9 Species of Hawks in Minnesota

In the vast and diverse state of Minnesota, there exists a fascinating array of hawks, each with its own unique characteristics and habits. With a grand total of 9 species, these majestic birds of prey soar through the skies, captivating both nature enthusiasts and birdwatchers alike. Amongst the group, the Red-tailed Hawk holds the crown for the most common hawk in the entire United States, a mighty presence in Minnesota throughout the year. Meanwhile, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the smallest hawk in Canada and the U.S., stealthily lurks around backyard feeders. With its larger stature, the Cooper’s Hawk also claims its territory in Minnesota year-round. The Broad-winged Hawk, on the other hand, marks its presence with a breeding range and an impressive migration – a spectacle witnessed in the form of grand flocks. Southern and western regions are graced by the elegant Swainson’s Hawk during its breeding season and witness one of North America’s longest migratory journeys in its departure. Lastly, the Northern Harrier proves to be a master of disguise with its owl-like face, appearing in different parts of Minnesota at different times of the year. With such a rich variety, exploring the world of hawks in Minnesota becomes an opportunity to marvel at the wonders of the natural world.

Red-tailed Hawk

Characteristics

The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is one of the most common hawks in the United States and can be found in Minnesota all year long. This majestic bird is known for its striking appearance and large size. Adults usually measure around 18-26 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 43-56 inches. They are easily recognizable by their reddish-brown tail feathers which give them their name. Red-tailed Hawks also have a dark brown to gray-brown back and pale underparts with a belly band. They have a hooked beak, sharp talons, and piercing eyes.

Range

Red-tailed Hawks have a vast range and are found throughout North America. In Minnesota, they can be spotted in a variety of habitats including forests, prairies, farmlands, and even urban areas. They are well-adapted to different environments and can thrive in both open spaces and dense woodlands.

Habits

Red-tailed Hawks are powerful and opportunistic hunters. They primarily feed on small mammals such as mice, voles, and rabbits, but they can also eat birds, reptiles, and even carrion. They use their keen eyesight to locate prey from a high perch or while soaring in the sky. When hunting, they swoop down with incredible speed to capture their target with their sharp talons. Red-tailed Hawks are also known for their impressive courtship displays, which involve spiraling flights and talon-grasping rituals. They are monogamous birds and usually mate for life. Nesting high up on trees, cliffs, or man-made structures, these hawks build large nests where they raise their young.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Characteristics

The Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is a medium-sized hawk known for its distinctive red shoulders and barred underparts. They have a length of about 16-24 inches and a wingspan of 37-43 inches. Their upperparts are dark brown, and their heads are finely streaked with tawny, creating a beautiful pattern. Like most hawks, they have a hooked beak and sharp talons.

Range

Red-shouldered Hawks can be found in eastern and western parts of the United States, including Minnesota. They inhabit deciduous forests and woodland areas near water sources, which provide them with suitable hunting grounds and nesting sites.

Habits

These hawks prefer to hunt from perches, patiently scanning the ground for prey. Their diet consists of small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and occasionally birds. Red-shouldered Hawks are known for their loud and distinctive vocalizations, including a high-pitched scream that can carry for long distances. During courtship displays, they engage in a “sky dance,” where they soar high into the air, locking talons and spiraling downwards. They build nests on tree branches and lay three to four eggs, which are incubated by both parents.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Characteristics

The Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) is the smallest hawk in both Canada and the United States. Adults measure around 9-14 inches long, with a wingspan of about 16-22 inches. They have short, rounded wings and a long tail that helps with their agile flight. Sharp-shinned Hawks have dark blue-gray upperparts and white underparts with fine reddish bars. Females are larger than males, a characteristic known as sexual dimorphism.

Range

Sharp-shinned Hawks have a wide distribution and can be found throughout North America. In Minnesota, they are typically seen during their breeding season, which is from April to September. They inhabit a variety of forested areas, including coniferous and deciduous forests.

Habits

These hawks are known for their hunting skills and agility. They are “bird specialists” and primarily feed on smaller birds, capturing them in mid-air or near bird feeders. This behavior has earned them the reputation of being “backyard stalkers” among birdwatchers. Sharp-shinned Hawks can also prey on small mammals and insects. During courtship displays, they perform aerial acrobatics such as looping and diving. They build nests in trees using twigs and bark strips, where the female lays around 4-5 eggs.

Cooper’s Hawk

Characteristics

The Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is another medium-sized hawk that resembles the Sharp-shinned Hawk, but it is larger and has a more rounded tail. Adults measure approximately 14-20 inches in length, with a wingspan of around 27-36 inches. They have bluish-gray upperparts and reddish bars on their underparts. Females are larger than males, similar to other hawks within the Accipiter genus.

Range

Cooper’s Hawks can be found year-round in Minnesota, as well as in other parts of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. They inhabit a variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, and urban areas.

