10 Fascinating Hawks in Montana (+ Photo Guide)




Hawks in Montana

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Montana is home to a diverse array of hawks, attracting birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts from around the world. With its vast and varied landscapes, including mountains, forests, and open grasslands, Montana offers ideal habitats for many hawk species. From the iconic Red-tailed Hawk to the elusive Ferruginous Hawk, these majestic birds of prey can be found soaring through the Big Sky Country.

List of Hawks in Montana:

  1. Red-tailed Hawk: Found throughout Montana in a variety of habitats, including open fields, forests, and along highways.

  2. Northern Harrier: Commonly seen in marshes, wetlands, and open fields, particularly in areas like the National Bison Range and Freezeout Lake.

  3. Cooper’s Hawk: Often observed in woodlands, forests, and suburban areas, including towns such as Missoula and Bozeman.

  4. Sharp-shinned Hawk: Typically found in forested areas and near bird feeders in residential areas across the state.

  5. Swainson’s Hawk: Known to frequent open habitats like prairies and agricultural fields, especially during their migration. Spotted in locations such as the Bitterroot Valley.

  6. Ferruginous Hawk: Prefers open grasslands, prairies, and agricultural areas, particularly in eastern Montana and the prairie regions.

  7. Broad-winged Hawk: Occasionally spotted in Montana’s forests and wooded areas during their migratory periods, such as the Kootenai National Forest.

  8. Rough-legged Hawk: A winter visitor to Montana, often seen in open fields and agricultural areas during the colder months.

  9. Northern Goshawk: Rarely seen in Montana but primarily observed in large forests, especially in the western part of the state.

  10. Red-shouldered Hawk: Uncommon in Montana but found in mixed woodlands near water bodies, such as the Clark Fork River and Flathead Lake.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Where to Spot Hawks in Montana 

The best place to find the widest range of hawks in Montana is the Bitterroot Valley. This valley offers a diverse habitat with open fields, forests, and wetlands, attracting a variety of hawk species throughout the year.

  1. National Bison Range: Located near Moiese, this wildlife refuge is known for its diverse bird population, including hawks. Look for hawks perched on fence posts or soaring above the grasslands.

  2. Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area: Situated near Fairfield, this area attracts a large number of hawks during the spring and fall migrations. The vast wetland provides excellent hunting grounds for these birds of prey.

  3. Glacier National Park: This iconic national park in northwest Montana is not only known for its stunning landscapes but also for its diverse birdlife. Hawks can be spotted soaring above the forests and mountain ranges, especially during the summer months.

  4. Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge: Located in northeastern Montana, this refuge offers a mix of grasslands, wetlands, and shrublands, providing an ideal habitat for hawks. Keep an eye out for these majestic birds while exploring the area.

  5. Yellowstone National Park: While primarily known for its wildlife and geothermal features, Yellowstone National Park is also home to various hawk species. Look for them in the park’s meadows, along rivers, and perched on trees.

Hawks can be found in Montana throughout the year, but their abundance and behavior can vary depending on the season. During the breeding season, which typically occurs from spring to early summer, hawks are often seen engaging in courtship displays and nesting activities. Open fields, wetlands, and forests near water sources are preferred nesting sites.

In the fall, Montana becomes a prime location for hawk migration, as many species pass through the state on their way to wintering grounds. This is an excellent time to observe large numbers of hawks as they gather and soar in thermals, taking advantage of favorable wind conditions.

While the hawks in Montana offer a fascinating glimpse into avian biodiversity, their presence is not confined to this state alone. For instance, the rugged landscapes of Idaho, harbor a similar diversity of these formidable raptors see our guide on hawks in Idaho. Immerse yourself in their world of hawks in Wyoming. These regions together form a breathtaking panorama of nature, where the soaring hawks are an integral part of the scenic tapestry.

Facts about Hawks in Montana 

  1. Montana is home to the largest breeding population of Ferruginous Hawks in the United States. These majestic raptors are known for their large size and beautiful rust-colored plumage. They prefer open grasslands and prairies, making Montana’s vast landscapes an ideal habitat for them.

  2. The Prairie Falcon, a unique species of hawk, can be found in Montana’s arid regions. This falcon has adapted to the desert-like conditions and is known for its remarkable hunting skills and distinctive black “moustache” markings on its face.

  3. Montana is an important stopover site for the annual migration of Swainson’s Hawks. These hawks travel long distances from their wintering grounds in South America to their breeding grounds in North America. They can be seen in large numbers during their spring and fall migrations, particularly in areas with open habitats and agricultural fields.

  4. The Bitterroot Valley in western Montana is a hotspot for observing a variety of hawk species. The valley’s diverse habitats, including open fields, forests, and wetlands, attract a wide range of hawks throughout the year. It is an excellent location for birdwatching enthusiasts and photographers.

  5. Montana is one of the few states where you can spot the elusive Northern Goshawk. Although they are rarely seen, these powerful and secretive birds of prey inhabit large forests, especially in the western part of the state. Their presence indicates the health and diversity of the forest ecosystem.

FAQs About Hawks in Montana 

What is the most common hawk in Montana?

The most common hawk species in Montana is the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Red tailed hawks are widespread and can be found in a variety of habitats, including open fields, forests, and along highways throughout the state. The Northern Goshawks which are elusive birds are rarely seen.

What is the biggest hawk in Montana?

The biggest hawk species in Montana is the Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). With a wingspan of up to 55 inches and a length of around 23-27 inches, they are known for their large size and powerful build. They prefer open grasslands and prairies, particularly in eastern Montana.

What is the smallest species of hawks in Montana?

The smallest hawk species in Montana is the Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus). They are relatively small with a wingspan of about 20-27 inches and a length of around 10-14 inches. They are typically found in forested areas and near bird feeders in residential areas across the state.

When is the breeding season for hawks in Montana?

The breeding season for hawks in Montana varies depending on the species. Generally, it occurs from late spring to early summer, typically between April and July. Different species may have slightly different timing within this range. During this time, other hawks engage in courtship displays, nest-building, and raising their young.

What do hawks eat in Montana?

Hawks in Montana primarily feed on small mammals such as rodents (mice, voles), rabbits, ground squirrels, and occasionally small birds. They are skilled hunters and rely on their sharp talons and excellent vision to spot and capture their prey.

Are Hawks protected in Montana?

Yes, hawks are protected in Montana under state and federal laws. They are considered migratory birds and are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the hunting, capturing, or harming of these birds without proper permits. It is important to respect and conserve these magnificent raptors and their habitats.

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