Hawks are birds of prey and hunt and eat birds and small mammals, snakes, and frogs. They can see ultraviolet light, which helps them hunt down their prey.
There are 9 species of hawks recognized on state checklists as regularly occurring in Montana, and an additional species is considered rare or accidental.
To find Hawks 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.
This guide will help you identify the species of hawks in Montana according to avibase and ordered by the number of sighting recorded on ebird. Some of these birds migrate, and some remain all year, and this information is included for each species.
The most common hawk in both summer and winter in Montana are Red-tailed Hawks. Hawks migrate, and hawks that are more common here in summer include the Northern Harrier and Swainson’s Hawk, and hawks that are more common in winter are Rough-legged Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks.
There are 10 species of Hawk in Montana:
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Northern Harrier
- Rough-legged Hawk
- Sharp-shinned Hawk
- Swainson’s Hawk
- Cooper’s Hawk
- Ferruginous Hawk
- Northern Goshawk
- Broad-winged Hawk
- Red-shouldered Hawk
The 10 Species of Hawk in Montana:
1. Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawks are the most frequently spotted hawks during summer and winter in Montana. They appear in 16% of summer checklists and 17% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.
As their name suggests, Red-tailed Hawks have a distinctive short, wide red tail. They are large, with broad, rounded wings. Most Red-tailed Hawks are brown on the back and pale underneath.
They are also the easiest to spot, often on long car journeys, as they circle slowly over open fields looking for prey such as small mammals, birds, and reptiles. You can also see them perched on telephone poles.
- 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)
- 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)
Red-tailed Hawk Call:
The high-pitched descending raspy-screech sound of the Red-tailed Hawk is often used in movies for all birds of prey.
Red-tailed Hawks remain resident in the US and Mexico, but those birds in Alaska, Canada, and the northern Great Plains fly south for winter.
Nests are high in tall trees, cliff ledges, and sometimes on tall buildings or towers. They lay 2-3 whitish, brown-spotted eggs.
2. Northern Harrier
In summer, Northern Harriers are the second most frequently spotted hawks in Montana and appear in 7% of checklists.
In winter, most of the birds migrate south, and they are the third on the list and appear in 3% of checklists. They are most commonly spotted here during the spring and fall migration in April and September.
Northern Harriers are slender with long broad wings and are between the size of a crow and a 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.
- 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)
Northern Harriers that breed in Alaska, Canada, the northern Great Plains, and the Northeast before migrating south for the winter to southern states, Mexico and Central America. Those in the middle of the range remain all year.
This slim, longed-tailed hawk can be seen gliding low over grassland or marshes.
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.
3. Rough-legged Hawk
In winter, Rough-legged Hawks are the second most frequently spotted hawks in Montana and appear in 17% of checklists. They are seen from October to April, then they fly north for the breeding season.
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 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 relatively long and narrow compared to other hawks.
- 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)
Rough-legged Hawks breed in Alaska and northern Canada before migrating to the US for winter. They are usually sighted hovering over marshes and open fields or perched on a pole.
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 West Virginia. Nests are usually on a high cliff ledge, and they lay 3-5 pale bluish-white eggs.
4. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Some Sharp-shinned Hawks are residents of Montana all year, but some migrate south for the winter. They are more commonly seen in the mountainous west of the state.
Adult Sharp-shinned Hawks are small hawks with blue-gray across the back and red-orange breasts. They have dark bands across their tails.
The females are a third larger than the male. They have long square-ended tails, short rounded wings, and 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)
Sharp-shined Hawks that breed in Canada and some northern states migrate south. Those birds in the Appalachians and Western Mountains may remain all year.
Sharp-shined Hawks 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.
5. Swainson’s Hawk
Swainson’s Hawks are only seen in Montana from April to September for the breeding season. They are the third most frequently spotted hawks in summer and appear in 4% of checklists.
Swainson’s Hawks are long-winged hawks with short tails and pointed wingtips. They are usually brown or gray mottled on the back and with lighter bellies and brown or red chests.
When in flight, you can see the contrast between the black flight feathers on the lower edges of the wings and tips and the white upper part of the wing (called the linings).
- Length: 18.9-22.1 in (48-56 cm)
- Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz (693-1367 g)
Swainson’s Hawks can be found in open country in the West and over the Great Plains in the summer before heading to South America for winter in large flocks, reaching into the thousands. They breed as far as British Columbia and Alaska and in the West from the Pacific to the Midwest.
May and September are the best times to see these hawks as they migrate long distances and are famous for providing spectacular displays in the tens of thousands of birds during the day.
