Discovering Hawks in Illinois: 9 Species (Guide + Pictures)




Hawks in Illinois

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Hawks in Illinois are a diverse group of majestic birds of prey that captivate both bird enthusiasts and nature lovers. With a rich variety of species, including the Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Northern Harrier, these aerial predators are an integral part of the state’s ecosystems. Known for their keen eyesight, powerful talons, and impressive hunting abilities, hawks play a crucial role in controlling populations of small mammals and birds.

From soaring high above open fields and woodlands to perching on tall trees and utility poles, these remarkable birds can be found across Illinois, making it a haven for hawk enthusiasts and birdwatchers alike.

List of Hawks in Illinois

  1. Red-Tailed Hawk: These hawks can be found throughout Illinois, including open fields, woodlands, and along highways.

  2. Cooper’s Hawk: Commonly seen in suburban areas and forested regions, Cooper’s Hawks are skilled hunters.

  3. Red-Shouldered Hawk: Preferring mature forests and wetland areas, Red-Shouldered Hawks are known for their distinctive calls.

  4. Broad-Winged Hawk: During migration season, Broad-Winged Hawks can be spotted in large numbers soaring over Illinois’ forests.

  5. Sharp-Shinned Hawk: These small hawks are frequently seen in woodlands and suburban areas, often near bird feeders.

  6. Swainson’s Hawk: A rare visitor to Illinois, Swainson’s Hawks can occasionally be spotted in open fields and farmlands during migration.

  7. Northern Harrier: Commonly found in marshes and open grasslands, Northern Harriers are skilled at hunting small mammals.

  8. Rough-Legged Hawk: These hawks prefer open habitats like fields and marshes, and are mostly seen in Illinois during the winter months.

  9. Northern Goshawk: A rare sight in Illinois, Northern Goshawks prefer mature forests and are more commonly found in northern Illinois.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red Tailed Hawk
Red Tailed Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo jamaicensis
Length 45–65 cm (18–26 in)
Wingspan110–141 cm (3 ft 7 in – 4 ft 8 in)
Weight690 to 1,600 g (1.5 to 3.5 lb)

The Red-Tailed Hawk is a bird of prey that is commonly found across North America. This adaptable raptor is known for its brick-red tail, which is most noticeable in adults from above or underneath. The diet of the Red-Tailed Hawk is very diverse, including small mammals like mice and squirrels, as well as birds and reptiles.

This hawk is often seen perched on poles or soaring in wide circles high above fields, forests, and highways. Its habitat is extremely varied, ranging from desert and scrublands to forests and tropical rainforests. Its call, a raspy, screaming kee-eeeee-arr, is often used in movies to represent any bird of prey.

Cooper’s Hawk

Coopers Hawk
Coopers Hawk 2
Scientific NameAccipiter cooperii
Length35 to 46 cm (14 to 18 in) /Female: 42 to 50 cm (17 to 20 in)
Wingspan 62 to 99 cm (24 to 39 in)
WeightMale: 280 g (9.9 oz) in 48/ Female: 473 g (1.043 lb)

Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey in the Accipiter genus, native to the North American continent. It’s named after the American naturalist William Cooper, and distinguished by its slate-gray back, red-barred chest, and rounded tail with broad white terminal band. It is similar in appearance to the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk, but can be differentiated by its larger size and rounded tail.

Inhabiting various types of woodland and forests, Cooper’s Hawks are agile predators known for their skill at chasing birds through trees, their primary prey being small to medium-sized birds. They also feed on small mammals and, less commonly, reptiles. They’re noted for their explosive flight pattern, consisting of a few rapid wingbeats followed by a short glide. Cooper’s Hawks nest in trees, and both parents share duties of incubating the eggs and raising the young. Their call is a distinctive, repetitive ‘cak-cak-cak’, often heard during courtship or when disturbed.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk
Red Shouldered Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo lineatus
Length15 to 23 in
Wingspan35 to 50 in
Weight1.21 lb- 1.5 lb

The Red-Shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey, belonging to the Buteo genus, prevalent in North America. It is characterized by its reddish-brown shoulder patches, from which it derives its name. Other distinctive features include its banded tail and translucent crescents near the wingtips that are visible during flight.

