The phrase “they have eyes like a hawk” didn’t come from nowhere. These majestic birds of prey have incredible eyesight. They use their vision to spot prey from high above the ground.
The Lone Star state is no stranger to hawks. Texas is home to 14 hawk species that either migrate through the state or live there throughout the year.
We’ll be discussing every species of hawk you can find in Texas. To start with, let’s talk about what makes a hawk a hawk. Then, later in the article, we’ll discuss the hawks’ role in their ecosystems and what threats they face today.
What Qualifies a Bird as a Hawk?
The word hawk can describe different birds of prey. Most members of this group belong to the family Accipitridae, a family of birds with hooked bills. In the United States, “hawks” are divided into two groups: Buteo and Accipitrinae.
Accipitrinae is a subfamily that includes sparrowhawks, goshawks, and sharp-shinned hawks. This group tends to be smaller, with longer tails, and prefers woodland environments. They typically hunt by bursting from concealed positions on perches.
Buteo hawks have larger wings and smaller tails. They tend to hunt and live in more open areas. It allows them to swoop down on prey or chase them in fast horizontal bursts of speed.
The family Accipitridae includes hawks, buzzards, kites, harriers, and eagles. Many people use the term hawk to refer to any bird of prey that isn’t an eagle, such as calling an osprey a fish hawk.
For our article, we’ll be referring to any small or medium bird of prey in this family as a hawk. We’ll also be relying on known names instead of direct scientific classification.
With that sorted, it’s much easier to describe hawks. They’re birds of prey with large, rounded wings and long tails.
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14 Species of Hawks You’ll Find in Texas
1. Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Red-tailed hawks have a rich brown-colored back, a pale white underside, and a red tail. Their wingtips are dark and they have dark bands on their chests.
On average, adult female red-tailed hawks have a wingspan of between 44.9-52.4 in (114-133 cm). They stand between 19.7-25.6 in (50-65 cm) tall and weigh between 31.8-51.5 oz (900-1460 g).
They’re most often spotted flying in circular patterns high above open fields. They prefer the open country and don’t spend much time in thicker forests or swamps.
Red-tailed hawks mate for life, sticking with their partner until one of them dies. They’re very aggressive, often chasing eagles and other birds of prey like owls. Some groups are migratory, breeding in the north and wintering in southern regions. But many red-tailed hawks don’t migrate at all.
A red-tailed hawk’s diet is made up of small mammals such as voles, marmots, mice, rabbits, and squirrels. They’ll also prey on smaller birds, snakes, and carrion.
The call of a red-tailed hawk is the exact stereotypical bird of prey call you would expect. The shrill cry you hear in movies when a bird of prey is on screen is frequently the call of a red-tailed hawk.
2. White-tailed Hawk (Geranoaetus albicaudatus)
White-tailed hawks have a steel-gray back with brick-red bands on the shoulders. They have a pale white underside, a white tail, and a black band along their wingtips.
On average, adult white-tailed hawks have a wingspan between 50.4-51.6 in (128-131 cm). They stand between 18.1-20.5 in (46-52 cm) tall and weigh between 31.0-43.6 oz (880-1235 g).
White-tailed hawks are a coastal bird species. They’re found throughout coastal pastures, grasslands, and prairies. Texas, Mexico, and South America are where they prefer to be. They’re spotted hovering in the air or perched high above a field, scanning for prey items to swoop down on.
The mating pairs can last for many nesting seasons. They spend time flying, feeding, and defending their nests. Other birds build nests next to white-tailed hawk nests. That’s because it protects them from predators.
The bulk of a white-tailed hawk’s diet is small mammals like mice. But they will also eat small vertebrates and insects. This list of prey items is huge, from frogs and lizards to snakes and rabbits.
They’re also well-known for stealing prey from smaller birds, which are also prey.
White-tailed hawks have longer than average wings and tails. Juveniles have a larger tail than adults in proportion to their bodies.
3. Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)
The rough-legged hawk has narrow wings with dark black feather tips. They have a boldly patterned plumage with a dark brown back. Their pale undersides contain dark-colored spots or bands.
On average, adults usually have a wingspan that measures between 52.0-54.3 in (132-138 cm). They stand between 18.5-20.5 in (47-52 cm) tall and weigh between 25.2-49.4 oz (715-1400 g).
These hawks breed in the Arctic and migrate to warmer regions to feed. They stay in prairies, grasslands, deserts, and U.S. airports during the winter. They’re also found in wooded areas, but stay near openings in the forest such as bogs and clearings to hunt for prey.
Like some other hawk species, rough-legged hawks are monogamous. They stick together during the breeding season but spend the offseason hunting alone. Their nesting sites in the Arctic are on the sides of cliffs, but during winter they settle in trees or scrub.
In the Arctic, rough-legged hawks eat a wide variety of prey items. Gophers, hares, ground squirrels, lemmings, voles, and ptarmigans are all on the menu. While wintering, they eat more small mammals such as mice, shrews, and voles.
Rough-legged hawks are named for the feathers on their legs that extend to their toes. In fact, they’re one of three American raptors to have this trait. The other two are the Ferruginous Hawk and the Golden Eagle.
4. Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)
Ferruginous hawks have rust-colored legs and bands on their wings and chests. They have mottled brown or gray backs and bright white undersides.
On average, adult ferruginous hawks have a wingspan that measures between 52.4-55.9 in (133-142 cm). They stand between 22.1-27.2 in (56-69 cm) tall and weigh between 22.1-27.2 in (56-69 cm).
Many populations live year-round on both sides of the Rocky Mountains. Others migrate to more northern regions to breed. Like other hawks, they prefer open countries like prairies, deserts, and scrublands.
In the winter, ferruginous hawks roost in groups of up to twelve individuals. Sometimes, up to three birds share one nest.
Ferruginous hawks have a more restricted diet than other hawk species. They primarily feed on rabbits, hares, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and pocket gophers. Sometimes, they hop and run after prey instead of simply diving onto them from above.
Ferruginous hawks are the largest Buteo hawks in the United States. They’re also slightly larger than red-tailed hawks.
5. Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)
Zone-tailed hawks are grayish-black on their backs and undersides. They have white bars on their wing feathers and their completely black tail.
On average, adults have a wingspan that measures between 46.9-55.1 in (119-140 cm). They stand between 17.7-22.1 in (45-56 cm) tall and weigh between 29.8-33.0 oz (845-937 g).
Texas is part of their breeding area. Year-round populations can be found in parts of Mexico’s west coast and across South America. Their habitat can range from thick pine forests to open grasslands and deserts.
As their population grows, the species seems to be expanding northward. Sightings of these birds have been reported as far away as Nova Scotia and Virginia.
The diet of a ferruginous hawk is varied. They’re known to feed on mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and even fish. They tend to fly through canyons or along tree lines. This is to conceal themselves from prey before swooping in for a finishing blow.
This species will aggressively defend its territory. They can fend off large animals such as Golden eagles, larger hawks, and people. They look a lot like turkey vultures and even seem to mimic their behaviors.
6. Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Cooper’s Hawks are blue-gray on their backs with white plumage on their undersides. They have dark bands on their tails but reddish bands on their breasts.
On average, adult Cooper’s hawks have a wingspan of 29.5-35.4 in (75-90 cm). They stand between 16.5-17.7 in (42-45 cm) tall and weigh between 11.6-24.0 oz (330-680 g).
These hawks are found year-round throughout the continental United States. Migratory ones spend time in northern breeding grounds in Canada. They then head to southern feeding grounds in Mexico, and the warmest portions of the southern U.S.
Cooper’s hawks build their nests in pine, fir, oak, or spruce trees that surrounded by open ground. They’re incredibly agile, being able to fly through dense forest foliage with ease.
The majority of Cooper’s hawk’s diet consists of other bird. However, they prefer medium-sized birds to smaller ones. They’re also known to eat small mammals like chipmunks, mice, and squirrels.
