Hawks belong to the family Accipitridae, which includes a wide range of bird species commonly called raptors. They are birds of prey. Other examples of raptors include eagles, falcons, and even owls species.
Throughout this article, we are taking a deep dive into the various species of hawks. We examine their classification system, life cycle, species risks, and what sets them apart from the other raptors.
Types of Hawks and Their Classification
The common name ‘hawk’ can be quite confusing for people since it is quite vague. In addition, using the word hawk doesn’t always refer to the same kinds of species around the world.
For example, in most of the world, the word and its translations only refer to certain members of the Accipitridae family. However, in America, species in the Buteo family are also called hawks, even though they are more commonly called ‘buzzards’ in other parts of the world.
We will start with those species more widely regarded as hawks, the accipitrine hawks. These birds primarily live in woodland habitats, so they are placed in broader groups of ‘wood hawks.’
The Accipiter group contains the subfamily Accipitridae. Within this subfamily, six genera help to differentiate the various raptor species. Most of these contain primarily hawk species. They include:
The other groups of hawks that some of our species include come from the Buteo group. This group includes four genera associated with hawks or the ‘hawk-buzzards’ within the group. These genera currently include:
The other debatable genus of hawks is the Buteogallus genus. These are mainly called hawks with the exception of the species of solitary eagles that also fall into the genus.
How Do Hawks Differ from Other Raptors Like Eagles and Falcons?
The common names for these birds don’t necessarily have any scientific connotation. That means that there is only a little actual scientific distinction between birds called hawks, eagles, falcons, and even buzzards in common tongues.
You can place all these birds in similar scientific genera and groups. The significant difference between them is their general shape and size. For example, eagles tend to have wedge-shaped tails and are much larger than hawks and falcons. They also tend to have longer wingspans than eagles.
Hawks have a similar appearance to eagles, but the wings of a hawk tend to be more rounded. Their tails are generally broad, rounded, and shorter with a stocky build. Falcons species are generally around the same size as hawks, but their wings and tails tend to be longer and pointed.
The Life Cycle of a Hawk
The life cycle of a hawk is very similar to that of any other bird species. The life cycle is essentially the same for almost any species of hawk. We will use one of the more common species in North America as our example.
Red-tailed hawks tend to breed from March to May. Both males and females perform aerial displays starting in early March. Hawks tend to mate for life, so the younger hawks primarily put on these displays. Pairs of hawks might still put on these theatrical displays of affection during the mating season, though.
Once the mating displays have been satisfactorily finished, the nest needs to get built. The nests are typically built between 35 and 75 feet off the ground. They typically use large forks in trees and sometimes telephone poles to build nests that are large and shallow. Males and females work on their nests together and often continue to use them year after year.
Females will lay eggs during the summer after they finish building their nest. They usually lay two bluish-white eggs covered in splotches of brown and red. They have a 4-week incubation period.
The new hawks hatch blind. They are covered in white down. The hatchlings will stay in the nest with their parents between 44 and 48 days before they fledge. Fledging means that they learn to fly. Although the hatchlings grow slowly, they will get nearly as large as adults within the last ten days before fledging.
The next stage of a hawk’s life is the juvenile stage after they fledge. It can take hawks between 18 months to a full three years before they mature sexually. During this period, they learn how to hunt, often eating road-killed animals before figuring out how to kill on their own.
The average lifespan of most hawks is between 13 and 25 years. It depends on their species and the impact of climate change on their native habitat. If they are kept in captivity, they can live for much longer. The oldest known hawk was a Red-tailed Hawk who was 30 years and 8 months old when he died, recorded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The Impact of Climate Change and Environmental Risks to Hawks
The primary concern for birds of prey and how they will be impacted by climate change is their food supply. For example, many larger birds of prey that live on the west coast rely on salmon consumption. However, with the warming temperatures, the salmon’s migratory patterns begin to change, influencing when the food supply is available to wintering hawks and eagles.
Another risk is their habitat. Their mating grounds are one of the most important. The failure of certain tree species in the forests they often use is a significant factor. Another is the earlier budding caused by earlier warm temperatures in the year than normal, causing issues with nest stability.
We also see an impact on the migration patterns of hawks. They have largely begun to migrate earlier, which has bumped up their entire yearly cycle. As a result, they tend to breed and lay their eggs much earlier in the year.
The chicks hatching earlier increases their chances of premature death from non-standard frosts. Food scarcity due to bad weather earlier in the year also increases the risk of nest failure.
The continued intensive use of pesticides in fields within birds of prey’s natural habitat has a severe effect on the birds. If you know that you have species of hawks, eagles, or owls that nest in your surrounding area, it would be better to use organic means of weed control during their nesting season, if not all year round.
