10 Stunning Hawks in North Dakota (Complete Guide)




Hawks in North Dakota

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North Dakota is a haven for hawks, attracting bird enthusiasts from far and wide. Known for their remarkable aerial prowess and keen hunting skills, these majestic birds of prey are a common sight across the state. With their sharp talons, powerful beaks, and keen eyesight, hawks are formidable hunters, preying on small mammals, birds, and reptiles.

In North Dakota’s open plains and diverse landscapes, hawks find ample opportunities to soar gracefully, scouting for prey from high vantage points. Their distinctive calls echo through the air as they navigate the vast expanses of the state, showcasing their mastery of flight.

Lists of Hawks in North Dakota:

  1. Red-tailed Hawk – The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in North Dakota, and they are widely distributed throughout the state, often sighted along roadways and open fields.

  2. Swainson’s Hawk – A frequent summer visitor, Swainson’s Hawk is usually found in the western grasslands and prairies of the state.

  3. Northern Harrier – Common in North Dakota’s wetland areas, Northern Harriers can often be spotted in the grasslands of the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge.

  4. Cooper’s Hawk – These hawks are more elusive but can occasionally be spotted in the woodlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

  5. Ferruginous Hawk – More common in the western regions of North Dakota, they can be found in places like the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

  6. Rough-legged Hawk – This hawk, known for its northern migrations, is primarily a winter resident in North Dakota and can often be seen in the state’s open, rural areas.

  7. Sharp-shinned Hawk – These small hawks frequent the state’s wooded regions, especially Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area.

  8. Broad-winged Hawk – Mostly seen during migration season in North Dakota, the Turtle Mountain region is a popular stopover.

  9. Northern Goshawk – Although more rare, these hawks prefer the state’s dense forests and can occasionally be seen in the Turtle Mountains.

  10. Red-shouldered Hawk – The Red-shouldered Hawk is rare in North Dakota but has been occasionally sighted in the more forested areas 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 North Dakota 

The best place to find the widest range of hawks in North Dakota is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This park’s diverse habitats including open prairies, badlands, and woodlands, attract various species of hawks. Other places to spot hawks include:

  1. Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge – Particularly suitable for the Northern Harrier, this refuge is an important sanctuary for a range of migratory birds.

  2. Little Missouri National Grasslands – The vast expanses of this region attract several species, particularly the Ferruginous Hawk.

  3. Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area – With its dense woodlands, this area is a favorite for the elusive Sharp-shinned Hawk.

  4. Turtle Mountains – Known for its migratory stopovers, the region attracts a diverse range of species, especially the Broad-winged Hawk.

  5. Devils Lake Region – The water bodies attract a wide range of wildlife, including several species of hawks.

The hawks in North Dakota have diverse habitats and preferences, but they share a common love for open spaces. Areas with a mix of forest, wetland, and open prairie, such as Theodore Roosevelt National Park, are particularly attractive to these birds. The spring and fall migration periods (April-May and September-October) are particularly exciting times to spot a wide variety of hawks, although Red-tailed Hawks and the Northern Harriers can be seen year-round.

The sheer size and variety of habitats in North Dakota ensure it is a haven for hawks. From the western badlands, through the central prairies, to the forested regions in the east, the state offers excellent opportunities for hawk watching. Despite the harsh winter, many hawks remain in North Dakota year-round, while others are migratory, using the state as a stopover during their long journeys.

As you travel south, you might notice similarities between the hawks in South Dakota, such as the frequent sightings of Red-tailed Hawks. Heading east into hawks in Minnesota the scenery changes from prairie to forest, and the hawk species vary accordingly, yet some, like the Northern Goshawk, find comfort in the dense forests of both states. These shared habitats serve as vital pathways and homes for hawks throughout the region.

Facts about Hawks in North Dakota 

  1. Ferruginous Hawk Capital: Despite its vast prairies, North Dakota is home to a surprisingly large population of Ferruginous Hawks. This is due to the state’s extensive grasslands that provide a perfect habitat for this species, known as the “prairie eagle.”

  2. Rare Red-shouldered Hawks: North Dakota is on the extreme edge of the Red-shouldered Hawk’s typical range. Sightings of these hawks, more common in wooded areas to the east, are quite rare and exciting for local birdwatchers.

  3. Swainson’s Hawk Migration: North Dakota serves as a critical stopover point during the migration of Swainson’s Hawks. These birds have one of the longest migrations of any American raptor, traveling from Argentina to the Great Plains.

  4. Northern Harrier Nests: The Northern Harrier, distinctive with its owl-like facial disk, nests on the ground in marshy areas throughout North Dakota. They’re known for their impressive aerial acrobatics during the breeding season.

  5. Rough-legged Hawk Winter Visitors: Unlike many hawk species that migrate south for the winter, Rough-legged Hawks travel south from the Arctic to spend their winters in North Dakota. The state’s open landscapes mimic their tundra homes, offering ample hunting opportunities during the colder months.

FAQs About Hawks in North Dakota 

What is the most common hawk in North Dakota?

The most common hawk in North Dakota is the Red-tailed Hawk. These hawks are easily recognizable with their broad wings and namesake red tail. They can be found in various habitats across the state, including open fields, prairies, and along the roadside.

What is the biggest hawk in North Dakota?

The Ferruginous Hawk, the largest hawk native to North Dakota, stands out due to its impressive size. With a wingspan reaching up to 56 inches, these magnificent birds can often be seen soaring over the state’s vast grasslands.

What is the smallest hawk in North Dakota?

The smallest hawk in North Dakota is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Despite its small size, this hawk is a skilled hunter and can often be seen darting through the woods in pursuit of smaller birds.

When is the breeding season for hawks in North Dakota?

The breeding season for hawks in North Dakota typically begins in the early spring and lasts through summer. Nest building often starts in March or April, with chicks fledging by late summer.

What do hawks eat in North Dakota?

Hawks in North Dakota have a varied diet consisting mainly of small mammals like ground squirrels, birds, and insects. Larger species like the Ferruginous Hawk and other hawks may also prey on rabbits, squirrels, and other similarly sized creatures.

Are Hawks protected in North Dakota?

Yes, all species of hawks, the golden eagle and bald eagles are protected in North Dakota under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal to harm, harass, or possess these birds without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

What are dark and light morph birds of prey in North Dakota?

North Dakota is home to several species of birds of prey that exhibit color variations known as dark and light morphs. One notable example is the Rough-legged Hawk. The light morph birds are more common in North Dakota, characterized by pale underparts and dark patches at the bend of the wing. The dark morph, however, is a darker brown overall and may be seen less frequently.

How does the migration of hawks in North Dakota relate to other regions?

North Dakota is part of a critical corridor for migrating hawks in the Northern Great Plains. During migration seasons, hawks, including species that breed as far north as the Arctic tundra, travel south through North Dakota and onwards to Central America. This vast journey demonstrates the interconnectedness of ecosystems from the western half of North Dakota all the way to Central America. Observing these migrations, particularly in the fall, is a highlight for bird enthusiasts visiting the state.

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