Hawks in Kentucky (8 Species – With Photos)




Hawks in Kentucky

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Hawks are prevalent and varied in Kentucky, with the state playing host to several species such as the Red-Tailed Hawk, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, the Northern Harrier, and the Cooper’s Hawk, among others. These raptors are key to the local ecosystem, controlling populations of rodents and smaller birds. The landscapes of Kentucky, from dense forests to open plains, provide diverse habitats that support these powerful birds.

List of Hawks in Kentucky:

  1. Red-Tailed Hawk: Red-Tailed Hawks are the most common and widespread hawk in Kentucky, they can be found throughout the state, particularly in open areas with scattered trees and tall perches.

  2. Cooper’s Hawk: Notably seen in woodlands and suburbs across Kentucky, especially around bird feeders.

  3. Red-Shouldered Hawk: Predominantly found in the wetland areas of Kentucky, particularly in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

  4. Northern Harrier: These unique hawks favor open habitats, so look out for them in grasslands and marshes of Kentucky, including the Barren River Lake.

  5. Sharp-Shinned Hawk: Mostly seen in the forested regions of Kentucky during their migratory periods.

  6. Broad-Winged Hawk: Generally spotted in the dense forests of Kentucky, but are most visible during the migratory season.

  7. Rough-Legged Hawk: Although not common, these birds can be spotted in Kentucky during the winter, particularly in open fields and farmlands.

  8. Ferruginous Hawk: A rarity in Kentucky, sightings have been reported in the western open farmlands, but they are not a regular species in the state.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Where to find hawks in Kentucky

Kentucky, with its lush forests, rolling hills, and sprawling meadows, is an ideal habitat for several hawk species. Some of the best places to spot hawks in the state include the following locations:

  1. Daniel Boone National Forest: This expansive forest is a haven for Red-Shouldered Hawks, which prefer the dense woodland and wetland environments found here.

  2. Barren River Lake: Open grasslands and marshy areas around this lake are favorite hunting grounds for the Northern Harrier.

  3. Jefferson County: Particularly the Louisville area, is known to harbor Cooper’s Hawks in its suburban neighborhoods and parks.

  4. Western Kentucky Farmlands: If you’re lucky, you may spot a rare Ferruginous Hawk in these open areas.

  5. Mammoth Cave National Park: This park’s extensive woodlands provide a home for Broad-Winged Hawks, especially during their migration period.

Kentucky’s hawks are mostly active during the day, making them easier to spot for bird enthusiasts. Fall and spring tend to be the best times of the year to observe these magnificent birds due to the migratory patterns of several species. During these periods, hawks are on the move and often congregate in large numbers, particularly in areas that serve as migratory corridors. The Broad-Winged Hawk, for instance, is well-known for its spectacular mass migrations.

Just across the border, you can further your ornithological exploration by diving into the world of hawks found in Tennessee or learning about the diverse range of hawks of Indiana. From the verdant hills of Appalachia to the bustling waterways of the Ohio River, both states offer unique environments and hawk sightings.

Further east, West Virginia hawks display unique adaptation skills that make this state’s mountainous regions their home. Also, don’t forget the distinctive hawks in Virginia that can be seen soaring in the coastal skies.

Fascinating Facts about Hawks in Kentucky

  1. Home to a Rare Hawk: Kentucky holds the honor of being one of the few places in the U.S. where the rare Rough-legged Hawk is known to winter. With their feathered legs and distinctive flying patterns, they are a sight to behold.

  2. Red-Tailed Hawk Popularity: The Red-Tailed Hawk, identifiable by its reddish-brown tail, is not only the most common hawk in Kentucky but also one of the most adaptable, living in a variety of habitats ranging from forests to cityscapes.

  3. Successful Reintroduction of Broad-Winged Hawks: In a testament to the successful wildlife management initiatives in the state, the Broad-Winged Hawk has been successfully reintroduced into many of Kentucky’s state parks, ensuring the survival of this majestic species.

  4. Migration Marvel: Swainson’s Hawks, while not breeding in Kentucky, make an appearance during migration periods. They are known to travel distances of up to 14,000 miles between breeding and wintering grounds, one of the longest migration routes of any American raptor.

  5. Intriguing Diet of the Northern Harrier: Northern Harriers, a ground-nesting hawk, are unique in that they feed on amphibians and reptiles, unlike most other hawks. Kentucky’s diverse wetland ecosystems make it a plentiful feeding ground for these birds.

FAQ About Hawks in Kentucky

What is the most common hawk in Kentucky?

The Red-Tailed Hawk, also known as Buteo jamaicensis, is the most common hawk in Kentucky. With its broad, round wings and iconic raptor screech, it can often be seen soaring above the tallest trees in search of unsuspecting prey.

What is the biggest hawk in Kentucky?

The Ferruginous Hawk, known for its fairly large size and brown feathers, is the biggest hawk in Kentucky. Its unique characteristic is its feathered legs, similar to the great horned owls, which provide warmth during its migration to the Arctic tundra.

What is the smallest hawk in Kentucky?

Kentucky’s smallest hawk is the Sharp-shinned Hawk or Accipiter striatus. Despite its size, it’s an efficient hunter with sharp talons and thin wings, often surprising prey like unsuspecting songbirds.

When is the breeding season for hawks in Kentucky?

Breeding season for hawks in Kentucky typically coincides with spring, during which you can observe male hawks performing breathtaking aerial displays. Their mating rituals often take place near cliff ledges and tall trees, away from predators and human activity.

What do hawks eat in Kentucky?

In Kentucky, hawks primarily feed on small rodents and ground squirrels. They are also known to eat young birds and even young turtles, showcasing their versatility as birds of prey.

Are Hawks protected in Kentucky?

Yes, all types of hawks are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in Kentucky. This legislation makes it illegal to hunt, capture, or kill hawks without a permit. Conservation efforts in the state help to preserve their habitats and monitor populations.

What are some distinctive characteristics of Sharp-Shinned Hawks in Kentucky?

Sharp-shinned Hawks, known for their reddish barring and white banding on the underparts, are a remarkable sight in Kentucky. They possess a strongly banded tail and rounded tails, both of which assist in their unique flying style. A distinct trait of these birds is their medium size and stocky bodies, making them agile predators. Watchful bird watchers will be lucky to spot these hawks in action as they swiftly fly through wet forests in pursuit of their prey.

Can you describe the appearance of a Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) in Kentucky?

The Red-Shouldered Hawk, scientifically known as Buteo lineatus, is one of the more colorful hawks found in Kentucky. They flaunt a beautiful mixture of orange feathers and camouflaged brown feathers that help them blend into the tree canopy of the wet forests. Characterized by their long legs and long tails, these hawks are identified by their pale underparts streaked with thin, dark lines. Their beauty and distinct cry make them a favorite among bird watchers.

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