A bird of prey soaring high is a sight to behold. With its large talons and crooked bills, seeing hawks is a treat, whether it is in lush forests, national parks, or even private backyards.
Identifying raptors, however, can be confusing. Sure, you know that it is a hawk, but do you know what kind specifically?
If you need help identifying the hawks in Carolina, read on! We’ll round up some of the most common species you will find in The Tar Heel State, including their defining physical characteristics and behaviors.
The Most Common Hawks Of North Carolina
1. Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Native to Carolina, the red-tailed hawk is the most common hawk found year-round in the state. It can be frequently seen on telephone poles on highways or soaring high in search of prey.
As the name implies, red-tailed hawks are easy to identify because of their red tails, which are also short and wide.
The large and stocky body is almost impossible to miss. The upper body is mostly brown with a white belly.
You will find these hawks in different morphs. The markings on the head and belly can vary from one raptor to another. The eastern morph has a white throat. You can also find morphs as partial albinos.
Red-tailed hawks make the perfect couple, especially in-flight. During courtship, pairs will be doing a sky dance. They will clasp their talons and spiral on the ground. They will also build their nest as a pair and will mate forever.
Aside from their appearance, another easy way to determine the presence of red-tailed hawks is by lending an ear. They have a raspy cry, which is common amongst raptors. They have a high-pitched and descending call similar to a bald eagle, which is how the sound of birds of prey is portrayed in the movies.
When you hear people talk about a chicken hawk, chances are, they are referring to a red-tailed hawk, which is known for attacking poultry.
2. Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Present in North Carolina year-round, cooper’s hawks are medium-sized raptors. They are most common in wooded areas, as well as sub-urban locations with dense and tall trees.
A lot of people confuse this bird of prey with a sharp-shinned hawk because of their similar appearance. The main difference between these two species is that a cooper’s hawk is slightly bigger, almost the size of a crow.
The large head of the cooper’s hawk is one of the first things that you will notice. It also has a red-orange breast and a blue-gray back. You will see dark bands on its tail.
As for its feeding habits, cooper’s hawks like to feast on small mammals and medium-sized birds.
Cooper’s hawks are known for being skilled and agile fliers with a flap-flap-glide pattern. They are also stealthy, which makes them agile predators.
A lot of people do not like these hawks in their yards. A cooper’s hawk will attack songbirds. If you want to shoo them away, all that you need is to take the backyard feeder out for a few weeks.
Fun Fact: This raptor is a popular avian species that form part of the hawks in Maryland population!
3. Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
The name is already a giveaway for easy NC hawk identification. This bird has reddish-chestnut feathers on its shoulders. The red-shouldered hawk has beautiful feathers, making it a stunning sight. They are a common sight in North Carolina year-round.
While the color of its shoulders is an easy identifier, they can be difficult to see from afar. It is best to also look at their black and white checkered wings.
If you want to see red-shouldered hawks in the state, find them at the end of winter and early spring. This is when they are most active as they search for a mate.
For the best chances of seeing a red-shouldered hawk, go to swamps and forests. The population is concentrated in the eastern portion of the state.
Red-shouldered hawks will eat small mammals, as well as snakes, lizards, and frogs.
Aside from the sight of its red shoulders, you will also know when a red-shouldered hawk is around by listening to its call. The bird will make a kee-ahh sound, which is often repetitive.
4. Sharp-Shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
Also known as sharpies, sharp-shinned hawks can be seen in North Carolina in the winter. They account for only roughly 2% of bird sightings in the state, so they are uncommon.
They are the smallest hawks commonly found in North Carolina. On average, the length ranges from 9 to 13 inches while its wings can extend up to 26 inches.
An adult sharp-shinned hawk has a blue-grey upper body. On its breast, you will find horizontal red-orange bars. The young ones, on the other hand, will have brown-streaked bodies.
A sharp-shinned hawk is agile in flight. You will see them speeding through dense woods and they will end up surprising their prey. Most of the time, they will pounce on a low perch.
Seeing sharp-shinned hawks can be a challenge since most of them will reside deep in a forest. It is easier to see it during their migration when they are flying in open habitats. You will not see a single bird but a flock.
These are some of the most common backyard hawks in NC. You will often see the catching mourning doves.
Lastly, a sharp-shinned hawk makes a kik-kik-kik-kik sound. Males are higher-pitched than females.