One study found that 23% of Cooper’s hawks had healed bone fractures or breaks. This is thanks to their wild dashes through thick foliage to chase other birds. The chest and wishbone were the most common injuries.
7. Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
Red-shouldered hawks have rounded wings with a black and white checkered pattern. The rest of their body is a warm reddish-brown coat.
On average, adult red-shouldered hawks have a wingspan that measures between 37.0-43.7 in (94-111 cm). They stand between 16.9-24.0 in (43-61 cm) tall and weigh between 16.9-24.0 in (43-61 cm).
Year-round populations of red-shouldered hawks are found in the eastern United States. Some migratory groups head to breeding grounds in the north. They then travel to feeding grounds in Mexico.
While you can find these birds in open areas, they prefer high-topped forests. They also love flooded swamp forests and tall pine stands.
These hawks primarily feed on small mammals, lizards, snakes, and amphibians. Toads, crayfish, and small birds can also end up on their menu. Most of the time, they watch for prey to emerge, then swoop down and snatch it up before returning to the trees.
Crows and red-shouldered hawks often fight each other. They tend to steal food from each other and defend their respective territories. They are also known to team up against the larger great-horned owl to drive it away from their nests.
8. Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
Sharp-shinned hawks have slate-gray plumage on their backs and light feathers underneath. They have narrow, light orange bars on their chests.
On average, an adult sharp-shinned hawk has a wingspan that measures between 16.9-22.1 in (43-56 cm). They stand between 9.4-13.4 in (24-34 cm) tall and weigh between 3.1-7.7 oz (87-218 g).
In Texas, you won’t find them year-round, as the area is their wintering feeding grounds. Their breeding range stretches well into the Arctic regions of Canada. Non-migratory groups are found in the Midwest, the Rockies, Mexico, and South America.
Most of their time is spent in dense forests at all elevations. But they can also be found near bird feeders in suburban areas.
Their hunting behavior is much like the Cooper’s hawk. They dash after prey through dense areas of foliage. Sharp-shinned hawks prefer to burst from a dense pocket in the forest where they’re hidden.
Up to 90% of the bird’s diet is made of songbirds, but they will go after birds of all sizes. The rest of their diet consists of small rodents like mice, with the occasional insect mixed in.
Unlike owls, they pluck the feathers of their prey before eating them.
9. Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)
Swainson’s hawks have very varied color schemes. However, most of them have lighter bellies with brown chests. Their best-identifying feature is the white wing linings contrasting their black flight feathers.
On average, an adult will weigh between 24.4-48.2 oz (693-1367 g) and stand between 18.9-22.1 in (48-56 cm) tall.
Swainson’s hawks are highly migratory. They breed in North America from Alaska to northern Mexico. Their wintering feeding grounds are in South America.
Their preferred habitat includes prairies and grasslands. But they’ve adjusted well to hunting above farms. They tend to nest in small stands of trees.
During their breeding season, the majority of their diet consists of mammals. Squirrels, mice, gophers, voles, and rabbits are preferred food items. Their diet changes regionally to include insects, birds, and small animals.
Migrating flocks of Swainson’s hawks number in the tens of thousands. They frequently mix in with other birds like turkey vultures.
10. Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)
Broad-winged hawks have red or brown heads and barred undersides. Their wings have brown bordering and their tails have black and white bands.
On average, an adult broad-winged hawk will have a wingspan of 31.9-39.4 in (81-100 cm). They stand between 13.4-17.3 in (34-44 cm) tall and weigh between 9.3-19.8 oz (265-560 g).
The year-round populations of broad-winged hawks stay in the Caribbean and Cuba. Migrating populations spend winters in South America. Their breeding grounds are in the northern United States and Canada.
These hawks spend most of their time on the edges of dense forests. They tend to stay away from urban and suburban environments. That’s because they prefer the peace of being far away from people.
