Different Types of Hawks (Buteos, Kites, Eagles, Accipiters)

If you’ve seen any of the Jurassic Park movies, you know about raptors.

Today’s hawks, along with falcons and vultures, are also known as raptors.

They’ve earned the title with their powerful talons and sharp, tearing beak. Like the dinosaur of the same name, they’re fearsome hunters.

Some soar for miles in search of food, diving for the kill. Others spring from hiding to snatch unwary prey. Of the approximately 235 species of hawks in the world, 24 appear in North America.

Often seen only from a distance, hawks can be difficult to tell apart. But the mystery is solvable with patience and a few clues.

For example, a wing shape can help determine if a hawk is a buteo.

This article covers the different types of hawks you can find in North America

The buteos, which make up the largest genus, are a good place to start.

Buteos

Even within the same species, buteos can show a lot of variation. This is especially true in Red-tailed Hawks, but it holds for other species as well.

Most buteos have dark forms and light forms.

Some even have intermediate forms. Juveniles and adults of any form can look quite different.

But take heart. Plumage patterns and patterns of behavior can help you get a positive ID.

Red-tailed Hawk

North America boasts five Red-tailed Hawk subspecies: Western, Southwestern, Eastern, Krider’s, and Harlan’s.

Red-tailed Hawk

All of them, except the Harlan’s, sport a distinctive red tail–as adults. For their first year, juveniles lack the red tail.

Red-tailed Hawks are common and widely distributed in North America. You’ll see them perched on utility poles, fence posts and trees along roadways.

Some pairs have even nested on city buildings. These hawks also will perch on utility wires. Only one other buteo, the Broad-winged Hawk, does this.

The Western, Southwestern, and Eastern Red-tails typically stay in their region.

However, where the ranges come together, they blend, increasing variation. The pale Krider’s Red-tail tends to prefer prairie habitats and is uncommon. The Harlan’s variant is also unusual and has a gray, rather than red, tail.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks stand out as among the most colorful of their genus.

Red-shouldered Hawk

As adults, all three types–California, Eastern, and Florida–have pale- to dark-orange shoulders and breast, with California birds the most striking.

At 17 inches long with a 40-inch wingspan, Red-shouldered Hawks are among the smaller buteos. But what they lack in size, they make up for in beauty and sound. They vocalize often and with gusto, using a high, clear territorial call that carries far.

Red-Shouldered Hawks prefer forests and like to be near water. They hunt from a perch, feeding on reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

Zone-tailed Hawk

Adult Zone-tailed Hawks have a narrower white band as well the broad white band on their tail.

Zone-tailed Hawk

The bands appear gray from above. First-year juveniles do not have the whitetail bands but do show narrow gray banding on their tail.

These hawks prefer wooded canyons and woods along rivers. They hunt small mammals and birds on the wing from high above. Zone-tailed Hawks are found in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as large areas of Mexico.

They spend the winter in southern Mexico and in Central and South America. Rarely, they appear in Utah, Nevada, and California.

Broad-winged Hawk

Rather shy, Broad-winged Hawks spend much of their time hunting from a woodland perch.

Broad-winged Hawk

They’re the smallest of the buteos. During migration, they travel together in large numbers.

They’re found throughout the eastern half of the United States. In Canada, they appear from southern New Brunswick through southern Manitoba and in central Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Broad-winged Hawks occur in light and dark forms. You’re most likely to see the light form, as the dark form is rare.

Adult light-form birds have dark wing-tips, with the dark color extending the length of the wings’ trailing edge. The tail features a white band and a narrow white stripe at the tip.

Adult dark-form Broad-winged Hawks also have a light tail band and tip, They share the dark wingtips and trailing edge but, seen from below, show much more dark coloration.

White-tailed Hawk

In appearance, White-tailed Hawks have three distinct phases: First-year and second-year juvenile and adult. Juveniles also have two forms: light and dark. So there’s a lot of variation to take into account.

White-tailed Hawk

However, first- and second-year juveniles are always quite a bit darker than adults. Adults have an unmarked white breast and a white tail with a dark band near the tip.

First-year light juveniles feature a white patch on the breast and a gray tail. First-year dark juveniles have a smaller white patch and a gray tail. Overall, they show much less white on the wings and body.

The appearance of light and dark juveniles becomes identical in the second year. Both have a white breast patch, reddish shoulders, and dark band near the tail tip.

White-tailed Hawks occur along the coast of Texas and eastern Mexico. They hover or kite (hold position by hanging in the wind) to hunt birds and small mammals.

Short-tailed Hawk

These hawks are found in northern and central Florida during the summer and year-round in southern Florida. They also occur year-round throughout coastal Mexico.

Short-tailed Hawk

Short-tailed Hawks have light and dark forms, with the dark form more common. In Florida, the dark form accounts for about 80 percent of the population.

Difficult to see when not in flight, Short-tailed Hawks prefer the forest and perch in the canopy, out of sight. When hunting, they fly high over the forest and kite. Small birds make up the bulk of their diet.

When in flight, light adult Short-tailed Hawks show dark wingtips and a dark trailing edge.

