10 Fascinating Hawks in Wisconsin: (+ Photos)




Hawks in Wisconsin

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Hawks in Wisconsin are a common sight throughout the state’s diverse landscapes. From the woodlands to the prairies and wetlands, Wisconsin provides a suitable habitat for various hawk species. These majestic birds of prey play a vital role in controlling rodent populations and maintaining the ecological balance of the region.

Lists of Hawks in Wisconsin:

  1. Red-tailed Hawk – The most common hawk in Wisconsin, they are spotted throughout the state, including in Kettle Moraine State Forest.

  2. Cooper’s Hawk – Widespread in Wisconsin, often seen in forested habitats such as the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

  3. Northern Harrier – Preferring open habitats, Northern Harriers are often seen across Wisconsin, particularly in the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.

  4. Broad-winged Hawk – Broad-winged Hawks are common during the migration season, usually seen in forested areas such as Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

  5. Sharp-shinned Hawk – Common during migration seasons, you can see them in forests like the Nicolet National Forest.

  6. Red-shouldered HawkRed shouldered hawks are often found in the southeastern part of the state, including the Lower Wisconsin Riverway and can be spotted by their strongly banded tail.

  7. Northern Goshawk – Northern goshawks prefer large, dense forests, they can be spotted in areas like the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

  8. Rough-legged Hawk – These hawks are winter visitors and are most commonly seen in the state’s open fields and meadows.

  9. Swainson’s HawkSwainson’s hawks are mostly spotted during migration, good sighting spots include grasslands and agricultural areas.

  10. Ferruginous HawkFerruginous hawks are less common but can be seen in open grasslands in certain parts 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.

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.

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.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

Where to Spot Hawks in Wisconsin 

The best place to find the widest range of hawks in Wisconsin is the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. The extensive marshes and grasslands here provide ample hunting grounds for several species of hawks.

Here are some of the top places to spot hawks in Wisconsin:

  1. Devil’s Lake State Park: A beautiful natural area where Red-tailed Hawks can often be seen soaring over the bluffs, especially in summer.

  2. Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest: Broad-winged Hawks are particularly common here during the summer months.

  3. Crex Meadows Wildlife Area: This is a good location for observing Northern Harriers, especially in spring and autumn.

  4. Point Beach State Forest: Cooper’s Hawks are frequently sighted in this coastal forest during migration seasons.

  5. Governor Dodge State Park: Rough-legged Hawks are common here in the winter.

  6. Kettle Moraine State Forest: Sharp-shinned Hawks are prevalent here, particularly during the fall migration.

Wisconsin’s diverse habitats, from lakes and forests to marshes and grasslands, along with its coast on Lake Michigan, provide ample opportunities to see these magnificent raptors. These locations offer excellent viewing throughout the year, ensuring that hawk enthusiasts can always find a place to spot these majestic birds in their natural environment.

Don’t forget that the neighboring states also have their unique avian highlights. The hawks of Minnesota are equally diverse and plentiful, as the state’s forests, wetlands, and prairies attract a variety of raptor species.

To the south, Illinois hosts a wealth of hawks in its river valleys and plains, particularly during migration seasons. Eastward, you’ll find the hawks of Michigan to be abundant and diverse, thanks to the state’s extensive forests and coastlines. Even the hawks in Iowa, though perhaps less known, are worth exploring for any avid birder.

Facts about Hawks in Wisconsin 

  1. Raptor Migration at the Mississippi River Valley: Wisconsin’s portion of the Mississippi River Valley is a significant route for migrating hawks, especially the Broad-winged Hawks, offering a grand spectacle in the fall.

  2. Urban Adaptation of Cooper’s Hawks: Cooper’s Hawks, originally woodland birds, have adapted to urban environments and are commonly seen in Wisconsin cities, often hunting near bird feeders.

  3. Northern Harrier’s Unique Hunting Style: In Wisconsin, Northern Harriers are known for their distinctive low, slow flight over fields and marshes, often seen “quartering” for prey.

  4. Red-tailed Hawks Thrive in Open Areas: Open fields, prairies, and farmland in Wisconsin are a favorite for Red-tailed Hawks, where they hunt for rodents.

  5. Conservation Work at the Raptor Education Group, Inc: Based in Antigo, Wisconsin, this organization plays an important role in rehabilitating injured, ill, and orphaned raptors, including various hawk species.

FAQs About Hawks in Wisconsin 

What is the most common hawk in Wisconsin?

The most common hawk in Wisconsin is the Red-tailed Hawk. Known for its reddish-brown tail, this raptor is found in various habitats, including open fields, farmland, and woodland edges.

What is the biggest hawk in Wisconsin?

The Northern Goshawk, while not commonly seen, is the largest hawk found in Wisconsin. They are secretive birds that prefer mature forests and are recognized by their robust size and blue-gray coloration.

What is the smallest hawk in Wisconsin?

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest hawk in Wisconsin. Despite their small size, these agile birds are known to be excellent hunters, often surprising their prey near bird feeders.

When is the breeding season for hawks in Wisconsin?

Hawks in Wisconsin generally begin breeding in early spring, from late March to early April. The breeding season can extend through July, with timing varying slightly based on species and environmental factors. Many head to Central and South America for breeding grounds.

What do hawks eat in Wisconsin?

Hawks in Wisconsin have a varied diet consisting of small mammals, ground squirrels, birds, and reptiles. Red-tailed Hawks, for instance, are known for feeding on rodents, while Sharp-shinned Hawks frequently prey on smaller birds.

Are Hawks protected in Wisconsin?

Yes, hawks are protected in Wisconsin under state laws and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal to harm, trap, or possess these birds without a proper permit.

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