The diet of a broad-winged hawk can vary but is generally made up of small mammals, amphibians, and insects. Typically, their hunting method is to watch for prey from a perch and swoop down to snatch it in their talons.
During migrations, these hawks travel an average of 69 miles per day. This adds up to a total trip distance of 4,350 miles. Once at their destination, they tend to stay in a one-square-mile area.
11. Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
Harris’s hawks are generally dark brown over most of their bodies. They have white rears and white bars on their tails and underwings.
On average, an adult Harris’s hawk has a wingspan of 40.5-46.9 in (103-119 cm). They stand between 18.1-23.2 in (46-59 cm) tall and weigh between 18.2-31.0 oz (515-880 g).
In North America, you’ll find these hawks in the southwestern regions of the continent. This includes Texas, Arizona, and Mexico, where these populations stick around all year.
The natural habitat of Harris’s hawks is semi-open desert scrubland. They love to nest in high perches of trees, atop power poles, or on boulders, but can also live among taller cacti.
Medium-sized mammals such as hares and rodents are their primary prey target. They’re also known to take down other birds like quail and reptiles like lizards.
Many of these hawks hunt in groups instead of alone. They seem to have a higher success and survival rate than loners when they stick to groups of two or more.
12. Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus)
Gray hawks, as the name implies, are mostly light gray. They have finely barred chests and prominent bars on their tails.
On average, an adult gray hawk has a wingspan that measures 35 in (88.9 cm). They stand between 15 in (38.1 cm) tall and weigh between 13.8-16.6 oz (391-470 g).
This tropical hawk species only spends part of the year in North America. During its breeding season, it doesn’t go very far into Texas and Arizona. They tend to stay near cottonwood trees that are along rivers when they come this far north.
Habitat-wise, they adapt well to a variety of regions. They prefer spending time in rainforests, open deserts, and grasslands.
The vast majority of a gray hawk’s diet is made up of reptiles, especially lizards. Snakes, toads, and small birds can also end up on their menu.
13. Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
Northern goshawks have gray plumage and bars on their undersides. You can identify them by the dark stripe that goes over their eyes.
On average, an adult northern goshawk has a wingspan that measures between 40.5-46.1 in (103-117 cm). They stand between 20.9-25.2 in (53-64 cm) tall and weigh between 22.3-48.1 oz (631-1364 g).
Stable populations of northern goshawks are found throughout the Rocky Mountains and Canada. They sometimes migrate south to find better feeding grounds.
The northern goshawk prefers old-growth forests with a mostly closed canopy. Thick tree lines make great nesting sites for them. They also build their nests near trails or open breaks in the canopy.
This species feeds on birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and sometimes carrion. You can find their plucking perches by looking for stray piles of feathers on the forest floor.
14. Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius)
Northern harriers tend to be grayish above and pale below with darkened wingtips. They’re easily spotted from far away thanks to their white rump patch.
On average, an adult northern harrier has a wingspan of 40.2-46.5 in (102-118 cm). They stand between 18.1-19.7 in (46-50 cm) tall, and weigh between 10.6-26.5 oz (300-750 g).
Year-round populations of northern harriers live across the middle of the United States. Migrating populations head to Canada for the summer breeding season. They winter in southern areas like Texas, Florida, or Mexico.
Wetlands, marshes, and thick grasslands are the preferred habitat of northern harriers. In the winter, they shift to areas with low vegetation. This includes deserts, tundras, cropland, and coastal sand dunes.
Northern harriers fly close to the ground and eat a variety of small animals. They’re one of the only hawks to rely primarily on hearing to help them hunt prey.
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Hawk’s Roles in Ecosystems
The biggest role for hawks to play in an ecosystem is to control populations of smaller animals. Their diet includes small to medium mammals, insects, small reptiles, amphibians, and fish.
This control also extends to other bird species. No matter the hawk’s role, they are crucial to every ecosystem they are part of.
In many ecosystems, hawks are a keystone species because of their significant impact. Without them, small mammal populations would explode. This explosion can cause an imbalance in the ecosystem, making it collapse entirely.
