8 Species of Hawk in North Carolina

Hawks are beautiful and powerful birds of prey. Like all other birds, they also have different types of hawks. This means that different types of hawks are different in appearance. So, all hawks are not of the same size.

They are not look-alikes and differ in appearance. The biggest of the lot in North Carolina is the Rough-legged hawk and the tiniest of the lot in North Carolina is the sharp-shinned hawk.

Although there are many hawks in North Carolina, the one that is spotted the most is the Red-tailed Hawk.

Total 8 Species of Hawks 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

Birds of prey are fascinating creatures and they are around us in plain sight. The way they soar in the air and swoop down on their prey displays amazing strength and power. There are many interesting questions that come up in our minds when we think of these birds.

One is “What birds of prey are up in the sky right above me now?” “Will I be able to tell the Sharp-shinned hawk from the Coopers Hawk?” We may not be aware of answers to basic questions such as “What are the different types of hawks we can hope to see in North Carolina?” If you are curious about the answers to these questions and want to get a lot more information, then, this article is the best guide for you.

Let us start with the very basics. What do birds of prey do? Well, these powerful birds swoop down from the air and carry away their food such as birds, small mammals, snakes, and frogs. These birds are able to spot their prey on the land even when they are high up in the air. This means that they should have amazingly good eyesight. It is true that these magnificent birds have an ultraviolet vision. This exceptional quality helps them track down prey that are rather small from a height.

Just as the height of the hawks differs, the places where they live also differs. If you live in North Carolina and want to see hawks, then there are many places that you can head out to. The smaller hawks like the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s hawk live in places such as woodlands. However, if you are interested in the larger variety, then the open grassland, marshes or high ridges are the best places to find them.

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

Here’s 8 Species of Hawk in North Carolina

Sharp-shinned Hawk

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is usually spotted in the colder months in North Carolina. You should consider yourself lucky if you spot one for it is not easy to see one. The number of sightings of this bird adds up to less than 2 percent of all the bird sightings in North Carolina.

 This bird has the distinction of being the smallest hawk in North Carolina. To understand their size, think of a size that is a little smaller than a crow but a little bigger than a Jay.

There is a lot of difference in the size of the males and the females. The females are bigger than the males, in fact, a third larger. Their tails are long and the end is square in shape. Their wings are actually short and rounded. Their heads are not very big.

  • 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)

The bird looks very colorful after they become adults. The two principal colors are blue-gray which runs across the back. Their breasts are a flaming red-orange. Apart from this, they have dark bands running across their tails.

They are normally evasive because they are secretive. However, it is not impossible to see them because they are sighted when they cross areas near the edges of forests on the path of their flight. These nimble and sprightly birds can make their way through thick forests also very easily. They do this in order to grab their prey as they are flying. They usually target songbirds.

The feeders in your backyard do not attract only small birds. They may be the reason for these hawks also to come in. The problem is that they come in here only to grab the smaller birds that come to feed on the feeders. If this bothers you, there is a solution to this problem. You just have to withdraw the feeder for a short time, maybe for a couple of weeks and this will stop these hawks from flying in.

These birds are so powerful that they can pluck their prey off a stump or a low branch. Their favorite food is songbirds. They are capable of devouring birds that are as big as a robin.

These secretive birds cannot be expected to make their nests in the open. And as expected, their nests are often hidden in thick forests and are not easily visible. They make their nests in conifer trees and that too, high up on tall trees. Their nests are not small. In fact, they may be 1 – 2 feet in diameter. Their depth could reach 4 – 6 inches deep. Their eggs are white or pale blue and they are spotted. Every time these birds lay eggs, there are about 3 to 8 eggs.

Cooper’s Hawk

If you want to spot these birds in North Carolina, look for them in winter. They are not as uncommon as the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Their sighting is 2 percent more than that of the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

They are normally sighted in the periphery of forests. However, they do come to feeders in search of the smaller birds which become their prey.  These smaller birds come to the feeders to eat some food and it is easier for the hawks to grab them here than in flight.

The cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-shinned Hawk are look-alikes. They look extremely similar and it is not at all easy to differentiate between them. The colors that the two birds have on their bodies are the same blue-gray and red-orange. The Cooper’s Hawk also has a blue-gray back and red-orange breast. Their tails also have dark bands. The thing that is different is probably the size. The Cooper’s Hawk is larger and is about the size of a crow. Another distinguishing feature is the head. The Cooper’s Hawk has a bigger head than juts outside the wings.


  • 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)

What about the diet of these birds? Well, they eat birds that are not too big or too small. For their nesting habits, they choose trees that are really tall. Very often, the chosen place is over an abandoned nest of a big bird. At times, they also use clumps of mistletoe that are lying around. Their eggs are pale blue to bluish-white. They lay about 2 to 6 eggs.

Red-shouldered Hawk

The Red-shouldered Hawk lives all its life in North Carolina. They visit the coasts regularly during the colder months. These birds are not very rare to see. They are spotted very easily and in fact, they find a place in 13 percent of birding checklists for North Carolina on ebird.org

Apart from being sighted easily, these birds can also be identified very easily. This is because of the unique features that they exhibit. Their wings look beautiful with the black and white checkered patterns on them. There is a reddish barring on their breasts. They are not as large as the swan or as small as the crow. They have distinct bands running across their tails. The sound that they make is peculiar to them and it sounds like a cack-cack-cack-cack.

  • 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)

Their favorite food is mammals and frogs and snakes. This diet decides where they spend their time. They are normally seen in the vicinity of streams or ponds. They make their nests also near a water body. They do not build nests every year but prefer to use ones that were used the previous year. They choose trees with broad leaves for their nests. Their eggs are white or bluish and there are about 2 -5 of these every time they lay eggs.