Red-Shouldered Hawks typically inhabit mixed woodlands, often near rivers and swamps, where they hunt for a variety of prey, including small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and occasionally other birds. Unlike some other hawk species, they are quite vocal, emitting a distinctive, repetitive whistle that often gives away their presence. These hawks build nests high in deciduous trees where they usually lay 2 to 4 eggs. The pairs are monogamous, often maintaining their bond for many years and defending their territories fiercely.

Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad Winged Hawk
Broad Winged Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo platypterus
Length13 to 17 in
Wingspan29 to 39 in
Weight9.3 to 19.8 oz

The Broad-winged Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey, belonging to the Buteo genus. It’s primarily found throughout the eastern United States and southern Canada, migrating long distances to Central and South America for the winter. The bird is named for its relatively broad wings, and it displays a characteristic white band on the tail, which is bordered by two darker bands.

Broad-winged Hawks inhabit deciduous forests and woodlands, where they primarily feed on small mammals, amphibians, insects, and occasionally birds. They are known for their distinctive soaring flight during migration, often traveling in large groups known as “kettles.” These hawks are monogamous and build nests high in trees where the female usually lays 1 to 3 eggs. Their call is a piercing, two-parted whistle, heard most frequently during the breeding season.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk 2
Scientific NameAccipiter striatus
Length23 – 30 cm
Wingspan17 to 23 in
Weight82 – 120 g

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest member of the Accipiter genus found in North America. Noted for its slender body and short, rounded wings, this hawk is characterized by its blue-gray back and barred orange or reddish underparts. The name “sharp-shinned” refers to the bird’s thin, pencil-like lower leg.

Sharp-shinned Hawks inhabit forests and woodlands, where they exhibit agility and stealth in hunting small birds, their primary food source, although they occasionally consume rodents and insects. They’re known for their impressive flight pattern involving quick, successive wingbeats followed by short glides. When it comes to nesting, they favor coniferous trees and both parents participate in raising their young. Their call, often heard during courtship or territory disputes, is a high-pitched, repetitive ‘kik-kik-kik’.

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainsons Hawk
Swainsons Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo swainsoni
Length17–22 in
Wingspan46–54 in
Weight1.8 lb – 2.5 lb

Swainson’s Hawk, a raptor in the Buteo genus, is recognized by its long wings and somewhat small bill. Named after British ornithologist William Swainson, this hawk is notable for its long-distance migration, travelling from its breeding grounds in North America to wintering areas in Argentina, one of the longest migratory journeys of any American raptor.

The diet of Swainson’s Hawks changes with the seasons. During the breeding season, they primarily feed on rodents and birds (burrowing owls if they are in abundance), while they shift to a diet of insects, especially grasshoppers and beetles, during migration and in their wintering grounds. They are also known for their soaring flight pattern and their distinctive two-part call that sounds like a plaintive whistle.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier 2
Scientific NameCircus hudsonius
Length41–52 cm (16–20 in)
Wingspan 97–122 cm (38–48 in)
WeightMale 10 to 26 ounces (280 to 730 g)
Female: 11 to 30 ounces (310 to 850 g)

The Northern Harrier is a bird of prey that belongs to the Circinae subfamily and stands out due to its distinctively owl-like facial disk, slender body, and long tail. This species exhibits a low and slow flying pattern when hunting, often skimming just above the ground of open fields and marshes. The males are predominantly gray, while the females and young are brown with streaks of white.

