for life, but their courtship rituals are fairly minimal compared to other hawk species. The male will present the female with prey, and if she is impressed, she will get into position.

Once the birds have mated, the male quickly flies away as he is far smaller than the female – considering the female will feast on birds of his size, it’s wise to escape. Even during the nestling period, the male will drop food from above and retreat. 

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 16.9-22.1”
  • Length: 9.4-13.4”
  • Weight: 87-218 g

The sharp-shinned hawk is one of the rarest hawk species seen in Tennessee (making up for only 1% of hawk sightings in the state), as it is a migratory bird of prey that only appears in the winter in Tennessee. Interestingly, the sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest hawk found in this state!

These hawks are particularly elusive due to their favorite habitat of dense woodlands and forests. As a result of this habitat, these birds are appropriately small and streamlined to quickly fly through the thick vegetation in search of prey – mostly songbirds and small rodents like mice.

Once they have caught their prey, the hawk will perch on a branch or stump and pluck the animal before devouring it.

Sharp-shinned hawks exhibit a reddish-orange breast and a bluish-gray coloring on their backs and heads. Their legs, feet, and eyes are a bright yellow, and their tails mostly exhibit several dark bands. 

The sharp-shinned hawk also likes to breed in their dense forests, making nests of up to 20-60 feet from the ground. This is to protect their young from predators – usually larger raptors. It’s not common to see a sharp-shinned hawk in Tennessee during the breeding season between March and June due to their migratory patterns.

The female will lay between 3-8 eggs, and she will be responsible for incubating the chicks while the male hunts and defends the nest. 

Northern Harrier

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 40.2-46.5”
  • Length: 18.1-19.7”
  • Weight: 300-750 g

The northern harrier, as the name suggests, is native to eastern Canada and the northern states of the US. This species migrates south to Tennessee during the winter after the breeding season, which is why they make up for 2% of hawk sightings in the state. 

Another reason why this species is rarely spotted in Tennessee is because of the physical similarities with owls.

While the species aren’t even distantly related, the northern harrier’s head exhibits a permanent frown expression as a result of their protruding, downward-pointing brow bone, which looks very similar to an owl’s head shape. Female northern harriers are brown all over while the males are steel gray.

The females also feature white streaks on their underside, and both sexes possess a white rump patch that is only visible when in flight. 

Northern harriers are most commonly found soaring above open fields, prairie grasslands, and marshes, where they circle the areas to dive and catch their prey from above. Their diet consists of ground squirrels, voles, and other small mammals.

During their migratory period, they will continue to live in these habitats in states like Tennessee until it gets warmer in their northern homes. 

Northern harriers will breed and make their nests on the ground in these open areas. The male will perform a complex aerial display to win over the female, who will then lay between 4-6 eggs if successful. Both sexes will share the responsibilities of incubation and hunting.

It’s very common for northern harriers to be aggressive towards other birds of prey, animals, and even humans if they get too close to their nests. 

Broad-Winged Hawks

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 31.9-39.4”
  • Length: 13.4-17.3”
  • Weight: 265-560 g

Broad-winged hawks are rarely observed in Tennessee, making up for only 1% of total hawk sightings in the state. This is because the species typically breeds in western Tennessee before migrating down to South America in a large flock. These birds are slightly smaller than the red-shouldered hawk. 

The broad-winged hawks come in two main morphs – light and dark. The dark morphs are rarely sighted in Tennessee.

In general, this species exhibits barred underparts in a light red color, reddish heads, light-brown upper bodies, and pale undersides. Their wings and short square tails possess a dark band on the edge.

The body of the bird is stocky and fairly short compared to other hawks. And as their name suggests, the broad-winged hawk has an impressive wingspan thanks to their large, broad wings. 

Another reason why the broad-winged hawk isn’t commonly seen in Tennessee is because of their preferred habitat. These birds live under the canopies of forests, but they prefer to migrate along coastlines and mountains. They will hunt for small mammals like squirrels and voles from their perches in the canopies. 

As the breeding season of this species is between April and August, this is the best time to spot a broad-winged hawk in Tennessee.

The males, like most hawks, will perform a series of aerial displays to court the female. If successful, the female will join the male mid-air, hook their feet and then spiral down to the nest.

They will generally use the nests made by other animals and adapt them to their liking before the female lays a clutch of 1-4 eggs. 

Rough-Legged Hawk

Male And Female

  • Wingspan: 52-54.3”
  • Length: 18.5-20.5”
  • Weight: 715-1,400 g

Last but not least, the rough-legged hawk is probably the rarest hawk species to see in Tennessee.

Migrating from the Arctic to the warmth of Tennessee in the winter, these elusive birds make up for less than 1% of total hawk sightings in the state. They are mostly seen perched on fence poles and telephone poles in open fields or hovering over open marshes. 

The rough-legged hawk is most distinctive for its appearance. Their name was aptly given after their fluffy feathered legs to keep them warm in their Arctic habitat.

They come in two morphs, light and brown, and mostly exhibit pale underwings with dark patches on their bellies. Their light undersides are ideal for blending in with their natural snowy habitats. 

When catching their prey, the rough-legged hawk will perch on tall poles before diving to unsuspecting prey, with their wings in a sharp V-shape formation. Their diet mostly consists of small animals like voles, rats, squirrels, and mice. 

Rough-legged hawks breed in the Arctic, and the successful breeding is generally due to the abundance of lemmings available, providing a good source of food for the chicks.

The male and female will build a nest on a cliff ledge away from potential predators, and the female will lay a clutch of 3-5 eggs. The female will predominantly be responsible for incubating, while the male hunts for food and protects the nest.