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22 Different Types of Hawk Species
More than 200 species of hawks belong to the Accipitridae family alone. However, when you factor in the species that belong to other families, there are more than 400 potential species of hawks.
We have pulled out the most well-known and prolific species out of these 400. That includes members from all the potential bird families that include hawk species. These 22 birds can be found worldwide, although many of them have focused populations in North America.
1. Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Many hawks are named for unique features on their tails. Many of these characteristics can be best seen when they are in flight. The Red-Tailed Hawk is no different. This hawk has a distinctive red tint to the underside of its tail feathers.
The Red-Tailed Hawk is the most prevalent species within the United States. Therefore, if you see a hawk almost anywhere in North America, it is likely to be this one. However, it will be much easier to identify it if you see it flying.
Other than the tail, the rest of their plumage isn’t very consistent. It can range from white to almost black. The hawk prefers to breed in the more northern reaches of North America. It migrates from the south of the United States and the north of Mexico into Canada. It will stay up north for most of the summer and migrate back down south for the winter.
Part of the reason that Red-Tailed Hawks are the most dominant species in North America is their adaptability. They are comfortable in different kind of habitats, from pastures to rainforests, woodlands, and scrublands.
2. Rough-Legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)
The Rough-Legged Hawk is much less common than its cousin, the Red-Tailed Hawk. These birds are debatably hawks and are called Rough-Legged Buzzards and Rough-Legged Falcons.
These birds spend their summers in their Arctic tundra, where they primarily live. They also breed in the tundra, meaning you will rarely see them in the rest of North America. These hawks move into the continental United States after migrating south from the Tundra throughout the winter.
The Rough-Legged Hawk is a chunky bird. You can identify them from a distance by their unique hunting style. While they hunt, they hover in the air facing the wind as they search for food. They are one of the only birds of prey that can hover in place.
Another identifier is the feathers that extend down to their feet, an adaptation to keep them warm during the cold months in the tundra.
3. Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus)
The Common Black Hawk might be common in certain portions of North America. However, you will rarely see it in the United States and never in Canada. Instead, this hawk makes its home on the coastline of Mexico and Central America. It lives there year-round as its diet is mainly dependent on seafood like different types of crabs, eggs, and insects.
The only time this bird might be seen in the United States is during its breeding season. You might see it move up into Texas, New Mexico, Califrnia, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Arizona.
These birds have a wingspan up to 50 inches (127 centimeters). It typically weighs between 22 and 46 ounces (630 and 1300 gm), making it a larger bird for a hawk.
4. Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
This beautiful hawk is relatively easy to identify, but more often than not, you will be able to hear it long before you see it. It gives a call that sounds like it’s saying “kee-ahh.” This hawk is named for its red shoulders. The coloring is so distinctive because of the barred black and white markings across its tail and wings.
The Red-Shouldered Hawk makes its home throughout most of the eastern half of the United States. However, some smaller populations live along the western coastline. Although they make their home in these spots year-round, they have moved into southeastern Canada during their breeding season.
Red-Shouldered Hawks prefer to live in forested habitats with an open upper canopy. However, they have also been frequently found in wooded, suburban areas, particularly during winter. Their diet consists of variety of lizards, snakes, small mammals, and amphibians for the most part.
5. Pale Chanting Goshawk (Melierax canorus)
The Pale Chanting Goshawk has a highly extensive range throughout most of Africa. Its adaptability means it is easy to make a home in the savanna, arid scrubland, and even desert regions.
These birds might sometimes swoop down to catch their prey. However, their best-known hunting habit involves running on the ground to catch spiders, lizards, and insects. They are also quite competitive with other birds of prey, following them and attacking them to eat what they just caught.
These opportunistic birds are beautiful, with a pewter-colored body and fine black and white barring across their legs and underbody. It is easily identifiable by its flashy orange legs and beak. It even has a melodious song, another unique feature for a hawk.
6. Sharp-Shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is one of the smallest accipiter hawks in North America. They have an extensive range and are incredibly adept hunters. They have gray-blue plumage across their heads, backs, and wings. Their underparts are speckled with white and deep orange.
They live throughout most of North America, into Central and South America. They spend their breeding season in Canada, Alaska, and the lower 48 states. Then, during the winter, they migrate down into the southern US into Mexico and Central and South America. You may even find them in the Caribbean.
These hawks are one of the smallest breeds that hunt small birds. They are called sharp-Shinned hawks because of the way they use their talons and shins to pluck the birds before they eat them.
7. Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)
The Ferruginous Hawk gained its name because of its plumage color. ‘Ferruginous’ refers to something that is reddish-brown or rust-colored. This hawk also happens to be the largest Buteo species in North America. They can weigh up to 5 pounds (2,270 gm) with a wingspan up to 60 inches (1.5 meters).
These hawks live on the western half of North America in similar regions no matter what time of year it is. They often roost in groups of between six and twelve hawks during the winter. They are also incredibly adaptable nesters, willing to build their nest on anything from the ground to a rocky outcropping over a thousand-foot drop.
These birds have a somewhat limited diet because of how large they are. They mainly eat small mammals, capturing them by flying and swooping down on them or hopping along the ground. There are two color variations of this hawk, light, and dark.
8. Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus)
You might be able to imagine what the gray hawk looks like simply from its name. It is primarily grey with a striped black and white tail. Its beak and legs are both part yellow and part grey. These hawks prefer to live in tropical areas in Central America and are very infrequently seen in any part of the United States.
Gray Hawks primarily feed on lizards. Their range throughout Central America, Mexico and Southern Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico means plenty of them to choose from. They prefer to wait in tree canopies until they spot their prey.
Their distinctive call is the only way to pick them out of their preferred hunting spots quickly. It is a 3-note whistle that sounds like the noises ‘kah-lee-oh.’ They use their call while looking for mates and defining their territories.
9. Rufous Crab Hawk (Buteogallus aequinoctialis)
The Rufous Crab Hawk lives in a specific area and isn’t highly adaptable in territory or diet. They prefer crabs that live in the mangroves along the coastline of Venezuela to southern Brazil. Although there is also fossil evidence they once inhabited the Caribbean basin, you cannot find them there now.
These birds of prey hunt by swooping from branches to the ground as crabs enter or exit their burrows. They have a hooked bill to shell them before they eat. You can often see them flying over mudflats to spot the movement of colonies of crabs.
The Rufous Crab Hawk is near threatened since it has suffered extreme population decline due to the degradation of its mangrove habitat. This has decreased the number of birds each year seen performing their dramatic in-flight courtship rituals in the spring.
10. Black-Faced Hawk (Leucopternis melanops)
The Black-Faced Hawk looks almost like it could have been a cartoon character at one point, drafted into reality. This small hawk has black wings speckled with white, a banded tail, and a bright white underbody. Its legs and beak are orange.
The most noticeable thing about this bird has been highlighted by its name. It looks like it is wearing a mask over its eyes, taking the shape of a black stripe that runs from the back of its head until it touches the beak.
This is another bird that prefers to live in the mangroves and rainforests of South America. It is somewhat rare to see them flying since they are known to perch patiently below the tree canopy. From there, they swoop out to grab snakes and amphibians. Although their habitat is decreasing, they are still considered a Least Concern species according to the IUCN.
11. Ridgeway’s Hawk (Buteo ridgwayi)
The Ridgeway’s Hawk has one of the smallest habitat distributions of all the hawks. They are found only on Hispaniola, a small Caribbean island. It is one of the most critically endangered birds of prey globally.
Their critical decreases in number are due to deforestation, a continual lack of food, and the presence of the botfly larvae. These larvae eat offspring in the hawks’ nest before they have time to grow old enough to combat them. As a result, there are intensive programs to save this hawk.
One of the unique aspects of these hawks is their nesting behavior. They tend to build their nests directly on top of the nest of the palmchat. The palmchat is a smaller bird in the waxwing family and the Dominican Republic’s national bird. This behavior ends up creating a two-species, two-story nest that both birds use.
12. Hawaiian Hawk (Buteo solitarius)
The Hawaiian Hawk is another species with a small habitat area. They only live on the Big Island in Hawaii and are now the only remaining endemic hawk species. In the Hawaiian language, this familiar species is simply called the ‘lo.
Although this hawk’s range isn’t expansive, it still does quite well for itself. Its population has rebounded in the last couple of decades, moving it from a Vulnerable species to a Near Threatened status.
These birds typically only lay one egg. They are highly territorial and protect their area all year round, never migrating or moving far. They often hunt from a stationary position, diving into action once they see their prey.
13. Short-Tailed Hawk (Buteo brachyurus)
The Short-Tailed Hawk is a body shape and size more reminiscent of a falcon than a hawk, largely because of its shorter tail. These birds prefer tropical climates. They make their home in Central and South America, coming up to breed into Florida at some points. They are also increasingly showing up near the Mexico-Arizona border.
The population of the Short-Tailed Hawk is widespread. However, those found in America are yet small in number. There are thought only to be about 500 hawks total in the Florida region.