Northern Harriers primarily feed on small mammals and birds. Unique among hawks, these birds possess an owl-like trait of using auditory cues as well as visual ones to locate and catch prey. They’re also known for their polygynous breeding system, where a male may have up to five mates at once, each nesting in different locations within his territory.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough legged Hawk
Rough legged Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo lagopus
Length18–24 in
Wingspan47 to 60 in
Weight1.32 to 3.66 lb

The Rough-legged Hawk, also a member of the Buteo genus, is named for its feathered legs that are adapted to cold environments in its Arctic breeding grounds. Characterized by a wide variety of plumage, all individuals display a characteristic dark “wrist” patch on the underwing, and a white base to the tail. The light morphs are predominantly white and brown, while the dark morphs are more uniformly dark brown.

Rough-legged Hawks are known for their unique hovering flight behavior when hunting for small mammals, which make up a significant portion of their diet. During the breeding season, these hawks are found in the tundra of the Arctic, where they nest on cliffs or bluffs. In winter, they migrate to southern Canada and the northern United States, becoming one of the few raptors that can adjust well to the cold weather conditions.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawk 2
Scientific NameAccipiter gentilis
LengthMale: 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in) / Female: 58 to 69 cm (23 to 27 in)
Wingspan89 to 105 cm (35 to 41 in)/ Female: 108 to 127 cm (43 to 50 in)

The Northern Goshawk is a large bird of prey and the largest member of the Accipiter genus. Native to the Northern Hemisphere, it’s characterized by its slate-gray upperparts, finely barred underparts, and prominent white eyebrow stripe. The name “goshawk” originates from the Old English term for “goose hawk,” denoting the bird’s prowess at hunting large prey.

Northern Goshawks inhabit large, uninterrupted forests, where they are skilled hunters of a wide range of prey, including small mammals and medium to large birds. They are particularly agile fliers, often chasing prey through densely forested environments. These hawks are monogamous, with pairs often returning to the same nesting territory year after year. Their nests are built high in trees, and their breeding season is heralded by spectacular aerial displays and a loud, repetitive ‘kak-kak-kak’ call.

Best Places to Find Hawks in Illinois

  1. Shawnee National Forest: Explore the vast woodlands of Shawnee National Forest, where hawks can be spotted soaring above the dense canopies and open meadows.

  2. Mississippi River Valley: Head to the Mississippi River Valley for prime hawk-watching opportunities, as these majestic birds migrate along the river corridor and utilize its resources.

  3. Starved Rock State Park: With its towering sandstone bluffs and rich biodiversity, Starved Rock State Park offers a picturesque backdrop for observing hawks in their natural habitat.

  4. Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge: Visit Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, where the diverse habitats of wetlands, grasslands, and forests provide an ideal setting for encountering a variety of hawk species.

  5. Illinois Beach State Park: Located along the shores of Lake Michigan, Illinois Beach State Park attracts hawks during migration periods as they follow the lakefront and use thermals to gain altitude.

Hawks can be found throughout Illinois, from the southern forests to the northern lakefront areas. They are most commonly observed during their migration periods, which occur in spring and fall. During these times, hawks travel long distances, often utilizing updrafts and thermals to assist their flight.

Expanding your bird-watching journey beyond the prairies of Illinois, there’s much to discover in the neighboring states, each with their unique ecosystems and hawk populations. To the north, Wisconsin’s dense forests and sparkling lakes make for a stunning habitat for hawks; dive deeper with our guide on Wisconsin’s hawks. Heading west, the rolling hills and expansive farmlands of Iowa serve as home to a variety of these birds of prey; explore this in detail in Iowa hawks.

On the eastern front, Indiana’s diverse landscapes provide a vibrant backdrop for observing these fascinating birds; read more on Indiana’s hawks. Lastly, towards the south, the bluegrass state of Kentucky offers unique viewing opportunities for hawk enthusiasts; learn more in our overview of Kentucky’s hawks.

10 Fascinating Facts About Hawks in Illinois

  1. Unmatched Vision: Hawks have exceptional eyesight, with some species being able to spot prey from a distance of one mile or more.

