10 Amazing Hawks in Iowa (Spotter’s Guide + Pictures)




Hawks in Iowa

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In the open skies of Iowa, some of nature’s most impressive aviators command the air – the hawks. Here, you’ll not only learn to identify them by species but also discover their preferred habitats and unique behaviors.

Accompanied by captivating pictures, this spotter’s guide ensures you’re fully equipped to appreciate and understand the dynamic lives of these remarkable birds.

Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or a nature enthusiast dipping your toe into the world of raptors, get ready to embark on an exciting journey into the world of hawks in Iowa.

Quick Summary of Types of Hawks in Iowa

  1. Red-tailed Hawk – Iowa’s most commonly sighted hawk. It prefers open areas and can often be seen perched on roadside poles or soaring over fields and woods.
  2. Northern Harrier – Frequently found in Iowa, particularly in marshes, grasslands, and open fields where they can be seen flying low while hunting.
  3. Cooper’s Hawk – Commonly found in woodland areas and suburbs across Iowa.
  4. Sharp-shinned Hawk – Often sighted in wooded areas and near bird feeders where they hunt smaller birds. Their numbers increase during migration seasons.
  5. Broad-winged Hawk – Mostly seen in eastern Iowa’s deciduous forests, especially during migration seasons.
  6. Red-shouldered Hawk – Primarily found in eastern Iowa, especially in mature forests near water bodies.
  7. Swainson’s Hawk – Less common in Iowa, but can be seen in open, grassy areas during their migration.
  8. Rough-legged Hawk – A winter visitor in Iowa, typically seen in open fields and grasslands.
  9. Ferruginous Hawk – Quite rare in Iowa, but might be sighted in open grasslands in the western part of the state.
  10. Northern Goshawk – Very rare and elusive in Iowa. They prefer mature forests and are most likely to be seen in winter.

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.

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.

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.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo regalis
Length51 to 69 cm (20 to 27 in)
Wingspan122 to 152 cm (48 to 60 in)
Weight907 to 2,268 g (32.0 to 80.0 oz)

The Ferruginous Hawk is a large raptor native to the open landscapes of North America. The term “ferruginous” comes from the Latin word for rust, referring to the bird’s reddish-brown coloration. Ferruginous Hawks are primarily known for their size, broad wings, and a distinctive leg feathering that extends to the toes, a feature that makes them the most “feather-legged” of the North American hawks. This bird feeds primarily on mammals like rabbits and prairie dogs, but will also eat birds and reptiles. They thrive in open habitats such as prairies, plains, and deserts, where they often perch on the highest point available. Their nests are typically constructed on cliffs, trees, or man-made structures and are quite large, reflecting the size of the bird itself. Despite their intimidating presence, Ferruginous Hawks are generally more docile than other raptors.

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.

Finding Hawks in Iowa

Iowa’s varied landscapes offer a perfect setting for several species of hawks. Here are some of the best locations to witness these awe-inspiring raptors:

Loess Hills State Forest: This unique geological area in western Iowa is a suitable habitat for Red-tailed Hawks and other species, especially near open fields.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge: Located in Prairie City, this refuge is a great spot to find grassland adapted hawks like the Northern Harrier.

Effigy Mounds National Monument: This forested area along the Mississippi river in northeast Iowa is ideal for sighting woodland species such as the Cooper’s Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk.

Des Moines Urban Areas: Hawks like the Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks thrive in urban areas and can often be spotted in city parks or even residential neighborhoods of Des Moines.

Amana Colonies: The open fields and pastures of this historic site often attract soaring hawks, including Swainson’s Hawks during their migration season.

Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge: This expansive refuge along the Mississippi River serves as a crucial habitat for migrating Broad-winged Hawks and other species.

Lake Red Rock Area: The area surrounding Iowa’s largest lake can be an excellent spot for viewing various species of hawks, especially during migrations.

Driftless Area Scenic Byway: This region of rolling hills and valleys in northeast Iowa offers a diverse range of habitats, increasing the variety of hawks you might spot.

These locations provide a glimpse of the diverse habitats where you might spot these magnificent raptors in the Hawkeye state.