Fun Fact: This predator is one of the hawks of New Jersey most visitors watch during the summer months!
5. Broad-Winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)
While it is a small and compact raptor, they have broad wings, making them beautiful when they are soaring. The head of a broad-winged hawk is large while the tail is square and short.
Broad-winged hawks have reddish-brown heads. Its underparts are barred. Meanwhile, it has a strongly banded tail with black and white patterns.
If you want to see these local birds of prey up close, your best bet is to visit the Carolina Raptor Center. Meanwhile, in the wild, they are often in deep forests.
When a broad-winged hawk is nesting, it often stays hidden. While they have a bold appearance, they prefer staying away from humans as they nest, so spotting these North Carolina birds of prey can be a challenge.
Many of the broad-winged hawks in The Old North State are fairly common in the western part in the breeding season. During fall migration, you will find them in large flocks as they move to South America.
Lastly, a broad-winged hawk can be seen swooping down as it hunts prey. It will eat small mammals whole. The diet also includes frogs, snakes, small rodents, and small birds.
6. Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)
A slender raptor, northern harriers have long and broad wings. It has a long and rounded tail. The bill, on the other hand, is small and has a sharp hook.
These hawks can also be easily identified with their round facial discs, which look like owls. They also have yellow eyes and a white rump patch.
When it is hunting, northern harriers will fly low on the ground. They will be flying back and forth over marshes and fields where they will look for small animals.
Like owls, these NC hawks are known for using their hearing to spot their prey. Their curved facial ruff will reflect sound, which helps make them more efficient when they are hunting.
These hawks in North Carolina are not picky eaters, so they will feed on many animals, including ground squirrels, meadow voles, frogs, and snakes.
7. Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
Known for being a powerful predator, this North Carolina hawk has a long tail and rounded wings. The wingtips of a northern goshawk are pointed during its flight.
When it is hunting, this raptor will perch quietly on trees. Upon seeing its target, the northern goshawk will quickly swoop in a short flight. It can also fly low in the woods when it searches for its food.
More so, these hawks in North Carolina will mate for life. Males will provide food for females. A northern goshawk will nest in deciduous forests with mixed trees.
8. Rough-Legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)
Wrapping up our list of the types of hawks in NC is a protective raptor.
These North Carolina hawks have rough legs with diverging feathers. Along with golden eagles and ferruginous hawks, they are the only North American raptors with such a trait.
They look almost like red-tailed hawks, but the main difference is that they have narrower wings. Other common identifiers are the dark patches in its underwings and a dark band on its white upper chest.
More so, these North Carolina hawks will hunt when they soar. Rough-legged hawks are known for spending the day in grasslands and other open areas where they will fly to look for food. It will eat small mammals, including ground squirrels, and large birds, among others.
Rough-legged hawks are most common in Arctic and sub-arctic regions. This hawk in North Carolina accounts for about 1% of sightings compared to other birds in the state.
Bonus: Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Also known as a fish hawk, the osprey is technically not a hawk. It isn’t an eagle either! Nonetheless, it looks like the other hawks in North Carolina, so we are including it as a bonus on this list!
One of the defining characteristics of an osprey is its extremely curved bill, which makes it efficient for catching fish, which makes up 99% of its diet.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of hawks are in North Carolina?
You will find at least eight kinds of North Carolina hawks. The most common birds of prey in North Carolina are the red-tailed hawk, cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, broad-winged hawk, northern harrier, northern goshawk, and rough-legged hawk.
What’s the biggest hawk in NC?
The biggest among the North American raptors in The Tar Heel State is the rough-legged hawk. On average, it has a length of 18.5 to 20.5 inches. Meanwhile, its wings will span at a width of 52 to 54.3 inches.
Can you kill a hawk in NC?
No, you cannot kill a hawk in NC. They are protected under The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was signed into law in 1918. It is one of the most significant wildlife conservation laws in the country.
You will find at least eight species of hawks in North Carolina. With their fierce looks and swift flight, they are common targets for bird spotting in the state.
Nonetheless, many are almost similar in terms of physical appearance, making one difficult to set apart from other birds of prey. We hope that this guide will help you differentiate one from the other.
Are there other hawks of North Carolina that you would like to add to this list? Leave a comment below and let us know!