Discover the Hawks in South Dakota: (10 + Photo Guide)




Badlands National Park Hawks in South Dakota

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Hawks in South Dakota: South Dakota is a haven for hawk enthusiasts, offering a thrilling opportunity to witness these magnificent birds of prey in their natural habitat. From the iconic Red-tailed Hawk to the agile Sharp-shinned Hawk, the state boasts a diverse population of hawks. The vast prairies, woodlands, and open fields provide ample hunting grounds for these majestic raptors.

Lists of Hawks in South Dakota:

  1. Red-tailed Hawk – As the most common hawk species in South Dakota, Red-tailed Hawks can be found throughout the state in a variety of habitats. Locations like the Custer State Park are good places to spot them.

  2. Swainson’s Hawk – Swainson’s Hawks are common in the state during the summer. They favor open grasslands and prairies, like those found in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

  3. Northern Harrier – Often seen gliding low over open fields or marshes, Northern Harriers can be found in places like the Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge.

  4. Ferruginous Hawk – This large hawk prefers open landscapes and can often be seen in areas such as the Grand River National Grassland.

  5. Cooper’s Hawk – Cooper’s Hawks are found in both rural and suburban areas with mature trees. Try spotting them in forests like the Black Hills National Forest.

  6. Rough-legged Hawk – Rough-legged Hawks are winter visitors in South Dakota and can be spotted in open fields and meadows during this period.

  7. Sharp-shinned Hawk – These agile raptors are usually found in dense forests. They are less common, but may be seen in larger woodland areas like the Sica Hollow State Park.

  8. Broad-winged Hawk – Broad-winged Hawks are more common during the migration season, typically in forested areas like the Spearfish Canyon.

  9. Northern Goshawk – A less common sight, the Northern Goshawk prefers large, unbroken forests. They might be found in the more densely wooded areas of the Black Hills National Forest.

  10. Red-shouldered Hawk – This species is rare in South Dakota, but there have been occasional sightings in the eastern part of the state.

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.

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.

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.

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 South Dakota 

The top spot to find the widest range of hawks in South Dakota is at Badlands National Park. This iconic park’s rugged terrain, with its sprawling mixed-grass prairie and dramatic rock formations, is home to a wide variety of raptors. Hawks, including the Red-tailed Hawk and Northern Harrier, are seen throughout the year, particularly near Sage Creek Rim Road and Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.

Other popular places to spot hawks in South Dakota include:

  1. Black Hills National Forest – This expansive forest is home to the Cooper’s Hawk, known for their impressive agility in navigating through dense trees while chasing prey. The best time to see them is in spring and summer during the nesting season.

  2. Custer State Park – Known for its bountiful wildlife, this park is a haven for birds of prey, including the Ferruginous Hawk. These hawks can often be spotted soaring over the park’s grasslands and open fields, especially during the summer months.

  3. Bear Butte State Park – A sacred site to many Native American tribes, this park is an excellent location to observe the Rough-legged Hawk during their migration in late fall and winter. The park’s hiking trails offer impressive views of these raptors in flight.

  4. Big Sioux Recreation Area – With its extensive river system and forested areas, this location attracts Sharp-shinned Hawks, particularly during fall migration.

  5. LaFramboise Island Nature Area – This tranquil reserve on the Missouri River is a hotspot for Northern Harriers, especially in the spring and fall when these hawks can be seen gliding low over the island’s grasslands in search of prey.

  6. Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge – Located in the northeastern part of the state, this refuge is known for its diverse bird population, including the Swainson’s Hawk. The spring and summer months are the best time to spot these migratory birds.

While hawk-spotting in South Dakota offers an unforgettable experience, the thrill of bird watching doesn’t stop at the state borders. Venture a bit further and explore the abundant birdlife in neighboring states. Check out the hawks in Nebraska, where the expansive plains and river valleys are teeming with these magnificent raptors.

Or perhaps you’d prefer to explore the hawks in North Dakota, where the diverse habitats of the Great Plains make for some excellent birding opportunities. And don’t forget the captivating sight of the hawks in Wyoming, against the stunning backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. Each state offers its unique landscapes and habitats, presenting endless opportunities to marvel at the diversity of hawks across the region.

Facts about Hawks in South Dakota 

  1. Ferruginous Hawks in South Dakota: This large, light-colored hawk is found in the Great Plains and the western states. It’s named for its rusty-colored feathers. South Dakota hosts a notable population of these hawks, particularly in the western part of the state, providing an excellent opportunity for observation.

  2. Swainson’s Hawks’ Long Migration: Swainson’s Hawks, often seen in South Dakota during the summer, have one of the longest migration distances of any American raptor. They travel more than 6,000 miles each way between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in South America.

  3. Northern Harrier’s Unique Hunting Style: In South Dakota, one might encounter the Northern Harrier, also known as the Marsh Hawk. This raptor is unique due to its low, slow style of flight when hunting over open fields and marshes, and its distinctive white rump.

  4. Red-tailed Hawks’ Color Variations: The Red-tailed Hawk, commonly found in South Dakota, is known for its wide variety of color morphs. From light to dark, these morphs give birdwatchers an opportunity to spot and identify various individual hawks.

  5. Birdwatching at the Black Hills: The Black Hills region in western South Dakota is a haven for various species of raptors, including hawks. Birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts can enjoy spotting Ferruginous Hawks, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, and other raptor species in this beautiful area.

FAQs About Hawks in South Dakota 

What is the most common hawk in South Dakota?

The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk species in South Dakota. Their adaptability to diverse habitats, including forests, deserts, and grasslands, contributes to their widespread distribution in the state. Their distinctive red tail is a clear identifying feature for bird watchers.

What is the biggest hawk in South Dakota?

The Ferruginous Hawk, typically found in the open landscapes of South Dakota, is the largest hawk in the state. It’s noted for its wide wingspan, broad tail, and its significant size compared to other local hawk species, making it a prominent sight in the area’s sky.

What is the smallest hawk in South Dakota?

The Sharp-shinned Hawk, a smaller bird of prey, is recognized as the smallest hawk species in South Dakota. Despite its small size, it’s a fierce hunter known for swift, acrobatic flight when pursuing its prey.

When is the breeding season for hawks in South Dakota?

Hawks in South Dakota typically begin their breeding season in early spring, around March to April, and it continues until June or July. Nesting preferences can vary among species, but they all share an intense protective instinct over their nests during this period.

What do hawks eat in South Dakota?

Hawks in South Dakota have a varied diet including small mammals like rodents, ground squirrels and rabbits, birds, insects, and reptiles. Prey availability varies with the season and the specific habitat of the hawk, but their diverse diet helps them adapt to changing food sources.

Are Hawks protected in South Dakota?

Yes, hawks in South Dakota are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal law that prohibits the hunting, capturing, killing, or selling of protected bird species, which includes all hawk species. The law encourages respect for these magnificent birds of prey.

Are there other birds of prey in South Dakota?

South Dakota is home to a variety of birds of prey, not just hawks. Other species include eagles, falcons, and owls. The state’s diverse habitats support a rich variety of avian predators, making it a fascinating location for bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

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