Habits

These hawks are known for their swift flight and agility, enabling them to navigate through dense vegetation while hunting. Like the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawks prey on birds, often catching them in surprise attacks. They also feed on small mammals and occasionally reptiles. During courtship, males perform aerial displays and offer food gifts to females. Nests are typically constructed with sticks and lined with softer materials such as bark strips and green vegetation. The female lays around 3-5 eggs, which are incubated by both parents.

Broad-winged Hawk

Characteristics

The Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) is a medium-sized hawk known for its broad wings and distinctive call. Adults measure around 13-17 inches in length, with a wingspan of approximately 31-39 inches. They have a dark brown back and pale underparts with dark streaks. The tail is barred with dark bands.

Range

Broad-winged Hawks breed in Minnesota and other parts of eastern North America. However, they are known for their impressive migratory behavior. During the fall, these hawks gather in large flocks called “kettles” and migrate south to Central and South America. They are one of the most numerous raptors migrating through Minnesota.

Habits

Broad-winged Hawks are skilled hunters that primarily feed on small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. They often hunt by perching on high branches or soaring in search of prey. During their breeding season, they engage in courtship displays that involve spiraling flights and mutual vocalizations. Nests are built with sticks and lined with softer materials. The female lays two to four eggs, which are incubated by both parents.

Northern Goshawk

Characteristics

The Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) is a large and powerful hawk that is well-adapted for hunting in dense forests. Adults measure around 20-26 inches in length, with a wingspan of approximately 40-46 inches. They have a robust build, with dark gray to bluish-gray upperparts and pale underparts barred with fine dark lines. Their eyes are a striking bright yellow.

Range

Northern Goshawks are found in the boreal forests of North America, including parts of Minnesota. They prefer mature and old-growth forests with a mixture of coniferous and deciduous trees.

Habits

These hawks are fierce and skilled hunters, specializing in capturing birds and small mammals. They use their sharp talons and powerful flight to pursue prey through the dense vegetation of their forest habitat. Northern Goshawks are known for their territorial behavior and will vigorously defend their nests against intruders. They build large stick nests and lay two to four eggs, which are incubated by the female. Both parents participate in raising the young.

Rough-legged Hawk

Characteristics

The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) is a medium to large-sized hawk characterized by its feathered legs, which provide insulation against the cold. Adults measure around 18-22 inches in length and have a wingspan of 52-54 inches. They have a mottled brown and white plumage, with dark bands on their tails and dark patches on their wrists.

Range

Rough-legged Hawks breed in the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia. During the winter, they migrate south to more temperate regions, including Minnesota. They can be seen in open habitats such as grasslands, marshes, and agricultural fields.

Habits

These hawks are well-adapted to cold climates and are known for their ability to hover over open areas while searching for prey. They feed primarily on small mammals such as voles, mice, and lemmings. Rough-legged Hawks are also skilled hunters in flight, diving down to catch prey with their sharp talons. During the breeding season, they build nests on cliffs or trees and lay three to five eggs.

Northern Harrier

Characteristics

The Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) is a slender hawk with a distinctive owl-like face. Adults measure around 18-20 inches in length, with a wingspan of approximately 40-48 inches. They have long, broad wings and a long tail. Male Northern Harriers are gray with white undersides, while females and juveniles are brown with streaked underparts.

Range

Northern Harriers can be found in various parts of North America, including Minnesota. They inhabit open fields, grasslands, marshes, and meadows.

Habits

These hawks have a unique hunting behavior known as “harrier-style,” where they fly low over the ground, actively searching for small mammals such as mice and voles. They have excellent hearing and can locate prey based on sound alone. Northern Harriers are also known for their distinctive courtship displays, which involve aerial acrobatics and food offerings. They nest on the ground or in tall vegetation, laying around four to six eggs.

Swainson’s Hawk

Characteristics

The Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) is a large and elegant hawk known for its streamlined shape and long, narrow wings. Adults measure around 18-22 inches in length, with a wingspan of 45-56 inches. They have a dark brown back and pale underparts with a distinctive reddish-brown chest. Individuals can vary in plumage, with some having a light morph and others having a dark morph.

Range

Swainson’s Hawks breed in southern and western regions of North America, including parts of Minnesota. They migrate long distances to spend the winter in South America. During migration, they can form large flocks known as “kettles.”

Habits

These hawks have one of the longest migratory journeys of any North American raptor. They primarily feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Their hunting behavior is a combination of soaring and stooping, using their keen eyesight to locate prey from a distance. Swainson’s Hawks are known for their communal roosting behavior during migration, where thousands of individuals gather in one location. They build nests on trees or other elevated structures and lay two to four eggs, which are incubated by both parents.

In conclusion, Minnesota is home to a diverse range of hawk species, each with its own unique characteristics, range, and habits. From the majestic Red-tailed Hawk to the agile Sharp-shinned Hawk, these birds of prey captivate with their beauty and hunting prowess. Whether soaring through the skies or perched on a high branch, hawks are a testament to the wonders of nature.

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