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6 Types of Hawks In Virginia (Native & Rare Species)

brown hawk in nature

It's always exciting to discover new families, subfamilies, or orders of birds to add more sightings to your list.


Virginia has six types of hawks. When you ID all of them, you're one more step ahead as a birder. Hawks in Virginia inhabit wetlands, forests, marshes, and woodlands. Hence, you're in for an unforgettable tour of the state.

Before you pack your binoculars, learn about the:

6 Types of Virginia Hawks To See

1. Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered hawk staring

We can list it as one of the larger hawks in Virginia, for its wingspan is about twice the wingspan of a sharp-shinned hawk.

You'll know it's a red-shouldered hawk if it has white and black bands on its tail. Juveniles, however, lack the stunning white and black banded feathers and streaked underparts.

This bird is a magical sight in flight. The tips of its wings appear squared in flight, and there are translucent crescents on them.

Further, the tail is short, but the wings are broad. 

You're more likely to see a red-shouldered hawk when exploring an area with tall trees and water, such as a riverine park.

It perches on such trees, searching for frogs and snakes near or in the water. Other animals on this raptor's menu are toads, lizards, crayfish, and voles.

These hawks may also become more adventurous and hunt a young owl, sparrow, or dove. Hence, it can show up in your backyard if you keep a bird feeder.

The red-tailed hawk comes back to the same nest every year, and it can do so for over a decade. If you encounter such nests, you'll know there's a red-shouldered hawk around if there's bird poop on the ground below.

It's a resident bird in Virginia, plus most of the red-shouldered hawk population in the US is in the eastern states.

2. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier flying in the sky

Virginia has a non-breeding range of the northern harrier. It's a unique bird when you look at it from a distance, as the first thing you see is its long, slim tail with a white patch and wings that form a V-shape as it flies.

As it gets closer, you notice that it looks like an owl, and its upper parts are grayish.

The male has pale underparts with black wingtips, while a female's underparts have brown streaks.

The northern harrier hunts small mammals and birds in grasslands, open fields, and marshes. But, it's a strong raptor that can take on bigger prey like rabbits when necessary.

3. Red-Tailed Hawk

red-tailed hawk on a tree

It's a common hawk in North America, and Virginia has an all-year-round population. Open fields are a top habitat for this raptor as the open sky lets it fly over the land, watching voles or rabbits below.

The red-tailed hawk may also perch on a telephone pole to scan the area below.

The adult raptor has a reddish tail instead of the black and white bands you'll see on most raptors in this list. Black, white, and brown are the dominant colors on its pale underparts.

However, it has a dark band across its belly, plus dark tips on the wings and feathers. Also, as you watch it from below, you'll see that it has a white throat.

This Virginia hawk is even more stunning from above as its red tail stands out against dark brown wings. This raptor has many morphs, so sightings of adults with a dark or chocolate-colored belly are possible.

The juveniles have streaked underparts, barred wingtips, checkered wings, and a host of other striking characteristics.

4. Cooper's Hawk

juvenile cooper's hawk standing on a field

It lives in woodlands, and it can pursue prey through a forest flying majestically between trees. This hawk's similarity with the sharp-shinned hawk makes identification tricky. Plus, they both hunt in backyards looking for birds.

Here's an easy way to ID it in an open field:

If you see a raptor that flaps twice then glides over the sky, it's most probably Cooper's hawk.

You may spot it even in suburban areas as it also hunts pigeons and doves.

Let's look at another way to ID this raptor. You see, its upper and underparts have two distinct colors. When perched on a tree, you'll notice bluish-gray wings, a long round tail with a white tip, and a dark crown.

The underside has reddish bars. Virginia has an all-year-round population of Cooper's hawks.

5. Broad-Winged Hawk

broad-winged hawk in a tree

VA has a breeding population of the broad-winged hawk. It's one of the raptors with the most spectacular migrations to South America.

The broad-winged hawk is a small-ish bird with a striking banded tail, brown upperparts, and barred underparts. The wings have a dark outline. On top of that, there are broad-winged hawks with a dark or light morph.

The dark ones are rare sightings; they have a uniform dark plumage with a white band on the tail.

These birds inhabit deciduous forests and nest near water bodies. Their diet consists of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and insects like crickets and beetles. They watch their prey from a telephone pole or a tree inside the forest, from where they can pounce on prey on the forest floor.

6. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

sharp-shinned hawk sitting in a tree with one foot tuck under feathers

Though it's a tiny hawk, it eats birds. Therefore, it'll hunt small birds in your backyard. The sharp-shinned hawk has a long tail, short wings, and long legs, a combination that makes it an excellent hunter that flies through woodlands chasing rodents or birds.

Unlike the flap-flap-glide of Cooper's hawks, the sharp-shinned hawk has a flap-glide flight style.

It's an elusive species that you're more likely to see during the migration. When nesting, it barely comes out of the woods.

This Virginia hawk has a small head, bluish-gray upper parts, and a streaked underbelly.

Fun Fact: Do you want to know how different a hawk is from a falcon? Read about this by proceeding to the article, "Hawks Vs Falcons".

Frequently Asked Questions About VA Hawks

What Hawks Live In Virginia?

There are six Virginia hawks, some of them in a non-breeding range, and others as native birds. As we highlighted above, they are the broad-winged, northern harrier, sharp-shinned, red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper's hawk.

You may also spot the northern goshawk, but it's rare because it has a non-breeding population in VA. Some excellent birding sites are Snickers Gap and Kiptopeke State Park.

This state also has marshes in Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, where you can spot Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, woodland trails with red-shouldered hawks in Huntley Meadows Park, and Rockfish Gap, where broad-winged hawks cross as they migrate.

To easily identify broad-winged hawks, red-shouldered, and red-tailed hawks in birding season, watch this video:

Can You Kill A Hawk In VA?

No, because the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects them. Therefore, it's illegal to own, transport, kill, or sell one unless you have a permit.

Final Thoughts

There are six hawks in Virginia, the most common being the red-tailed, the red-shouldered, and Cooper's hawks. Virginia has good birding sites where you can spot these native and migratory raptors.

One of the easiest ways to ID them is using pictures because most hawks have grayish or brownish upper parts. Alternatively, learn Virginia hawk sounds.

For the less common species, such as the broad-winged hawk, the migration season is the best time to view them as they move in flocks.

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