These hawks have a relatively unique diet and hunting pattern. They almost exclusively eat small birds. They capture them by flying very high and plummeting down to catch them while flying or perched in trees. Their success rate as hunters is only about 10%.
14. Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
Harris’s Hawk makes its home in the southwest United States. They are very social birds and are easier to spot because they tend to stay in groups. They even utilize complex social hierarchies to establish order within these group systems.
Harris’s Hawks live in large groups and hunt together using cooperative hunting strategies. They work together to make the kill, and, once made, they feed in order of their group dominance.
These birds do not migrate and make their home in the southern United States and throughout Mexico. However, they are highly territorial and almost seem to have the mindset of ‘owning’ their territory, which is often in desert lowlands next to a water source.
These hawks are average size for a hawk species. They can have a wingspan up to 48 inches (122 cm) and weigh about 2 pounds (900 gm).
15. Crested Goshawk (Accipiter trivirgatus)
The Crested Goshawk can be found flying throughout most of tropical Asia. They have a dramatic crest on the back of their head, which is how they got their name. Their heads and upper wings are gray-brown. Their underparts are covered in vertical streaks and horizontal bars of white and brown.
These birds do not migrate. Instead, they are territorial and choose an area where they will stay for the rest of their lives. They hunt throughout lowland forests for birds, small mammals, and reptiles.
Small populations live higher in elevation, such as in the Himalayan foothills located in India and Bhutan. However, they are also increasingly moving into wooded urban areas in countries with dense populations like Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore.
16. Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
The Cooper’s Hawk is an incredibly prolific species found all over the United States and Mexico. They will move slightly farther north than their typical territory to breed and often move further south during the winter.
The Cooper’s Hawk is a stunning bird and looks very similar to the Sharp-Shinned Hawk. However, since most of their territory overlaps, it can be challenging to determine which of the two you are seeing. One of the only significant differences is their size. A Cooper’s Hawk is much larger than the Sharp-Shinned, standing anywhere from two to six inches taller than its smaller counterpart.
Many people don’t like having this bird around since they primarily feed on songbirds. They will often find bird feeders or popular areas for songbirds to roost and attack them there. If you notice one eating all your birds from your bird feeder, try taking it down for a while to force them to look for food in different locations.
17. Zone-Tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)
Zone-Tailed Hawks are sleek, primarily black hawks that make their home in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America. They look very similar to turkey vultures and even have similar flying patterns.
This mimicry is an evolutionary adaptation that helps them sneak up on live prey since turkey vultures are scary-looking but prefer dead meat and therefore aren’t a threat to living animals.
Due to climate change, these hawks have been slowly expanding their populations northward further into the US. Their American populations have been growing since the 1990s.
18. Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)
Swainson’s Hawk is a common raptor in the United States and Mexico. They distinctively belong to the West, with their migration and breeding grounds ending abruptly before they get to the Mississippi River. There is also a tiny pocket population that lives in the southern tip of Florida.
There are two color varietals of this hawk. They can either be light with mostly bright undersides or dark, covered in a deep brown.
This species of hawk migrates further than almost any other species. They fly into the United States and even up into Canada in April and spend the summer there. They breed, raise their young, and gear up for the trip back. Finally, they begin the long-distance trip back to Argentina at the end of August into September, covering about 6,000 miles in only a couple of months.
Because of this long-distance trip, some of the hawks can’t make it around the Gulf of Mexico and end up spending their winters in South Florida. You can generally tell when the species begin to migrate because you can see thousands of raptors soaring together in a river of birds.
19. Northern Goshawk (Accipter gentilis)
The Northern Goshawk makes its home in higher latitudes than most other birds on our list. This is because they prefer to live far away from civilization and are pretty secretive and hard to spot.
The birds have slate gray coloring on their upper wings and tails. Their underbodies are banded grey and white with a stripe of white just above their eyes. Their most distinctive quality is their dark-colored head paired with deep red eyes.
There are Northern Goshawks that live across most of the United States. They will often live in Canada and the Arctic tundra during the summers only to migrate into the U.S. in search of food during the coldest months of the year. They are opportunistic hunters that are happy to eat a wide variety of food.
20. White-Tailed Hawk (Geranoaetus albicaudatus)
The White-Tailed Hawk is a stunning example of a hawk species. They are primarily grey with rusty shoulders similar to the Red-Shouldered Hawk. They are about the same size as the Red-Tailed Hawk but have a bright white underside to their tail instead with a black band at the end.
These hawks are commonly seen in southern Texas, somewhat close to the Gulf of Mexico. Otherwise, you will see them along the coastline in Mexico. They prefer to live in open prairies and grasslands.
