Colorado Hawks: Most Common Types With Rare Species To See In State Parks & In Your Yard

black and white hawk

Last Updated: July 17, 2021

Colorado is a picturesque state with a range of mountains, canyons, plateaus, and forests.

Therefore:

All the habitats hawks love are in this state. We're talking about marshes, prairies, pine forests, and grasslands where these birds of prey can hunt and build nests. However, you don’t have to always visit a state park as some hawks in Colorado will come to your backyard.

If you're planning a birding trip soon, keep reading… This is going to be interesting! 

8 Colorado Hawks To Add To Your Birding List

1. Cooper's Hawk

Juvenile cooper's hawk in winter

Colorado has a year-round population of Cooper's hawk; therefore, you can go birding anytime, and you'll see it. Homeowners don't like this bird, however, because it hunts in bird feeders.

It has such excellent flight abilities that it'll swoop down on an unsuspecting blackbird or starling in your backyard.

Cooper's hawk resembles a sharp-shinned hawk, though a few inches bigger. You see, this hawk is about 20 inches long, while sharp-shinned hawks don't grow longer than 15 inches.

Another easy way to differentiate these bird-feeder-loving hawks is by learning Colorado hawk sounds because the sharp-shinned hawk makes a high-pitched sound. If you look at their plumage only, you may not tell them apart as they both have a dark crown and a bluish-gray back.


2. Red-Tailed Hawk

red-tailed hawk on the ground

You've probably come across a red-tailed hawk as it's one of the most common raptors in North America. However, if you're new to birding, it's not too late to mark this bird of prey off your list.

Adult red-tailed hawks have light and dark colored plumage, so the color of the upper or underparts alone is not enough for identification. The only way to ID them is if they have a distinct red tail.

Colorado has a year-round population of these raptors, and most of the states above it on the map have a breeding range only. So, where can you spot them in Colorado? Everywhere! Yes, these birds are everywhere.

It eats small animals like voles, rabbits, squirrels, plus snakes. But, red-tailed hawks may also attack starlings and carrions.

They won't come to your bird feeder, so you can tour parks like Mueller State Park, Ridgeway State Park, Lake Pueblo State Park, or Trinidad Lake State Park if you want to see them in the wild.


3. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

sharp-shinned hawk looking down

We've mentioned the similarities and differences between the sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawk above. Therefore, now let's focus on the features of the sharp-shinned. Colorado has two populations - a year-round population and a non-breeding range.

You'll know this hawk by its reddish-orange barrings and bluish-gray back. However, juveniles have a brown back and a streaked underbelly.

Both adult hawks and juvenile birds have a dark band on their tails.

Birds make up most of the sharp-shinned hawk's diet, so that's why these hawks frequent bird feeders to hunt warblers and thrushes. They also eat sparrows, shorebirds, woodpeckers, mice, moths, or voles.

They breed in forests with pines, firs, aspens, or hardwood trees. But, they come out to hunt outside the forest or fly over an open field nearby, looking for prey. You can spot this species at Cheyenne Mountain State Park.


4. Northern Goshawk

northern goshawk eating a prey

Mueller State Park is one of the places to see the northern goshawk, and Colorado has an all-year-round range for this hawk.

Unlike most species we've discussed so far, with their brown streaks and bars, this bird has a gray crown and a white belly with gray bars. The juveniles have a streaked belly and a brown crown.

Its diet is quite interesting; consisting of birds, reptiles, mammals, and insects. Hence, it's not astonishing to find this bird hunting woodpeckers or crows.

This hawk loves mature forests with dense canopies. Thus, they can live in hardwood, fir, or pine forests. They build nests nearer the edge of a forest or near water. They hunt in these forests, but they also search for prey in riparian land and open fields.


5. Rough-Legged Hawk

rough-legged hawk perched on a tree

Like most hawks of Colorado, you can see the rough-legged hawk in Jackson Lake State Park and Chatfield State Park. However, this state has a non-breeding range only like most other states around it as the rough-legged hawk breeds in the arctic.