15 Fun Facts about Hawks in Iowa

  1. Iowa’s state nickname, “Hawkeye State,” isn’t directly related to hawks. It was originally popularized to honor Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk tribe, although today, it certainly matches the state’s rich birdlife.
  2. Northern Harriers are known as “Marsh Hawks” due to their preference for marshy habitats. This hawk hunts low over fields, using both vision and hearing to locate its prey.
  3. Cooper’s Hawks are city dwellers. Once threatened by hunting and loss of habitat, these hawks have adapted to urban environments and are now commonly spotted in Iowa’s cities.
  4. Red-tailed Hawks display remarkable color variation. These hawks, frequently sighted in Iowa, show a range of color morphs from dark chocolate brown to nearly white.
  5. Hawks can help farmers. Hawks such as the Red-tailed and Swainson’s help control rodent populations, acting as a natural form of pest control in agricultural fields.
  6. Broad-winged Hawks embark on a long migration journey. These hawks travel thousands of miles each year from North America to South America, passing through Iowa during their migration.
  7. Northern Goshawks are agile flyers. Despite being rarely seen, these hawks are known for their incredible speed and agility, able to weave through dense forests while hunting.
  8. Ferruginous Hawks are the largest hawks in North America. Named for their rusty color (ferruginous means “rusty” in Latin), they are quite rare in Iowa.
  9. Rough-legged Hawks are named for their feathered legs. These hawks have feathers extending all the way down to their toes, a feature that helps them stay warm during winter months.
  10. Cooper’s Hawks are expert bird hunters. They specialize in catching other birds mid-air, a skill they’ve even brought to suburban backyards where bird feeders serve as their hunting grounds.
  11. Some hawks mate for life. Red-tailed Hawks, commonly seen in Iowa, often pair for life, jointly defending their territory year after year.
  12. Swainson’s Hawks have a dramatic diet change in migration. While they eat small mammals and birds during the breeding season, during migration and in winter they switch mainly to a diet of insects, particularly grasshoppers and dragonflies.
  13. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest hawk in North America. Often mistaken for Cooper’s Hawks, they are agile fliers, adept at maneuvering through trees to catch small birds.
  14. Northern Harriers exhibit sexual dimorphism. In other words, males and females have distinct appearances. Males are gray while females and juveniles are brown.
  15. Hawks play a critical role in the ecosystem. By controlling populations of small mammals and insects, they help maintain a balance that allows various species to thrive in Iowa’s natural habitats.

Exploring the world of hawks doesn’t stop at the borders of the Hawkeye state. If your birdwatching adventures take you beyond Iowa, you’ll find that neighboring states also offer rich avian experiences. If you find yourself venturing west into the sweeping prairies of the Cornhusker State, you’ll want to check out our comprehensive guide on the raptors of Nebraska.

Perhaps your journey takes you north, where the diverse landscapes of the Mount Rushmore State become your playground. In that case, our article on South Dakota’s soaring bird population would be the perfect companion. If you’re drawn to the charming river towns and bustling cities of the Show-Me State to the south, enrich your visit with our hawk guide for Missouri.

Those meandering along the Mississippi River into the Land of Lincoln will find our guide on Illinois’s remarkable hawk species indispensable. Each of these guides echoes our commitment to helping you discover the wonder of hawks, no matter where your adventure leads you.

FAQS on Types of Hawks in Iowa

What is the most common hawk in Iowa?

The Red-tailed Hawk scientific name Buteo jamaicensis, stands out as the most common hawk in Iowa. This medium-sized raptor is easily recognized by its broad wings, strongly banded tail, and distinctive red-tailed hawk call. It’s an adept hunter, favoring a diet that includes small rodents and ground squirrels, contributing significantly to maintaining a balance in the local ecosystem.

What hawks are common in Iowa?

Iowa boasts a wide variety of species of hawks, each occupying different habitats and serving unique roles within the ecosystem. Some common types of hawks include the Broad winged Hawk scientific name Buteo platypterus, the Red-tailed Hawk, the Swainson’s Hawk, and the Cooper’s Hawk. These birds of prey are often seen in tall trees and large forests, skillfully hunting smaller birds and small mammals.

What is the small hawk-like bird in Iowa?

One of the smallest hawks seen in Iowa is the Sharp-shinned Hawk scientific name Accipiter striatus, which is adept at hunting small birds and other species with its round wings and long tail. It’s often mistaken for larger birds, such as other hawks or even bald eagles, but an experienced bird watcher can distinguish it due to its size and unique hunting habits.

Why would a hawk be in my backyard?

Hawks, especially species like the Cooper’s Hawk, are attracted to backyards due to the abundance of prey, particularly small bird species and small rodents. They’re also known for hunting other birds that frequent bird feeders. So, if you’ve spotted a hawk in your backyard, it’s likely there in pursuit of a meal. Another reason could be the presence of tall trees that provide nesting sites for female hawks and safe perches for hunting. The Red-tailed Hawk and other large hawks may also frequent backyards near open fields or where prairie dogs and ground squirrels are present.

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