Hawks in Minnesota (10 Species + Photo Guide)




Hawks in Minnesota

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Hawks in Minnesota are a diverse group of birds of prey that inhabit the state’s varied landscapes. With ten species calling Minnesota home, including the iconic Red-tailed Hawk, these majestic raptors captivate observers with their soaring flights and impressive hunting skills.

  1. Red-tailed Hawk: Ubiquitous throughout Minnesota, these majestic birds are usually seen soaring above open fields or perched atop telephone poles along highways.
  2. Cooper’s Hawk: These woodland hunters are commonly found in the wooded areas of Minnesota, especially in suburban and urban environments where bird feeders attract their favorite prey.
  3. Red-shouldered Hawk: Preferring deciduous woodlands and wetlands, the Red-shouldered Hawk is often found in the southeastern part of Minnesota.
  4. Northern Harrier: Unique among hawks for their owl-like facial disk, Northern Harriers can be seen flying low over open fields and wetlands throughout Minnesota in search of prey.
  5. Sharp-shinned Hawk: These agile hunters can be found in the forested regions of Minnesota, and they’re known to make surprise attacks at bird feeders.
  6. Broad-winged Hawk: Found primarily in northeastern Minnesota, the Broad-winged Hawk is most common in spring and summer, migrating to Central and South America for the winter.
  7. Northern Goshawk: An elusive bird of northern forests, the Northern Goshawk can be found in the extensive coniferous woodlands of northern Minnesota.
  8. Rough-legged Hawk: Visitors in the winter months, Rough-legged Hawks migrate from the Arctic to Minnesota’s open countryside, hunting rodents in fields and meadows.
  9. Swainson’s Hawk: Mostly found in the western grasslands of Minnesota during summer, these hawks are known for their spectacular long-distance migration to South America for winter.
  10. Ferruginous Hawk: Though not typically found in Minnesota, occasional sightings have been reported, mostly in the open prairies and farmlands of the western part of 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 Spot Hawks in Minnesota 

Located in the northeastern part of Minnesota, Superior National Forest offers a rich and diverse habitat for hawks. Its extensive forested areas, including coniferous and deciduous forests, provide ample perching and nesting sites for various hawk species.

  1. Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge – Located in northwest Minnesota, this refuge provides a mix of wetlands, grasslands, and forests, creating an ideal environment for hawks to thrive.

  2. Sax-Zim Bog – Known as a premier birding destination, this bog in northeastern Minnesota is home to numerous hawk species, including the elusive Northern Goshawk.

  3. Crex Meadows Wildlife Area – Situated in western Wisconsin near the Minnesota border, this expansive wetland complex attracts migratory hawks in large numbers during the spring and fall.

  4. Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge – With its mix of grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands, this refuge in central Minnesota provides excellent habitat for a variety of hawk species.

During the breeding season, hawks such as the Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawk can be observed nesting in the forested regions. In the fall, the forest becomes an important stopover site for migratory hawks as they make their way southward.

Facts about Hawks in Minnesota

  1. Minnesota hosts a significant breeding population of the Ferruginous Hawk. While Ferruginous Hawks are more commonly associated with western grasslands, a small breeding population can be found in southwestern Minnesota.

  2. The Mississippi River corridor serves as a migratory route for numerous hawk species. Minnesota’s position along the Mississippi River flyway makes it a critical passage for migratory hawks, attracting a variety of species such as Broad-winged Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, and Red-tailed Hawks.

  3. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) provides a unique habitat for hawks. This vast wilderness area in northern Minnesota offers a combination of boreal forests, lakes, and wetlands, creating an exceptional habitat for hawks.

  4. Minnesota is home to one of the largest nesting populations of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states. With its abundant lakes and rivers, Minnesota provides an ideal environment for Bald Eagles to thrive.

  5. The Sax-Zim Bog is known for its exceptional sightings of Northern Hawk Owls. While not technically hawks, Northern Hawk Owls are fascinating raptors that bird enthusiasts and nature lovers flock to this area for the chance to spot and photograph these distinctive and rarely seen owl species.

Minnesota is nestled in the heart of the Upper Midwest,and many of the same species can be found in these neighboring states. Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, common across Minnesota, these hawks are just as prevalent in the expansive grasslands of the Dakotas, the rolling farmlands of Iowa also home to these hawks, and the mixed forests of Wisconsin are full of hawks. Notably, Wisconsin’s forests provide an ideal habitat for hawks like the Northern Goshawk, just as they do in northern Minnesota. The shared landscapes, climates, and habitats among these states create a contiguous region rich in hawk diversity, allowing these majestic raptors to thrive across state lines.

FAQs About Hawks in Minnesota 

What is the most common hawk in Minnesota?

The most common hawk in Minnesota is the Red-tailed Hawk. With its broad distribution across the state and adaptable nature, the Red-tailed Hawk is frequently encountered in various habitats, including open fields, woodlands, and along highways.

What is the biggest hawk in Minnesota?

The biggest hawk species in Minnesota is the Ferruginous Hawk. Although less common than other hawks in the state, the Ferruginous Hawk is known for its impressive size, with a wingspan reaching up to 55 inches and a length of 22-27 inches.

What is the smallest hawk in Minnesota?

The smallest hawk species in Minnesota is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. This compact raptor measures around 10-14 inches in length and has a wingspan of approximately 20-27 inches. Its small size and agile flight make it well-suited for maneuvering through dense woodlands.

When is the breeding season for hawks in Minnesota?

The breeding season for hawks in Minnesota typically occurs from late March to early July. During this period, hawks engage in courtship displays, nest building, and egg-laying. Different hawk species may have slight variations in their specific breeding periods within this timeframe.

What do hawks eat in Minnesota?

Hawks in Minnesota have diverse diets that primarily consist of small mammals such as voles, mice, rabbits, and ground squirrels. They also feed on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and occasionally insects. Hawks are skilled hunters, using their sharp talons and keen eyesight to locate and capture prey.

Are Hawks protected in Minnesota?

Yes, hawks are protected in Minnesota under state and federal laws. They are classified as migratory birds and are safeguarded by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the harming, capturing, or killing of these birds without proper permits. Conservation efforts are in place to ensure the preservation of hawk populations and their habitats in Minnesota.

Does the northern harrier hawk have a strongly banded tail ?

No, the Northern Harrier hawk does not have a strongly banded tail. The Red-tailed Hawk is a hawk species that often has a strongly banded tail.

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