8 Species of Hawk in North Carolina

Northern Goshawk

Did you know the largest hawks in North Carolina are the Rough-legged Hawk and the smallest hawks in North Carolina are the Sharp-shinned Hawk?

Also, the most common hawk in North Carolina is the Red-tailed Hawk. 

There are 8 species of Hawk in North Carolina:

  1. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  2. Cooper’s Hawk
  3. Red-shouldered Hawk
  4. Broad-winged Hawk
  5. Red-tailed Hawk
  6. Rough-legged Hawk
  7. Northern Harrier
  8. Northern Goshawk
Hawks in North Carolina with pictures and information for identification

Do you want to know what the birds of prey are that you can see soaring above you? Do you know your Sharp-shinned Hawk from your Coopers Hawk or what hawks you can see in North Carolina well read on to find out all that and more?

Did you know the largest hawks in North Carolina are the Rough-legged Hawk and the smallest hawks in North Carolina are the Sharp-shinned Hawk? Also, the most common hawk in North Carolina is the Red-tailed Hawk. 

Hawks are birds of prey that hunt and eat birds and small mammals as well as snakes and frogs.  Hawks can see in ultraviolet light, which helps them hunt down their prey.

To find Hawks in North Carolina head to woodland for the smaller hawks such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk or open grassland, marshes, or high ridges for the larger species.

Why don’t you also check out all the backyard birds in North Carolina and get a free ID printable checklist?

Backyard Birds in North Carolina – with free ID printable

The 8 Species of Hawk in North Carolina

1. Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk for identification

The Sharp-shinned Hawk can be seen in winter in North Carolina. They are not very common and are in less than 2% of bird sightings in North Carolina.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest hawk in North Carolina. They are smaller than a crow but slightly larger than a Jay. 

The females are a third bigger than the male. They have long tails, with a square end, and short, rounded wings and have small heads.

  • Length: 9.4-13.4 in (24-34 cm)
  • Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz (87-218 g)
  • Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in (43-56 cm)

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawks are blue-gray across the back and have a red-orange breast. They have dark bands across their tails.

They are very secretive but can be seen as they fly across open areas at the edges of forests. They are very agile and can speed through dense woods to catch their prey in flight, usually songbirds. 

They can sometimes be seen near feeders catching small birds, but if you have problems with them in your backyard remove the feeder for a few weeks.

Sharp-shinned Hawks pluck their prey on a stump or low branch before eating it. They usually eat songbirds about the size of a robin.

Nests of the Sharp-shinned Hawk are often in conifer trees in dense cover, usually towards the top of tall trees. The nest is quite large being 1-2 feet in diameter and 4-6 inches deep. They lay 3-8 white or pale-blue mottled eggs.

2. Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawks can be seen in winter in North Carolina. They are more common woodland hawks than the Sharp-shinned Hawk. They have been sighted in 4% of checklists in North Carolina. 

Look out for them at the edge of forests, but they can also be seen at feeders looking for an easy meal.

The Cooper’s Hawk looks very similar to the Sharp-shinned Hawk but is bigger at about the size of a crow. They can be hard to identify between them as they have the same blue-gray back and red-orange breast and also with dark bands on the tail. They have a larger head that projects well beyond the wings, unlike the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Male

  • Length: 14.6-15.3 in (37-39 cm)
  • Weight: 7.8-14.5 oz (220-410 g)
  • Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in (62-90 cm)

Female

  • Length: 16.5-17.7 in (42-45 cm)
  • Weight: 11.6-24.0 oz (330-680 g)
  • Wingspan: 29.5-35.4 in (75-90 cm)

They feed on medium-sized birds and small mammals and nest in tall trees, often on top of an old nest of a large bird or clump of mistletoe. They lay 2-6 pale blue to bluish-white eggs.

3. Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk for identification

The Red-shouldered Hawk can be found all year in North Carolina but may only be found in winter on the coast. They are quite commonly seen and are in 13% of birding checklists for North Carolina on ebird.org.

Red-shouldered Hawks are distinctly marked, with dark and white checkered wings and reddish barring on the breast. They are medium-sized, between the size of a crow and a swan with a strongly banded tail. They make a loud cack-cack-cack-cack call.

  • Length: 16.9-24.0 in (43-61 cm)
  • Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz (486-774 g)
  • Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in (94-111 cm)

They tend to be seen near wet forests hunting along a stream or pond. Their prey is mammals and frogs or snakes. Nests are often reused each year in a broad-leaved tree near water. They lay 2-5 white or bluish eggs.

4. Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk for identification

Broad-winged Hawks breed in North Carolina, more commonly in the west of the state, before migrating in large numbers to South America in a swirling flock called a kettle. They are not often observed in North Carolina, being in just 1% of recorded checklists on ebird.org. 

The migration in fall is the best chance to see them.

The Broad-winged Hawk is a compact, stocky bird between the size of a crow and goose. They have reddish-brown heads, barred breasts, and narrowly banded short square tails.

  • Length: 13.4-17.3 in (34-44 cm)
  • Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz (265-560 g)
  • Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in (81-100 cm)

Hunting from a perch often on the edge of woods or by water, these hawks eat small mammals, frogs, snakes, and even young turtles.

The Broad-winged Hawk often reuses the nest of another animal, such as a crow or squirrel and lays 2-3 whitish eggs.

5. Red-tailed Hawks

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks can be found in North Carolina all year and are fairly common, being seen in 9% of sightings in North Carolina. They are also the easiest to spot, often on long car journeys, as they circle slowly over open fields looking for prey. You can also see them perched on telephone poles.

Male

  • Length: 17.7-22.1 in (45-56 cm)
  • Weight: 24.3-45.9 oz (690-1300 g)
  • Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in (114-133 cm)

Female

  • Length: 19.7-25.6 in (50-65 cm)
  • Weight: 31.8-51.5 oz (900-1460 g)
  • Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in (114-133 cm)

As their name suggests, the Red-tailed Hawk has a distinctive short, wide red tail. They are large, with broad, rounded wings, between the size of a crow and goose. Most Red-tailed Hawks are brown on the back and pale underneath.

The high-pitched descending raspy-screech sound of the Red-tailed Hawk is often used in movies for all raptors. They eat small mammals, birds, and reptiles. 

Nests are high in very tall trees or on cliff ledges and sometimes on tall buildings or towers. They lay 2-3 whitish, brown blotched eggs.

6. Rough-legged Hawk

Rough Legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawks migrate from the arctic and are found in North Carolina in the winter. They are not very common in the state as this is the southern edge of their winter range. They are only seen in less than 1% of sightings. Rough-legged Hawks are usually sighted hovering over marshes and open fields or perched on a pole.

  • Length: 18.5-20.5 in (47-52 cm)
  • Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz (715-1400 g)
  • Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in (132-138 cm)

The feathered legs give the Rough-legged Hawks their name and help to keep them warm in the arctic. They are fairly large hawks, between the size of a crow and a goose. 

This predominantly dark-drown species occurs in both light and dark forms, with dark patches at the bend of the wing, end of their tails, and across the belly. They have broad wings that are fairly long and narrow, compared to other hawks.

Lemmings and voles provide most of the prey for Rough-legged Hawks. Voles, mice, ground squirrels, and other small mammals provide winter prey in states such as North Carolina. Nests are usually on a high cliff ledge and they lay 3-5 pale bluish-white eggs.

7. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier Hawk for identification

The Northern Harrier is in North Carolina in the winter. This slim, longed-tailed Hawk can be seen gliding low over grassland or marshes.  They are spotted in 2% of recorded bird checklists.

  • Length: 18.1-19.7 in (46-50 cm)
  • Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz (300-750 g)
  • Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in (102-118 cm)

These hawks are slender with long broad wings and are between the size of a crow and goose.  They often fly with the tips of their wings higher than their bodies in a v-shape.  Females are brown and males are gray above and white below and they have a white rump patch.

Northern Harriers mostly eat small mammals and small birds. They nest on the ground in dense vegetation such as reeds, willows, or brushtails. They lay 4-5 dull white eggs

8. Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

The Northern Goshawk might be found in winter in North Carolina but very rarely as this is the edge of their winter territory. They are seen in less than 1% of sightings.

They live in large forests so are hard to find, especially as they are very secretive and can be aggressive if you get too close to a nest.

They are the bigger and fiercer relative of the Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. These hawks are between the size of a crow and a goose. They are mostly gray with short, broad wings and a long tail. They have a white stripe over the eye and yellow eyes.

  • Length: 20.9-25.2 in (53-64 cm)
  • Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz (631-1364 g)
  • Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in (103-117 cm)

Goshawks live in large tracks of mostly coniferous or mixed forests. They watch for prey on high perches and mostly eat medium-sized birds and small mammals.

Northern Goshawks prepare up to eight nests and lay between 2-4 bluish-white eggs.