Swainson’s Hawks hunt for rodents by perching on any high points, such as utility poles or fences, making them easier to spot in the relatively flat lands where they hunt. If no high points are available, they may be found on the ground in grassland and fields, hunting for insects.
They may also eat Burrowing Owls in areas where they are abundant, but they are not fussy and eat anything from snakes and lizards to bats, mice, and rabbits or crickets and dragonflies.
There are not many nest sites in the open country for Swainson’s Hawks, so they use any trees near fields or low mesquite bushes and power poles. The nests are a large collection of twigs and sticks and can be up to 2 feet wide and up to a foot high. The inside of the nest is lined with softer material, such as dung, bark, wool, and grass.
6. Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s Hawks are not very common in Montana but they can be spotted in the national forests, mostly in the west of the state.
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.
- 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)
- 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)
Cooper’s Hawks remain resident over most of the US, but some in the north of the range, including Canada, migrate south for the winter down as far as Mexico and Honduras.
Look out for them at the edge of forests, but they can also be seen at feeders looking for an easy meal.
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.
7. Ferruginous Hawk
Although not very common in Montana, Ferruginous Hawks are seen in the state mostly during summer, from April to September, for the breeding season.
Ferruginous Hawks are the largest hawks in North America. They have large heads and long wings. To make identification harder, they come in a light and a dark morph, which can vary quite considerably in the color pattern.
The more common light morph Ferruginous Hawks are white underneath on the wings, belly, and head. Their backs and the upper side of the wings are a rusty brown, and they have darker legs. Immature light morphs have more brown spotting on the belly and legs.
Dark morphs are much rarer, and they have brown bellies and under the wings, except for white flight feathers on the wingtips and tail.
- Length: 22.1-27.2 in (56-69 cm)
- Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz (977-2074 g)
- Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in (133-142 cm)
Ferruginous Hawks are another species of hawk that lives in the open country of the West. They breed as far north as Southern Canada and down to Nevada and Utah. In winter, they move short distances to Southern States and Mexico. Some birds may remain residents all year in the middle of their range.
You can spot Ferruginous Hawks in grassland and shrublands in the low country. They do not cross the Rockies, even when migrating. Small mammals make up the majority of their diet, and depending on what is available, they eat jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits in the West and ground squirrels and prairie dogs in the East.
They are daytime hunters and hunt both on the wing and by perching or even hunting on the ground.
Their nests are very large and can measure 3 feet high and 3 feet across, and they can lay up to 8 eggs.
8. Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawks are rare hawks in Montana, but they can be spotted mostly in the southwest.
Northern Goshawks are the bigger and fiercer relative of the Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. They are mostly gray with short, broad wings and a long tail and have a white stripe over their 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)
Northern Goshawks are residents in Alaska, Canada, and the mountainous west. Some younger birds may migrate to Central States during the winter.
They live in large forests, so they are hard to find, especially as they are very secretive and can be aggressive if you get too close to a nest.
Northern 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.
9. Broad-winged Hawk
Broad-winged Hawks are quite rare in Montana but there are sightings around the state in 2021.
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)
Broad-winged Hawks breed in the Eastern US and Canada before migrating in large numbers to Central, and South America in a swirling flock called a kettle. As a result, the migration in the fall is often the best chance to see them.
Hunting from a perch, often on the edge of woods or 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.
10. Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawks are considered an accidental species in Montana and according to records, they were last spotted in 2006 in Olson Ranch.
Red-shouldered Hawks are distinctly marked, with dark, 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)
Red-shouldered Hawk Call:
Red-shouldered Hawks are resident in eastern states, but those in the Northeast may migrate further south for winter. These hawks are also residents on the West Coast.
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.
How Frequently Hawks are Spotted in Montana in Summer and Winter
Checklists for the state are a great resource to find out which birds are commonly spotted. These lists show which Hawks are most commonly recorded on checklists for Montana on ebird in summer and winter.
Hawks in Montana in Summer:
Red-tailed Hawk 16.7%
Northern Harrier 7.9%
Swainson’s Hawk 4.1%
Cooper’s Hawk 1.5%
Ferruginous Hawk 1.4%
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1.2%
Northern Goshawk 0.4%
Broad-winged Hawk 0.1%
Rough-legged Hawk <0.1%
Red-shouldered Hawk <0.1%
Hawks in Montana in Winter:
Red-tailed Hawk 17.7%
Rough-legged Hawk 17.0%
Northern Harrier 3.9%
Sharp-shinned Hawk 3.1%
Northern Goshawk 0.9%
Cooper’s Hawk 0.8%
Ferruginous Hawk 0.2%
Swainson’s Hawk <0.1%