Discover the 8 Hawks in North Carolina (Guide + Photos)




Hawks in North Carolina

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Hawks in North Carolina are diverse and captivating. The state is home to several hawk species, including the Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Northern Harrier, among others. These magnificent birds of prey can be found in various habitats throughout the state, ranging from open fields and forests to coastal areas. North Carolina serves as a crucial stopover for migrating hawks during their fall journey southward.

List of Hawks Found in NC

  1. Red-tailed Hawk: The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most popular hawks in North Carolina and can be found throughout the state, particularly in open areas such as farmlands, fields, and roadside perches.

  2. Red-shouldered Hawk: Another commonly observed hawk in the state, the Red-shouldered Hawk prefers mature forests near water bodies, especially in the eastern part of North Carolina.

  3. Cooper’s Hawk: Cooper’s Hawks are quite popular in North Carolina and can be found in woodlands and suburban areas where they hunt for small birds.

  4. Broad-winged Hawk: While primarily a migratory species, the Broad-winged Hawk is popular during its breeding season in North Carolina. Look for them in the state’s deciduous forests, particularly in the western and central regions.

  5. Sharp-shinned Hawk: The Sharp-shinned Hawk, although not as widespread, can be found in North Carolina’s mixed or deciduous forests and occasionally near bird feeders.

  6. Northern Harrier: Northern Harriers are often observed in marshes, wetlands, and open grasslands of North Carolina, particularly along the coast.

  7. Northern Goshawk: The Northern Goshawk is less common in North Carolina but can occasionally be spotted in the state’s mature forests, primarily during the winter months.

  8. Rough-legged Hawk: The Rough-legged Hawk is the least popular hawk species in North Carolina. While they are winter visitors to the state, they can be found in open fields and grasslands during that season.

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.

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.

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’.

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.

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.

Best Places to Find Hawks in North Carolina

  1. Pisgah National Forest: Located in the western part of the state, Pisgah National Forest offers prime habitat for hawks. Visit during the fall migration season to witness the spectacle of Broad-winged Hawks soaring overhead in large numbers.

  2. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge: Situated along the coastal plain, this refuge provides a diverse range of habitats attracting a variety of hawk species. Look for Northern Harriers gliding low over the marshes and Red-shouldered Hawks perched in the surrounding forests.

  3. Haw River State Park: Nestled in the central part of the state, Haw River State Park is a great spot to observe Cooper’s Hawks. Explore the park’s woodlands and keep an eye out for these agile hunters darting through the trees.

  4. Outer Banks: The barrier islands along the Outer Banks offer excellent opportunities to spot migrating hawks. Witness the spectacle of raptors like the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Northern Goshawk as they navigate the coastal flyways during their fall migration.

  5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Head to the scenic Great Smoky Mountains for a chance to encounter Red-tailed Hawks. Scan the open meadows and mountain ridges for these majestic hawks, which can be found year-round in the park.

In North Carolina, hawks can be found throughout the state, but their specific habitats and migration patterns vary. During the fall, North Carolina serves as a crucial corridor for migrating hawks. Look for Broad-winged Hawks at Pisgah National Forest, where they gather in large flocks called “kettles” before continuing their southward journey.

Coastal areas like Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge provide important stopover sites for hawks during migration, with species such as Northern Harriers making use of the marshes and surrounding habitats.

Venturing beyond North Carolina’s diverse bird habitats, each neighboring state offers unique landscapes and a variety of hawks to discover. To the north, Virginia’s varied ecosystems offer a rich backdrop for bird-watching; explore these with our comprehensive guide on Virginia’s hawks. Westwards, Tennessee’s mountainous regions and valleys host diverse hawk species; learn more in about Tennessee’s hawks.

Southwards, South Carolina’s coastal habitats and forests provide a unique viewing experience; delve deeper into South Carolina hawks. Lastly, to the east, you’ll find diverse hawk species across Georgia’s forests, coastal areas, and wetlands; uncover more with our Georgia hawks overview. Each state offers an enriching bird-watching journey, allowing you to appreciate the diverse habitats that these magnificent birds of prey inhabit.

Interesting Facts & Information about Hawks in NC

  1. Endangered Species Protection: The Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a federally endangered species, plays a crucial role in the ecosystem and provides nesting sites for the endangered Red-shouldered Hawk in North Carolina’s longleaf pine forests.

  2. Intricate Nesting Behaviors: Cooper’s Hawks in North Carolina often build their nests with sticks, but they add a unique touch by lining the interior with fresh greenery, providing a comfortable and concealed space for their young.

  3. Cooperative Hunting: Red-tailed Hawks in North Carolina sometimes engage in cooperative hunting, with multiple individuals working together to target elusive prey such as squirrels or rabbits, increasing their chances of a successful catch.

  4. Incredible Vision: Hawks possess exceptional eyesight, and the Northern Goshawk, found in North Carolina, has specially adapted eyes that allow it to detect prey while flying at high speeds through dense forests.

  5. Migration through the Outer Banks: The Outer Banks of North Carolina serve as a vital flyway for hawks during their fall migration, with large numbers of Broad-winged Hawks soaring along the coastline on their journey southward.

  6. Year-round Residents: Despite being known for their migratory nature, some hawk species, including the Red-tailed Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk, remain in North Carolina year-round, adapting to the state’s diverse habitats.

  7. Secretive Nesting Habits: The secretive and elusive Northern Goshawk chooses remote and inaccessible locations for nesting in North Carolina’s mature forests, making it a challenging bird to observe and study.

  8. Population Recoveries: Thanks to conservation efforts, the Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle, both hawk relatives, have made remarkable recoveries in North Carolina, with successful breeding pairs now found in various parts of the state.

  9. Diverse Prey Selection: Hawks in North Carolina display a wide range of prey preferences. While the Cooper’s Hawk primarily preys on small birds, the Red-shouldered Hawk focuses on amphibians and reptiles, showcasing their adaptability to different ecosystems.

  10. Hawkwatching Hotspots: North Carolina is home to renowned hawkwatching sites, such as the South Mountains State Park and the Lake Norman State Park, where dedicated birdwatchers gather each year to observe and document the impressive hawk migration.

FAQs on Types of Hawks in NC

What is the most common hawk in North Carolina?

The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk species in North Carolina. They are widespread throughout the state and can be found in various habitats, including open fields, forests, and along roadside perches.

What kind of hawks live in North Carolina?

Several hawk species live in North Carolina, including the Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, Broad-winged Hawk, Northern Goshawk, and Rough-legged Hawk. Each species has its preferred habitats and behaviors.

What’s the biggest hawk in North Carolina?

The largest hawk species found in North Carolina is the Northern Goshawk. These impressive large hawks have a size range of approximately 20 to 26 inches in length and have powerful bodies and sharp talons, making them formidable hunters in the state’s dense forests. The smallest hawks are typically the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk. These species belong to the same genus, Accipiter, and are known as “accipiter hawks.”

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