The body and much of the wings are unmarked white. The adult dark form substitutes solid dark coloration where the light form is white.

Light juveniles display more white on the wings than the adult. Dark juveniles have a dark throat and upper breast and black-and-gray streaking where the adult is solid dark.

Swainson’s Hawk

In North America, Swainson’s Hawks summer throughout most of the western United States. They also occur in northern Mexico and southern Canada, west of Ontario.

Swainson's Hawk

They’re found locally during the winter in the eastern U.S. and, in summer, along the East Coast.

During migration, they appear in most of Mexico. They come in three forms: light, intermediate and dark, the light form being most common.

Light-form first-year juvenile Swainson’s Hawks can appear white-headed. When in flight, their wings have dark tips and trailing edges.

Light adults show a white face and a dark-orange breast. Intermediate first-year juveniles have much less white on the wings and body than light juveniles.

Intermediate adults have a white face, dark breasts, and dark-orange belly.

When flying, dark juveniles are mostly dark gray to black with some dull white at the base of the tail underneath. Dark adults in flight have a very dark body with brownish shoulders

Swainson’s Hawks use a variety of hunting methods, including perching, kiting, coursing (flying low over the ground) and walking. They prefer grasslands, where they find small mammals and insects.

Among North American raptors, Swainson’s Hawks probably hold the record for migration distance. They cover as much as 5,000 miles to reach their wintering grounds in Argentina.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawks are built for the cold, with small feet, small bill, and insulating plumage.

Rough-legged Hawk

They summer in the Arctic and winter in the United States and southwest Canada.

Among the larger buteos, they prefer open tundra, fields, and marshes and hunt rodents by hovering.

Dark and light forms of Rough-legged Hawks occur, with the dark form predominating. Unlike other buteo adults, telling the male from the female is relatively easy.

For example, light-form adult males, seen from below, tend to be much lighter than adult females. Adult dark-form males, on the other hand, are darker than adult females.

Ferruginous Hawk

Found year-round in the west-central U.S., Ferruginous Hawks hunt from a perch or by kiting.

Ferruginous Hawk

Their range includes much of Mexico in the winter and extreme southwest Canada in the summer. They are the largest of the buteos.

Ferruginous Hawks occur in light and dark forms, with the light form seen more often. Light juvenile birds are almost entirely white when seen from below.

Light adults show reddish-brown at the shoulders with a streak of reddish-brown on the underside of the wings.

Dark juveniles and dark adults are similar, but juveniles show a little more pattern on the tail.

From above, adults show a light gray tail. Juveniles have a dark gray tail.

Buteo-like Hawks

Although they’re from different genera, buteo-like hawks can be mistaken for buteos quite easily. They share behaviors and sometimes appearances with buteos.

Common Black Hawk

Easily mistaken for Zone-tailed Hawks, especially as adults, Common Black Hawks have broader wings.

Common Black Hawk

Whereas juvenile Zone-tailed Hawks are gray to black underneath, Common Black Hawk juveniles show patterned brown and white. They’re also smaller and show a brown tinge on their wings.

From a perch near streams, they hunt amphibians. In summer, they can be found in Arizona and extreme southern Utah, as well as northern Mexico. They winter in Mexico.

Harris’s Hawk

Not to be confused with Red-shouldered Hawks, Harris’s Hawks have a good deal of red on their wings as both juveniles and adults.

Harris's Hawk

However, they lack the barred tail as both juvenile and adult.

They also show a darkly streaked breast and belly as juveniles. As adults, they have solid dark fronts. Red-shouldered Hawks are dark- to light-orange on breast and belly.

Harris’s Hawks are found most often in groups of two or three in brushy areas. They hunt mammals and birds.

Gray Hawk

Gray Hawks spend the summer in southeast Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and northwest Mexico. They winter in western Mexico. Preferring woods along rivers, they prey on small animals.

Gray Hawk

Juvenile Gray Hawks have boldly striped white cheeks and brown-spotted breast and belly.

Viewed from above, they show a narrowly banded tail with white at the base. Adults are overall gray with dark wingtips. Their tail shows three broad, dark bands.

Accipiters

The three North American species in this genus can be difficult to tell apart.

However, Northern Goshawks are more easily distinguished from Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks than the latter two are from each other.

Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk

Side-by-side with Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks are obviously different, particularly in size.

Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper's Hawk

They’re much smaller. But other than size, the two species are almost identical in appearance and behavior.

Even size can be tricky, because the males of both species are small relative to the females.

Both hawks chase smaller birds, dodging trees and bushes in pursuit of a meal. Both are long-tailed and short-winged and look almost alike as juveniles and adults. Adults have an orange breast and belly.

Their ranges often overlap, although Sharp-shinned Hawks are found north through Canada and Alaska in summer.

Cooper’s Hawks summer in southern Canada and the north-central U.S. They appear year-round in much more of the U.S. than Sharp-shinned Hawks. Both species can be found in Mexico year-round.

Northern Goshawk

At 21 inches long, Northern Goshawks are 10 inches bigger than Sharp-shinned Hawks and four and a half inches longer than Cooper’s Hawks.

Northern Goshawk

Like the smaller species, Northern Goshawks have a brown-streaked breast and belly as juveniles but lack the orange breast and belly as adults. Instead, they’re gray-fronted.

Northern Goshawks like forests, both mixed and coniferous, where they hunt birds by attacking from thick cover.

Harriers

Only one species of harrier occurs in North America. Northern Harriers course over marshes and fields, pouncing on small mammals and birds for food.

Harriers

Adult males and females of this species are easily distinguished. The smaller male shows much white underneath with dark wingtips and trailing edges.

When the males are perched or seen from above, the wings appear gray. Adult females show wing barring underneath, with brown streaking on the breast and belly.

First-year juveniles have an orange breast and belly. All adults and juveniles have white at the base of the tail when viewed from above.

Northern Harriers range extensively through North America, summering throughout Canada to Alaska.

They winter in western British Columbia, the southern and southwestern U.S., and Mexico. Year-round, they occur in a broad swath from Ohio to the West Coast.

Kites

Five species of kite make their home in North America. Two of them feed mostly on snails.

The other three species eat primarily insects. Except for Mississippi Kites, most of these birds are rarely seen far from coastal areas in the U.S. In Mexico, the White-tailed Kite appears inland.

Hook-billed Kite

With their large, prominently hooked bill, Hook-billed Kites are well-adapted to feeding on tree snails.

Hook-billed Kite

They find their prey by mimicking parrots, moving through the vegetation, often in family groups. They occur in extreme southern Texas, south into Mexico.

Adult male Hook-billed Kites are gray, with a gray- and white-streaked breast and belly and gray- and black-banded tail. Adult females have orange cheeks and breasts with an orange-streaked belly.

First-year juveniles have white cheeks with a lightly orange-streaked breast and belly.

Snail Kite

Snail Kites feed on water snails by picking them, in flight, off blades of marsh grass.

Snail Kite

They have a slender, prominently hooked bill. They’re seen mostly in central Florida during the summer.

Adult and juvenile Snail Kites have a white patch at the base of the tail. Adult males are overall gray with bright orange legs and feet. Adult females also have orange legs and feet and are heavily streaked on the breast and belly.

First-year juveniles are browner than females, with yellow to orange legs and feet. They’re heavily streaked on the breast and belly.

White-tailed Kite

Rodents make up the diet of White-tailed Kites. They hover and drop on their prey from above. They’re seen year=round from California through Oregon, in south Texas, and in Mexico.

White-tailed Kite

Male and female White-tailed Kites look alike. They show black shoulders when perched or seen from above.

Their breast, belly, and tail are bright white, and a black spot appears at each wrist. First-year juveniles also have black shoulders as well as a black spot at the wrist.

When they’re very young, they feature a brownish “collar.”

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kites are seen as far from the Gulf Coast as Kansas in the summer. They snatch insects in flight with their feet, using a technique called “flycatching.”

Mississippi Kite

Adult male and female Mississippi Kites are similar in appearance. They have gray wings and a gray breast and belly. Their head is a lighter gray. Adult males show some white on their wings. Both sexes have a dark tail.

First-year juveniles have a reddish-brown, heavily streaked breast, and belly and reddish-brown on the wings when viewed from below.

Swallow-tailed Kite

In the summer, Swallow-tailed Kites stay close to the southeast coast of the U.S.

Swallow-tailed Kite

They can also be seen throughout Florida at that time of year. They practice flycatching for food and also take lizards and insects from treetops.

Adult males and females of this, the largest North American kite, are identical.

Their swallow-tail, along with their black-and-white plumage make them unmistakable.

First-year juveniles are also easy to identify, their black-and-white dress modified only by a hint of reddish-brown that disappears soon after they leave the nest.

Eagles

Golden Eagle

With a wing-span of more than six feet, Golden Eagles can weigh up to 10 pounds.

Golden Eagle

They range throughout much of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, hunting birds and mammals.

To capture their prey, they often “stoop,” diving headlong from a considerable height.

Juvenile, adult female, and adult male Golden Eagles show the golden nape for which they’re named. First-year juveniles have white wing patches and white-tails with a dark band at the bottom.

Second-year juveniles have far less white on wings and tail. Adult males and females have dark gray and brown wings.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles symbolize the United States and so have special stature. Once deemed endangered, their population has increased significantly, and they now range throughout most of North America.

Bald Eagle

They eat primarily fish, but will also scavenge and feed on waterfowl.

Adult male and female Bald Eagles have bright white heads and tails that, along with their size, make these birds so distinctive. Their wingspan is slightly broader than that of the Golden Eagles.

Second-year juveniles show more white on their wings, body, and tail than do first-year juveniles when viewed from below.

Osprey

A dark eyestripe, along with long, narrow wings and dark wrist patches set this species apart.

They don’t fit in easily with other hawks and are therefore sometimes classified as their own family.

Osprey

Juvenile Ospreys show a short-lived reddish-brown breast and whitish “scales” on their wings.

Adults of both sexes have uniformly gray wings when seen from above and a distinctive white and gray pattern when viewed from below.

Ospreys hover and drop to the water feet-first to catch fish. They range through the entire continental U.S., much of Canada and Alaska, and all of Mexico.

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