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Nebraska is home to a diverse population of hawks, attracting bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. With its diverse landscapes ranging from grasslands to forests, Nebraska provides suitable habitats for a variety of hawk species.
The state’s prime location along the Central Flyway also makes it a significant area for migratory hawks. From the majestic Red-tailed Hawk to the agile Cooper’s Hawk, Nebraska offers ample opportunities to observe and appreciate these fascinating raptors in their natural habitats.
List of hawks in Nebraska:
Red-tailed Hawk: The most widespread and commonly seen hawk in Nebraska. These birds are often seen in open fields and roadsides throughout the state. They can be observed in large numbers in state parks like Ponca State Park.
Northern Harrier: Often seen in open fields and marshy areas. These birds are frequent visitors to the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District.
Swainson’s Hawk: They are summer residents of Nebraska and are often spotted in the Sandhills region and other open prairie areas.
Cooper’s Hawk: Mostly found in forests and suburban areas, where they are often seen in places like Omaha and Lincoln.
Sharp-shinned Hawk: These hawks prefer wooded areas. The Fontenelle Forest near Omaha is a good place to spot them.
Red-shouldered Hawk: They are more prevalent in the eastern part of Nebraska, especially in wooded areas along rivers, like in the Niobrara State Park.
Ferruginous Hawk: These birds prefer the prairies and open spaces of western Nebraska. The Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is a common place to find them.
Broad-winged Hawk: These birds are generally found in the eastern forests during migration season. Indian Cave State Park is a good location to see these hawks during the migration period.
Northern Goshawk: They are rare in Nebraska, mostly found in dense forests. They can be occasionally spotted in places like the Nebraska National Forest.
Rough-legged Hawk: These birds are winter visitors and prefer open fields and grasslands. They can be occasionally seen during winter months in the Scotts Bluff National Monument.
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.
41–52 cm (16–20 in)
97–122 cm (38–48 in)
Male 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.
1.8 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.
35 to 46 cm (14 to 18 in) /Female: 42 to 50 cm (17 to 20 in)
62 to 99 cm (24 to 39 in)
Male: 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.
23 – 30 cm
17 to 23 in
82 – 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’.
15 to 23 in
35 to 50 in
1.21 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.
51 to 69 cm (20 to 27 in)
122 to 152 cm (48 to 60 in)
907 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.
13 to 17 in
29 to 39 in
9.3 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.
Male: 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in) / Female: 58 to 69 cm (23 to 27 in)
89 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.
47 to 60 in
1.32 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.
Where to Spot Hawks in Nebraska
To find the widest range of hawks in Nebraska, one of the best places to visit is the Nebraska National Forest. This expansive forest offers diverse habitats, including dense woodlands, open fields, and wetlands, attracting a variety of hawk species throughout the year. The forest provides ample opportunities to observe hawks in their natural environment.
Nebraska National Forest: This forest is a prime location to spot a wide range of hawks, including the Northern Goshawk and Red-tailed Hawk. Explore the forest’s trails and lookout points for optimal hawk sightings.
Fontenelle Forest: Located near Omaha, Fontenelle Forest is known for its diverse bird population, including the Sharp-shinned Hawk. The forest’s wooded areas and bird feeders attract these agile hunters.
Niobrara State Park: Situated along the Niobrara River, this park is a great spot to observe the Red-shouldered Hawk. These hawks are often seen in the park’s wooded areas near the river.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument: In western Nebraska, the prairies and open spaces of this monument are frequented by the Ferruginous Hawk. Keep an eye out for these majestic birds soaring above the grasslands.
Scotts Bluff National Monument: During the winter months, the open fields and grasslands of Scotts Bluff provide a temporary home for the Rough-legged Hawk. Visit the monument for a chance to witness their impressive aerial displays.
Hawks can be found in Nebraska throughout the year, but their presence may vary depending on the season. During migration periods, such as spring and fall, Nebraska serves as a crucial stopover point for many hawk species. They take advantage of the state’s diverse habitats to rest, feed, and continue their journey.
