Why Do Hawks Screech?

Even if you never go out to watch birds, chances are you have heard hawks screeching.

That’s due to the popularity of wildlife recording specialist Kevin Colver.

Colver co-authored Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Western Region.

He has recorded the songs and calls of every bird native to the American West. In the 1990s, he made a recording of the screech of the red-tailed hawk.

This recording is played in TV ads for pickup trucks. It frequently played on the Discovery Channel.

It’s substituted for the sounds eagles make in Hollywood movies. It’s even played on the Steven Colbert Show.

The fact that Colver’s screeching hawk is played over and over again tells us two things about bird sounds.

First, it’s really hard to get a good recording of a screech. In nearly 30 years since Colver made his famous recording, no one has made a better one.

And secondly, even scary sounds can bring us closer to nature. We all have a natural need to connect with birds.

However, for other kinds of wildlife, the screech of the hawk is a reason to seek cover.

You can listen to Kevin Colver’s recording of the screech of the red-tailed hawk on Montana State University’s Acoustic Atlas. Then read on to learn more fascinating facts about why hawks screech.

The Three Main Reasons Hawks Screech

Hawks screech as part of their mating ritual. They screech when they are hunting (but not for the reason you might think).

And they screech when they have hatchlings in the nest.

Hawks Screech During Mating Season

Hawks spend most of their adult lives alone. The only time you will see groups of hawks together is when they are looking for mates.

Screeching is one of the ways a male hawk announces it is in control of its territory.

If a male hawk is screeching while it is in flight, it is telling its potential rivals to stay away.

Male hawks also screech to impress their potential mate. Screeching conveys the message, “I will protect us.”

Screeching is also a way to tell other males that a female is unavailable. Hawks generally mate for life, and they will reuse the same nest every year unless it becomes unusable.

Hawks Screech When They Are Hunting

Few animals are fiercer hunters than hawks.

The sparrow hawk, for example, can achieve an attack speed of 30 miles per hour (about 50 kilometers per hour) in just two seconds.

In just four seconds, it can strike a target 50 years (about 50 meters) away.

This is possible because the sparrow hawk has explosive acceleration. Its long legs use its perch as a starting block. Its short, powerful wings scoop up the air, driving its lightweight body forward.

Once the hawk achieves attack speed, it keeps a low profile, hugging the ground. Flying low, the bird squeezes the air into a supportive cushion.

The bird generates enough pressure that leaves rustle and water ripples as it passes over them.

The sparrowhawk is highly maneuverable. It can fly around an obstacle in just a hundredths of a second. It can pull in its short wings to pass through the tiniest of gaps.

The bird uses its long tail to do its steering. And when it needs to make a turn, it fans out its tail to hit the brakes.

With this kind of speed and maneuverability, why does a hawk need to screech while it is hunting?

Actually, it doesn’t. But when it does screech in mid-flight, it distracts its prey just long enough for it to be looking for the attack in the wrong place. Hawks are very successful at taking small prey.

Hawks Screech When They Have Eggs or Young in Their Nest

Another situation in which hawks screech is when they have eggs or hatchlings in the nest.

Screeching acts as a kind of “No Trespassing” sign. Both males and females will screech to protect the nest.

Baby hawks will screech, too. Their sounds change as they get bigger.

If you hear screeching as you are approaching a tree that is taller than all the surrounding trees, or the side of a cliff, or an abandoned multi-story building, look out.

The sound you hear may be a hawk warning you to stay away, even though you don’t have a way to climb up to disturb its nest.

Also read: Hawk vs Falcon – What’s the difference?

Hawks Don’t Really Screech at Night

The movies use recordings of screeching haws in scenes set at all times of day and night.

In the natural world, however, if you hear a bird screeching at night, it probably is not a hawk.

Hawks are diurnal. That is, they are active during the day. They do most of their hunting at dusk, when nocturnal animals are hungriest, at their most eager to start foraging for food.

By the time it gets dark, hawks have returned to their nest or their roost for the night.

It is not impossible that a hawk could screech at night, if someone or something disturbed its nest.

But the main place you will hear hawks screeching at night is at the movies.

Also read: How Long Do Hawks Stay In One Area?

Different Species of Hawks Have Different Screeches

We are all familiar with the piercing screech of the red hawk, but other species of hawks make different sounds.

Broad-Winged Hawk

If you live anywhere in the eastern half of the United States or anywhere in the northern half of South America, as far south as Bolivia, you could have seen migrating flocks of thousands of broad-winged hawks.

Broad-winged Hawk

These groups of hawks are known as “kettles.” They whirl around as if they were riding an invisible tornado, covering up to 4,350 miles (6,910 km) twice a year.

Broad-winged hawks are small and stocky.

They have brown feathers on their backs and on their wings, with black-and-white bands on their tails. They prefer to nest in dense forests.

This hawk’s sound is not so much a screech as a whistle. If you are visiting a dense forest and hear a piercing whistle, look up. You may see broad-winged hawks circling overhead.

Below is a recording of the sound the broad-winged hawk makes on YouTube.