There are a couple of notably interesting characteristics these hawks have. For example, they almost exclusively eat small mammals. Some songbird species use this for protection, sticking close to the White-Tailed Hawk to stay safe from other predators.
Another is that they have a habit when building their nest of placing one long stick into the bottom of their nest. No one has yet figured out if this serves any purpose or why they do it.
21. African Harrier Hawk (Polyboroides typus)
The African Harrier Hawk lives throughout almost all of sub-Saharan Africa. They prefer higher elevations up to 10,000 feet (3,048 m). These are the largest hawks in Africa at about 26 inches (66 cm) in length and a mass of about 1.4 pounds (635 g).
The African Harrier Hawk is light gray all over its body and wings. They have a black tail with a white band and light barring on their breasts. They also have yellow skin around their eyes, making them appear more like buzzards than hawks.
However, they do not eat dead carcasses. Instead, they have double-jointed knees that allow them to hang upside down from trees to catch their prey. This is helpful because of how certain animals build their burrows and nests.
22. Broad-Winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)
The final hawk on our list is the Broad-Winged Hawk. This bird has a petite body with stock wings that make it easy to live life in the forested habitats they prefer. They are another bird that prefers to live privately, away from the prying eyes of humans. They stay in the deep woods and rarely be seen in urbanized areas.
These birds make their home across most Eastern United States and up into most Southern Canada. They fly into Central and South America during the winters, performing epic migrations where they travel over 4,000 miles just one way, pulling off the trip twice each year.
While migrating, the birds form large groups of thousands, called a kettle. During their migration periods, you can often see them traveling long distances by the thousands.
Interesting Facts about Hawks
There are many species of hawks, each of which has different diets, hunting patterns, calls, and plumage variations. However, there are some pretty interesting facts about birds that we class as hawks as a whole and some generalizations to help you understand their fascinating characteristics.
1. The world’s largest hawk is the Ferruginous Hawk.
The Ferruginous Hawk is the largest hawk in the world. You can find them flying above North America, Central America, and portions of South America. They can occupy such a large swath of the world because they are highly adaptable to a range of habitats.
The Ferruginous Hawk has a body length between 22.7 and 27.6 inches (55-70 cm). Their weight is a whopping 2.15 to 4.57 pounds (975-2072 gm). Even their wingspan is impressive at 52 to 56.3 inches (132 to 143 cm).
Ferruginous Hawks eat the standard diet of most hawks. However, because of their size, they can also eat wild turkeys and prairie chickens, much larger prey than the typical hawk.
2. The smallest North American hawk is the Sparrowhawk.
There are likely smaller hawks in other parts of the world. However, in North America, the Sparrowhawk is the smallest species. They live throughout most of North America and Central America. Compared to the Ferruginous Hawk, they seem pretty tiny.
These hawks only weigh between 2.8 and 5.8 ounces (80 to 165 gm) with a wingspan of 19.7 to 24.4 inches (50-62 cm). Their entire body averages between 8.27 and 12.6 inches long (21 to 32 cm).
3. Hawks eat almost any snake, small mammal, fish, bird, and amphibian.
Most hawks are what we would call opportunistic hunters. They might have foods they prefer eating but will be happy to hunt and eat almost anything nearby and the right size for them to catch.
4. Some hawk species migrate more than 6,000 miles in a year.
The Swainson’s Hawk is one of the species in North America that flies the furthest. This bird of prey prefers to spend its summers in the northern United States and southern Canada. Then, they turn around for the winter and head back down to South America.
5. Hawk babies are called ‘eyas,’ and a group of hawks is a ‘kettle.’
A baby hawk is called an ‘eya’ until they are old enough to fly. When they can’t leave the nest, they are cared for by their parents. The male hawk is called a tierce, and female hawks are called hens.
Most hawks are solitary creatures. However, when they migrate, they often form groups. A large group of hawks is most commonly known as a kettle. They might also be called a cast or an aerie in other parts of the world.
6. Hawks can see up to five times better than humans.
The vision of a hawk has to be incredible to facilitate their hunting from heights. Hawks have what we call binocular vision, making it easier for them to quickly focus on a single object far away with both of their eyes. They have keener eyesight than humans, having up to five times better vision than a typical human.
Beyond their exceptional ability to focus well, they also have keen color perception. They can easily see the green from red and blue, making them stand out among many other animals.
7. Female hawks tend to be about 25% larger than male hawks.
Females tend to be larger than males because of the additional energy they need to produce eggs. As a result, they can be anywhere from 25 to 30% larger than their male counterparts.