Broad-winged Hawk

The breeding place of these birds is towards the west of North Carolina. They travel in flocks when it is time to migrate to South America. These flocks have a name and they are called kettles. Though they breed extensively in North Carolina, spotting them there is a challenge and they barely make it to 1 percent of recorded checklists on ebird.org. So, when do we look for them? The best time to spot them is when they migrate and they normally migrate during the fall.

These birds which are rigid and thickset match a size between that of a crow and a goose. Their heads are reddish-brown. Their breasts are barred and their tails which are short and square have narrow bands on them.  

  • 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)

The birds of prey spot their prey from a height and swoop down unannounced to grab them. It is most convenient for the Broad-winged Hawk to hunt like this from a high branch of a tree. They hunt near woods or in areas close to water bodies. This is because they find their favorite food in such places. They live on small mammals, frogs, snakes, and surprisingly, even feed on turtles that are young.

Though some other hawks use the nests of other animals, the Broad-winged Hawk does not prefer to do so. Even if it is presented with the opportunity of using a nest abandoned by a crow or a squirrel, it rejects it. It lays about 2-3 eggs which are whitish in color.

Red-tailed Hawks

Red-tailed Hawks live in North Carolina all months of the year. It is pretty standard to see these birds in these areas. They are seen in 9 percent of sightings in North Carolina. It is not at all difficult to see them. These birds are in the habit of going around in circles in the sky as they search for preys for them to swoop down on. At times, they are seen sitting 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)

In accordance to their name, the Red-tailed Hawk has a red tail. The tail is not very long and it is wide also. These birds are not at all small. They are huge and their wings are rounded and really broad. They are not as small as a crow nor are they as big as a goose. They have two other colors on their bodies. Their backs are brown and the underneath is colorless.

The sound made by these birds is not something that can be missed. It is shrill and scratchy and is so apt for raptors that it is used in movies that feature raptors. The diet of these birds is small mammals, birds, and reptiles.

Their nests are not at a height that can be reached easily. They build their nests in trees that are extremely tall or on cliff ledges. Their nests have been spotted even in tall buildings or towers. The eggs of this bird are white with brown spots.

Rough-legged Hawk

These beautiful birds have a migratory path that takes them from the arctic to North Carolina during the colder months. This state is in the extreme end of the places they visit in the winter and so not too many of them make it to this place. As a result of this, they are rare in the state. The number of sightings of this bird is actually less than 1 percent. They are in the habit of gliding over marshes and open fields and can often be seen doing this or sitting 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)

How did these birds get their name? Their name relates to their legs which are covered with feathers. This gives their legs a rugged look and hence the name. These feathers on their legs serve a purpose. They help to keep the birds warm when they need to be kept warm. The size of these birds can be said to be moderately big. Imagine a size that is not as small as a crow and not as big as a goose. This is the size of the Rough-legged Hawks.

The specialty of this bird is that there are two types in the same species. These birds are chiefly dark brown, but they can be either light or dark forms of color. They have dark patches in various parts of their bodies.  For instance, the bend of the wing, end of the tails, and the whole belly have dark patches. These gliding birds have wings that are really broad that are lengthy too. This is in comparison to the other kinds of hawks that we see.

They glide in the air and swoop down on unsuspecting prey such as voles, mice, ground squirrels and other small mammals. The preys that is caught very often by these birds are lemmings and voles. Like some other hawks, these hawks also do not build their nests low down. They nest at places as high as a high cliff ledge. Their eggs are bluish-white and they lay about 3 – 5 eggs in one go.

Northern harrier

These slender hawks have lengthy tails. They keep gliding on top of grasslands or marshes looking for prey that may be lurking below. They do not fly very high when they glide like this. They find place in 2 percent 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)

Though these hawks are very slim and slender, their wings are pretty broad. If you want to understand their size, think of a size between that of a crow and a goose. The way they fly is different from the usual way that birds fly. They hold the tips of their wings a little higher than their bodies and this gives their bodies a v shape. The females and males are differently colored. Males are gray on top and white underneath and in the rump whereas the females are brown.

Their diet mainly comprises small mammals and little birds. They build their nests in places that are overgrown with plants such as reeds, willows, or brushtails. Their eggs are white but not bright white. They lay about 4 – 5 eggs.

Northern Goshawk

The Northern Goshawk spends the colder season in North Carolina. This area is the outer periphery of their migratory area and so not many of them frequent this place. In fact, they are so few here that they account for less than 1 percent of sightings.

They are not so easy to spot and there are quite a few compelling reasons for this. The first reason is that their place of residence is a forest that is not small by any measure and so it is tough to spot them. The second reason is that these birds are very reserved and secretive in nature. Last but not the least, they can get very hostile and aggressive if you happen to be too close to their nests.

In many ways, they are similar to the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. However, they are not entirely similar. The Goshawks are much larger than their cousins and they are also more intensely ferocious than them. Their size ranges between that of the crow and the goose. These birds are largely gray. Their wings are broad but not very long, unlike their tails which are really long. Their eyes are uniquely yellow and there is a beautiful white stripe over the eyes.

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)

These birds also inhabit forests that are not small at all. Their first preference is coniferous forests but they also live in mixed forests. They sit on high branches which they use as a launchpad to swoop down and grab their prey which is mostly medium-sized birds and small mammals.

They do not build just one nest but 8. Their eggs are bluish-white and they lay about 2 -4 eggs.

About the author

Hi, I'm Andrew. I am a highly experienced birder with a passionate interest in bird behavior and ecology. I have worked extensively with both captive and wild birds, conducting research on their natural history, physiology, and conservation. My work has taken me all over the world, and I have been lucky enough to observe some of the rarest and most exclusive species on earth. I am also an experienced teacher, having taught ornithology at both the college and high school levels.

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