Common Black Hawk

Black hawks fish for food. In their habitat, along streams and rivers in Arizona south into Mexico and Central America, you might see them using their wings to herd fish into shallow water to make them easier to catch.

Common Black Hawk

Black hawks, as their name suggests, have black feathers. They have a yellow beak and white legs, as well as a white band on their tail.

You are most likely to notice them, if you are birdwatching in their range, as they dive into shallow water in search of a fish or a crayfish.

Common black hawks don’t really screech. They communicate with a squeaky, high-pitched single syllable, a kee sound.

Here is a recording of a common black hawk made by Gernt Vyn and stored in the Macaulay Library.

Cooper’s Hawk

You may spot a Cooper’s hawk any time of year across the southern three-fourths of the continental United States.

Cooper's Hawk

In the summer, they build nests as far north as southern Canada. In the winter, they may fly as far south as Honduras. This bird is also known as a chicken hawk.

If you encounter a Cooper’s hawk up close, you will notice that it has a large, squarish head. It has a hooked bill, ideal for tearing meat.

The feathers are light brown or gray, and the bird glides through the air, flapping its wings only occasionally.

Cooper’s hawks don’t screech except during mating season. You will most often hear a kak-kak-kak sound of the male defending the nest.

The female makes a kik sound to let the male know where she is. Females make a whaa sound when the male brings her food.

Here is a recording of Cooper’s hawks made by Spencer Hawley in New Mexico.

Ferruginous Hawk

The largest of all of the hawks in North America, the ferruginous hawk soars over the deserts and plains of the western United States and north-central Mexico.

Ferruginous Hawk

This hawk is large enough to capture and carry off a prairie dog or a ground squirrel, its principal food.

The ferruginous hawk gets its name from the rusty-red (ferruginous) coloration of the feathers on its shoulders and legs. It has a gray head, and white underparts.

These birds build their nests out of loose sticks laid down on the abandoned nests of other birds.

It’s not hard to recognize a ferruginous hawk in flight. Look for their long, narrow pointed wings, and their long, narrow legs held almost horizontally in front of them in a V-shape.

Five or 10 ferruginous hawks may descend on a single prairie dog den, attracting golden eagles that try to get in on the kill.

Ferruginous hawks make an unmistakable screech, as you can hear in this recording from All About Birds.

Gray Hawk

Once in a while, birdwatchers encounter gray hawks in the desert south of Phoenix, Arizona, or in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.

Gray Hawk

These tropical birds are much more common along the eastern and western coasts of Mexico and throughout Central America.

The gray hawk has raincloud-gray feathers with bars across its underparts.

They soar with updrafts during the middle of the day to scout out their favorite food, lizards, but mostly hunt at dusk and dawn.

The sound the gray hawk makes is closer to a whistle than a screech. It sounds a little like air coming out of a tire.

Harris’s Hawk

It’s easy to identify the handsome Harris’s Hawk. It has chestnut red and dark brown feathers, long yellow legs, and yellow markings on its face.

Harris's Hawk

In the United States, you will only see them in southern Arizona and South Texas, but they are common in Mexico and in numerous locations across South America.

Harris’s hawks are unusually social birds. They hunt together, taking turns chasing their prey.

They help each other build their nests. You may find as many as seven adult birds sharing the same nest. The females lay eggs every month of the year if food is abundant.

Harris’s hawk sounds more like a complaint than a screech. You can listen to its low-pitched grumble in the video below.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

The red-shouldered hawk, not to be confused with the red-tailed hawk mentioned at the beginning of this article, lives in tall trees near running water in the eastern United States and eastern Mexico, as well as close to the coast in northern California and Oregon. These birds like to feed on frogs and snakes.

Red-shouldered Hawk

They are enemies of great horned owls, and will sometimes take baby great horned owls out of their nests. They will steal food from crows.

You can recognize red-shouldered hawks by their peachy-reddish underparts and their strongly banded tails. The sun shines through the tips of their wings.

Adult red-shouldered hawks make a hoarse kee-eee-arr sound as they are soaring. Their mating call is a shrill chwirk.

Listen to a recording of their calls on All About Birds from Cornell University,.

Some Surprising Facts About Screeching in Hawks

Screeches made by hawks are loud, about 75 to 80 decibels.

That is about as loud as a garbage disposal, a lawn mower, an old-style vacuum cleaner, or the sound of street traffic at rush hour. You can’t ignore it. The hawk’s potential prey won’t either.

The screeching of a hawk sets off chatter among other animals.

Even if an animal at risk for becoming the hawk’s next meal doesn’t hear the screech, it will hear the warning chatter made by other birds and squirrels.

Warning chatter among prey animals is much quieter than the hawk’s screech, just 40 decibels.

These warning whispers are only 1/10,000th as loud as the hawk’s screech.

But warning chatter cues animals to find cover, saving at least one animal’s life, and helping all the others use their energy efficiently.

This way, they only forage for food when it is safe. Even lizards, which cannot make any warning calls of their own, pay attention to warning chatter about hawks and other predators.

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