One could also consider hawks apex predators within ecosystems. That isn’t to say they have no challengers.
Other bird species like crows will mob them and force hawks out of their territory. However, adult hawks are rarely a target for other species.
Great horned owls, larger hawks, eagles, and raccoons are the only species to prey on hawks. Most of the time, this happens to young individuals that can’t defend themselves or escape.
Large predators largely leave hawks alone. This is either because hawks can fly away or their nesting sites are out of reach.
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Human and Hawk Interactions
Hawks aren’t known for attacking humans. They aren’t really considered dangerous for people to be around. While they may mob someone too close to their nest, they aren’t equipped to kill people. Usually, they just avoid people by flying away.
That isn’t to say there isn’t a strong relationship between humans and members of the hawk family.
For millennia, Native Americans used red-tailed hawks for falconry. Falconry is a very old practice in which people train birds of prey and use them to hunt for game.
Today, suburban areas are reasonably good places for hawks to live. There’s plenty of open space for them to scout out rodents around human settlements. Usually, if people are around, there’s plenty of food for hawks.
This extends to agricultural land. Most farmland is a vast amount of open space. This attracts all kinds of small mammals, which serves as the perfect place for hawks to hunt.
Backyard bird feeders can also be a magnet for attracting hawks. They aren’t interested in the birdseed though. Instead, the bird feeder is a place for small and medium birds to congregate. This brings in hawk species that consider these animals perfect prey.
Humans benefit from hawks reducing the populations of pest species. Meanwhile, hawks benefit from having good places to hunt and strong nesting sites.
Typically, the relationship between hawks and humans benefits both. Neither one actively hunts the other, while each removes a problem for the other one. Unfortunately, human activity isn’t always a good thing for raptors, which we’ll cover in the next section.
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Potential Threats to Hawk Populations
Threats to hawk populations can vary based on region, species, and natural behaviors. They often face natural threats such as harsh weather, natural disasters, and predation. But threats from human activity cause the most harm to a population.
Hawk numbers are declining mainly as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation. Many species can survive in suburban and rural environments. However, changes in the landscape aren’t a good thing.
Animals that prefer old-growth forests are running out of habitat as those areas are cut down. Due to landscape changes, birds lose their landmarks and migration patterns are altered. Even minor habitat damage can cause issues.
Many of the hawks’ preferred prey species feed on native plant seeds. But when non-native species out-compete those plants, the prey species are also affected. And when the prey population declines, so do the hawks’.
Poisoning is another issue that plagues many predatory birds. Most cases are indirect, meaning there aren’t many people purposefully poisoning birds. However, it has been a huge problem in the past and persists today.
Pesticides, chemicals, and heavy metals don’t stay where people put them. They end up in water systems as runoff or dumped as waste. When this happens, these problematic materials enter the food chain.
The best way to explain is by using mercury as an example. Mercury enters the oceans as runoff from industrial plants or other sources.
In the water, it’s absorbed by microscopic creatures in small amounts. Larger creatures like shrimp eat these, which are eaten by larger animals like fish. These fish are then eaten by larger animals like sharks.
The farther up the food chain you go, the more mercury ends up in an individual.
Similarly, birds of prey are at risk of the same. They also feed on carcasses shot by hunters, whether it be deer, birds, or nuisance species. This can lead to lead poisoning in many raptors.
Man-made structures may provide a place for hawks to nest, but they also pose severe hazards. Hawks often collide with structures such as telephone poles, vehicles, airplanes, and turbines.
They also like perching on power poles. But this puts them at risk of electrocution if they touch the wrong areas. Birds with larger wingspans tend to be more susceptible to this during takeoff.
The impact of climate change is currently an unknown factor for birds of prey. It’s likely that migration patterns, natural ranges, and their place in the food chain will all change.
More research is needed to fully understand climate change’s effects on hawks.
Discover more hawk species in different states on the links below: