9 Species of Hawks in South Dakota and Their Unique Characteristics

South Dakota is home to a diverse array of hawks, boasting a total of 9 species. From the majestic red-tailed hawk to the elusive northern harrier, each species brings forth its own unique characteristics and habitats. Some hawks, like the broad-winged hawk and red-tailed hawk, migrate through South Dakota, adding to the region’s natural beauty. These skilled predators possess razor-sharp beaks and talons, allowing them to effortlessly hunt a variety of prey, ranging from small mammals to birds and insects. Despite their predatory nature, hawks encompass a certain allure that attracts bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

Broad-winged Hawk

Physical Characteristics

The Broad-winged Hawk is a medium-sized hawk known for its broad wings and short tail. It has a wingspan of around 32 to 40 inches. Its upperparts are dark brown to black, while its underparts are lighter with rusty barring. It also has a white belly with dark bands. Its eyes are yellow and its beak is black and hooked.

Habitat and Distribution

Broad-winged Hawks can be found in deciduous and mixed forests throughout South Dakota. They prefer habitats with dense vegetation and nearby open areas, such as meadows or wetlands. During the breeding season, they are commonly found in the northern parts of the state, but they migrate to Central and South America during the winter.

Behavior and Diet

Broad-winged Hawks are mainly woodland raptors. They are known for their distinctive high-pitched call, often described as a “klee-yer” or a “whistle.” They are skilled hunters, preying on small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. They have a keen sense of sight and can spot prey from high perches before swooping down to catch it. During migration, they can form large flocks called “kettles,” where they soar in thermals to conserve energy.

Cooper’s Hawk

Physical Characteristics

Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized birds of prey with long tails and broad wings. They have a wingspan of around 30 to 37 inches. The adults have a dark blue-gray color on their back and wings, with a reddish underbelly that is finely barred. Juveniles have a brown back and wings with vertical streaks and a whitish underbelly with brown streaking.

Habitat and Distribution

Cooper’s Hawks can be found throughout South Dakota, particularly in wooded areas. They are adaptable and can also be found in urban and suburban environments, including parks and residential areas. They are more common in eastern and central parts of the state. During the breeding season, they build nests in tall trees.

Behavior and Diet

Cooper’s Hawks are known for their agility and ability to maneuver through dense vegetation. They are skilled hunters and their main diet consists of small birds, especially pigeons and doves. They are often found near backyard bird feeders, where they prey on unsuspecting birds. They have a distinctive hunting style, known as “fast flight with surprise attack,” where they chase their prey through trees and use their long tail as a rudder for quick turns.

Ferruginous Hawk

Physical Characteristics

The Ferruginous Hawk is one of the largest hawk species in North America. It has a wingspan of around 50 to 60 inches, with females being larger than males. It has a broad wingspan and a short tail. Its body is mostly white or pale buff, with a rusty or reddish-brown color on its back and wings. It has yellow eyes and a sharp, curved beak.

Habitat and Distribution

Ferruginous Hawks can be found in open and arid habitats, such as grasslands, shrublands, and prairies. They are more commonly found in the western parts of South Dakota, where the terrain is more suitable for their hunting and nesting behavior. During the winter, they may migrate to southern states or Mexico.

Behavior and Diet

Ferruginous Hawks are known for their hunting prowess and can take down prey as large as rabbits and ground squirrels. They have excellent eyesight and can spot prey from high perches or while soaring in the sky. They often hover in the air before diving down to catch their prey. They also feed on smaller mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. They build large nests made of sticks and line them with grass and feathers.

Northern Goshawk

Physical Characteristics

The Northern Goshawk is a large and powerful hawk with a broad wingspan of around 40 to 47 inches. It has a relatively short tail and long, sharp talons. Its plumage varies depending on age and location, but adults typically have a dark gray or black back and wings, with a lighter belly and a white or gray throat. Juveniles have brown feathers with streaks and a whitish underbelly.

Habitat and Distribution

Northern Goshawks can be found in forests, particularly in areas with large trees and dense vegetation. They prefer mature forests and are less common in areas with fragmented or disturbed habitats. In South Dakota, they are primarily found in the Black Hills region.

Behavior and Diet

Northern Goshawks are skilled hunters and are known for their stealthy approach to their prey. They mainly feed on medium-sized birds and mammals, such as grouse, squirrels, and rabbits. They have a distinctive flight pattern, consisting of fast flapping interspersed with glides. During breeding season, they build nests high in trees and fiercely defend their territory.

Northern Harrier

Physical Characteristics

The Northern Harrier, also known as the Marsh Hawk, is a medium-sized hawk with a long wingspan of around 40 to 48 inches. It has a distinctive shape, with long, narrow wings and a long tail. The male has a gray back and wings, a white underbelly, and black wingtips. The female and juveniles have brown feathers with streaks and a rusty underbelly.

Habitat and Distribution

Northern Harriers can be found in a variety of open habitats, including grasslands, marshes, and agricultural fields. They are particularly common in wetlands and areas with low vegetation. In South Dakota, they are widely distributed across the state.

Behavior and Diet

Northern Harriers have a unique hunting behavior compared to other hawks. They fly low over the ground, often hovering or gliding, while searching for prey. They feed mainly on small mammals, such as mice and voles, but also eat birds and reptiles. They have excellent hearing and can locate prey by sound as well as sight. They build nests on the ground or in low vegetation.

Red-tailed Hawk

Physical Characteristics

The Red-tailed Hawk is a large and majestic bird with a wingspan of around 43 to 56 inches. It has broad wings and a relatively short, squared-off tail. It has dark brown feathers on its back and wings, with a lighter underbelly that varies from white to rusty. Its most distinctive feature is its reddish-brown tail, which becomes more prominent with age.

Habitat and Distribution

Red-tailed Hawks are adaptable and can be found in a wide range of habitats, including forests, grasslands, deserts, and even urban areas. They are common throughout South Dakota. Some individuals may migrate through the state during certain seasons, while others may be year-round residents.

Behavior and Diet

Red-tailed Hawks are skilled hunters and have a diverse diet that includes small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. They are often seen perched on high poles or trees, scanning the ground for potential prey. They use their sharp beaks and talons to catch and kill their prey. During courtship displays, they perform aerial acrobatics and call loudly to attract a mate. They build large nests made of sticks and lined with softer materials.

Rough-legged Hawk

Physical Characteristics

The Rough-legged Hawk is a medium-sized hawk with a wingspan of around 52 to 57 inches. It has long, broad wings and a relatively long tail. Its plumage varies depending on age and sex, but adults generally have dark feathers on their back, wings, and head, while their underparts are mostly white or pale with dark streaking. They also have feathered legs that extend down to their feet.

Habitat and Distribution

Rough-legged Hawks breed in the Arctic and subarctic regions and migrate south during the winter. In South Dakota, they can be found in open areas, such as grasslands and agricultural fields, during the winter months. They are more common in the western parts of the state.

Behavior and Diet

Rough-legged Hawks have adapted to a life in open areas and are known for their hovering hunting technique. They soar in the sky before hovering in place to spot prey on the ground. They mainly feed on small mammals, such as mice and voles, but also eat birds and reptiles. During the breeding season, they build nests on cliffs or in trees.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Physical Characteristics

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a small hawk with a wingspan of around 20 to 27 inches. It has short wings and a long, squared-off tail. Its plumage varies depending on age and sex, but adults typically have a dark blue-gray color on their back and wings, with a reddish underbelly that is finely barred. Juveniles have brown feathers with vertical streaks and a whitish underbelly with brown streaking.

Habitat and Distribution

Sharp-shinned Hawks can be found in forests and wooded areas throughout South Dakota. They prefer habitats with dense vegetation that provides cover for their hunting behavior. They are more commonly found in the eastern parts of the state. They may also visit backyard bird feeders for easy prey.

Behavior and Diet

Sharp-shinned Hawks are quick and agile hunters, specializing in capturing small birds. They have a distinctive flight pattern, characterized by rapid flapping interspersed with short glides. They can maneuver through dense vegetation with ease, using their short wings to navigate through tight spaces. They have a keen sense of sight and can accurately judge the height and speed of their prey. They build nests in trees and fiercely defend their territory.

Swainson’s Hawk

Physical Characteristics

Swainson’s Hawks are medium-sized hawks with a wingspan of around 48 to 57 inches. They have long, broad wings that taper at the tips and a relatively short, squared-off tail. Their plumage varies depending on age and location, but adults generally have a dark brown back with a pale underbelly, while juveniles have a lighter overall appearance with streaking on their breast and belly.

Habitat and Distribution

Swainson’s Hawks are often associated with open habitats, particularly grasslands and agricultural areas. They have adapted well to agricultural settings and can be found foraging in crops and fields. In South Dakota, they are more commonly found in the central and eastern parts of the state.

Behavior and Diet

Swainson’s Hawks are skilled hunters, primarily feeding on small mammals, birds, and reptiles. They have a varied diet that can include insects, particularly during the breeding season. They are known for their long-distance migration, with some individuals traveling as far as Argentina for the winter months. During migration, they form large flocks and use thermals to soar and conserve energy.

Bonus Hawk-like Bird

Physical Characteristics

The bonus hawk-like bird found in South Dakota is the Mississippi Kite. It is a medium-sized bird of prey with a wingspan of around 35 to 40 inches. It has long, pointed wings and a deeply forked tail. Its plumage is gray overall, with a lighter underbelly and a blackish tail. Its head is pale gray, contrasting with its dark eyes.

Habitat and Distribution

Mississippi Kites can be found in open woodlands, riparian areas, and urban parks with large trees. They prefer areas with access to water, where they can find prey. In South Dakota, they are considered rare and are primarily found in the eastern part of the state, particularly along major river corridors.

Behavior and Diet

Mississippi Kites are known for their graceful flight and acrobatic hunting behavior. They feed primarily on insects, including grasshoppers, dragonflies, and cicadas. They catch their prey in mid-air, often performing agile maneuvers and aerial displays. They build nests in tall trees and may form loose colonies. Like other hawks, they migrate to Central and South America for the winter.

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