In the summer months, Nebraska’s open prairies and woodlands become breeding grounds for hawks, making it an ideal time to spot nesting pairs and observe their courtship displays. It’s important to respect the habitats of these birds and observe them from a distance to ensure their well-being.
Just a short trip across the border, you can marvel at the majestic hawks in Iowa, particularly around the loess hills that straddle both states. If you head west, the same prairies stretch into Wyoming where you can find the fascinating hawks of Wyoming. Similarly, if you traverse the Missouri River south you’ll find the hawks in Kansas. Heading north, you’ll see how the Sandhills region seamlessly extends into the hawks of South Dakota guide is an excellent resource.
Facts about Hawks in Nebraska
The Broad-winged Hawk’s Unique Migration Route: In Nebraska, a unique phenomenon occurs during fall migration when hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks pass through the state. They travel in large groups, known as kettles, making for a spectacular bird watching event. The Indian Cave State Park is a known hotspot for this migration spectacle.
Swainson’s Hawk’s Long Journey: The Swainson’s Hawk, which is a summer resident of Nebraska, undertakes one of the longest migrations of any American raptor. They travel from Nebraska to Argentina, a journey of over 6,000 miles, before returning in the spring. The vast open prairies of the Sandhills region in Nebraska are critical breeding grounds for this species.
Ferruginous Hawk’s Breeding Habit: Ferruginous Hawks have a unique breeding behavior where they use not just trees but also shrubs and cliff ledges for nesting, which is somewhat rare for hawks. The open prairies of Western Nebraska provide an ideal environment for these adaptable birds to breed and raise their young.
Red-tailed Hawks and Their Variable Plumage: Nebraska’s most common hawk, the Red-tailed Hawk, exhibits a great deal of variety in its plumage. Some individuals in the state show the darker “Harlan’s” or “Krider’s” morphs, which are considered quite rare and are a treat for birdwatchers to spot.
Northern Goshawks in Nebraska: The Northern Goshawk is a species of special concern in Nebraska due to its rarity. Sightings of this elusive bird are particularly prized by birdwatchers. The bird is typically found in mature forests and has been occasionally spotted in the Nebraska National Forest.
FAQs About Hawks in Nebraska
What is the most common hawk in Nebraska?
The most common hawk in Nebraska is the Red-tailed Hawk. It is widely distributed throughout the state and can be found in various habitats such as open fields, forests, and along highways.
What is the biggest hawk in Nebraska?
The biggest hawk in Nebraska is the Ferruginous Hawk. This majestic bird of prey has a wingspan of up to 55 inches and is known for its impressive size and strength. It primarily inhabits the prairies and open spaces of western Nebraska.
What is the smallest hawk in Nebraska?
The smallest hawk in Nebraska is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. This agile hunter measures about 9-14 inches in length and has a wingspan of approximately 20-27 inches. It is often found in wooded areas and near bird feeders.
When is the breeding season for hawks in Nebraska?
The breeding season for hawks in Nebraska typically occurs from spring to early summer, depending on the species. During this time, hawks engage in courtship displays, nest-building, and raising their young. Different species may have slightly different breeding periods within this general timeframe.
What do hawks eat in Nebraska?
Hawks in Nebraska primarily feed on small mammals such as rodents, rabbits, and ground squirrels. They are also opportunistic hunters and may prey on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even insects when available. Hawks are skilled predators, using their sharp talons and beaks to capture and kill their prey.
Are Hawks protected in Nebraska?
Yes, hawks are protected in Nebraska. They are classified as migratory birds and are protected under federal laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal to harm, disturb, or possess hawks or their nests without the appropriate permits or licenses. Protecting hawks and their habitats is essential for their conservation and the overall health of ecosystems.
About the author
Jack Taylor is a passionate bird enthusiast and seasoned avian biologist, making bird-watching and nature conservation not just his career, but his life’s calling. With his extensive field knowledge and knack for storytelling, Jack translates the wonders of avian life into captivating posts. His blog is a testament to his love for feathered friends and his commitment to sharing their fascinating world with others.