You'll ID it by its stunning mottled wings and a tail with a dark band or a reddish-brown back with streaked underparts. It depends on whether the bird is a dark or light morph.

The rough-legged hawk lives in prairies, marshes, dunes, and semi-desert areas. It nests in cliffs or rocks in alpine regions, at the coast, or in a boreal forest.

This raptor hunts either by flying until it spots prey or perching on posts to wait for the right moment to pounce on small animals. It eats the usual favorites of other hawks, such as moles, squirrels, and birds. But, it can also snatch food hunted by other hawks.


6. Swainson's Hawk

young swainson's hawk black and white bird

Most parts of North America have a breeding population of Swainson's hawks, while the migratory range pours out to parts of South America.

Hence, there's only a breeding range in Colorado, and you can see this bird in Jackson Lake State Park or Chatfield State Park.

This Colorado hawk has dark flight feathers and a brown chest if it's a dark morph bird. In contrast, if it's a light morph adult, it has a brown head plus a white belly. This bird eats squirrels, voles, mice, and rabbits, but the diet varies per region.

Swainson's hawks build nests near open fields, and they love oaks, conifers, and aspens, among other trees. Since they hunt in open areas, you may see them in pasture or on fence posts.


7. Ferruginous Hawk

ferruginous hawk perched on a tree branch

It's one of the rare species in North America, and it's so exciting that you can spot it in Colorado. Which places should you go birding to see it? Try Chatfield State Park and Jackson State Park. Colorado has a breeding range, an all-year-round population, and others that winter there.

To ID it, look for hawks with pointed wingtips, a large head, a white belly, and legs that curve into a V-shape under a white-colored tail.

But, remember, ferruginous hawks have either a light or dark morph.

Therefore, the one we've just described is an adult ferruginous hawk with a light morph. From above, an adult with a light morph has a chestnut-colored back that contrasts a pale tail.

On the other hand, from below, a dark morph adult hawk has a chestnut-colored belly, then everything else is white, from the bird's tail to the flight feathers and the wing linings. From below, juveniles have either a light underbelly or a dark brown one.

Ferruginous hawks eat hares, rabbits, plus squirrels. At times, they eat insects, birds, and amphibians.


8. Northern Harrier

northern harrier specie looking for a prey

You can spot this Colorado hawk in Jackson Lake State Park and Steamboat Lake State Park. This hawk has a white patch between the tail and its wing linings, plus a dark edge on its wings.

The females have a pale underbelly with brown streaks, while the males have a pale underbelly with a dark edge on the wings.

However, the best way to distinguish these Colorado hawks from others is by their owl-like faces.

They live in wetlands and grasslands and breed in many places, including marshes and riverside woodlands. They build nests on the ground, in willows, reeds, or other dense vegetation.

The male starts the building process, but it's the female that completes the project and does all the interior decor stuff like arranging the grass on the firm structure of willows and alders. In 14 days, the nest is ready.

Let's mention a thing or two about this hawk's diet. It uses sound to track prey like voles, rats, shrews, songbirds, not forgetting rabbits.


Frequently Asked Questions

What Hawks Can Be Seen In Colorado?

The eight hawks to see are the red-tailed, Cooper's hawk, the sharp-shinned hawk, ferruginous hawk, the rough-legged hawk, northern harrier, northern goshawk, plus Swainson's hawk.

Colorado has many birding locations with different species of hawks.

Are There Red-tailed Hawks In Colorado?

Yes, you can see the red-tailed hawk in this state throughout the year.

Watch this rare sighting of a Colorado red-tailed hawk:

Final Thoughts

Colorado has an impressive number of hawks for a long birding trip. Most of its hawks are year-round natives, which means you can go birding any time of the year. Even more interesting, you see the rare ferruginous hawk.

Of course, you'll start your sightings with the red-tailed as it's common in the US. Don't forget to look beyond the plumage to ID birds by their nest structure, habitats, plus sounds.

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