  2. Migration Masters: Hawks in Illinois undertake remarkable long-distance migrations, traveling thousands of miles each year to reach their breeding and wintering grounds.

  3. Aerial Acrobats: Hawks are known for their agile flight and impressive aerial maneuvers, such as diving, soaring, and stooping, as they pursue prey or defend their territory.

  4. Diverse Diet: Hawks are opportunistic predators and feed on a variety of prey, including small mammals, birds, reptiles, and even insects.

  5. Distinctive Call: Each hawk species has its unique call, ranging from the high-pitched whistles of the Red-shouldered Hawk to the piercing screams of the Red-tailed Hawk.

  6. Nest Builders: Hawks construct large nests made of sticks and twigs, usually positioned high in trees or on cliffs, providing a secure platform for raising their young.

  7. Migratory Spectacle: Witnessing the mass migration of hawks, known as a “kettle,” where dozens or even hundreds of hawks soar together in a thermal, is a breathtaking sight in Illinois.

  8. Colorful Plumage: Hawks exhibit a wide range of plumage colors and patterns, from the striking red tail of the Red-tailed Hawk to the finely barred chest of the Cooper’s Hawk.

  9. Eyes in Front: Hawks have forward-facing eyes, providing them with excellent depth perception, essential for accurately judging distances during high-speed pursuits.

  10. Conservation Success: Efforts to protect and restore habitats in Illinois have contributed to the recovery of several hawk species, demonstrating the positive impact of conservation measures.

FAQS on Illinois Hawks

What is the most common hawk in Illinois?

The most common hawks in Illinois is the Red-tailed Hawk. These majestic raptors are frequently observed soaring over open fields, perched on telephone poles, or hunting from high vantage points. Their broad wings, reddish tails, and characteristic “kreeee” call make them a familiar sight and sound in the Illinois landscape.

What is the biggest hawk in Illinois?

The biggest hawk species in Illinois is the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). With a wingspan that can reach up to 4 feet, these impressive birds are known for their size and strength. They exhibit a range of color variations, from dark morphs with rich brown plumage to light morphs with pale underparts and reddish tails.

What is the smallest hawk in Illinois?

The smallest hawks in Illinois is the Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus). These agile and acrobatic hunters are known for their small size and quick flight. With a wingspan of around 2 feet, they specialize in preying on small birds and have adapted to maneuver through dense vegetation in pursuit of their prey.

When is breeding season for hawks in Illinois?

The breeding season for hawks in Illinois generally takes place from late winter to early summer, depending on the species. Most hawks engage in courtship displays, building nests, and raising their young during this time. It is a critical period for the survival and expansion of hawk populations in the state.

What do hawks eat in Illinois?

Hawks in Illinois have a varied diet that primarily consists of small mammals, such as mice, voles, ground squirrels and rabbits. They are also skilled avian hunters, targeting small to medium-sized birds like sparrows, mourning doves, and starlings. Additionally, hawks may feed on reptiles, amphibians, and insects when suitable prey is available in their habitat, but they do prefer to eat small mammals or other birds which are small.

What is the small GREY hawk in Illinois?

The small grey hawk in Illinois is the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). They have a distinctive grey plumage on their back and wings, with a lighter underbelly featuring fine horizontal bars. Cooper’s Hawks are known for their agile flight and are commonly found in Illinois, particularly in urban and suburban environments with tall trees. They are skilled hunters, preying on small birds and mammals, often visiting bird feeders to ambush their avian prey.

Are there Cooper’s Hawks in Illinois?

Yes, Cooper’s Hawks can be found in Illinois. They are medium-sized hawks with a strongly banded tail and broad wings. Their populations have adapted well to urban and suburban environments, where they take advantage of the abundance of prey, such as small birds and mammals. Their presence in Illinois adds to the diversity of hawk species in the state.

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