Alabama: Home to 7 Species of Hawks

Alabama is a haven for hawks, boasting a diverse array of seven different species. From the majestic Red-Shouldered Hawk to the elusive Rough-Legged Hawk, each species brings its own unique set of physical characteristics and behaviors. While some, like the Red-Tailed and Cooper’s Hawks, can be spotted year-round, others, like the Northern Harrier, grace Alabama with their presence only during the winter months. Whether soaring through the skies or perched on tree branches, these magnificent birds of prey captivate and intrigue both bird enthusiasts and casual observers alike. There is something truly special about Alabama’s thriving hawk population, and delving into the world of these majestic creatures is an adventure waiting to be experienced.

Buteos and Accipiters

Hawks are incredibly fascinating birds of prey that can be found in various habitats around the world. In the state of Alabama, there are seven species of hawks that call this diverse landscape home. These hawks are categorized into two main groups – buteos and accipiters. Let’s take a closer look at each species and their unique characteristics.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

The Red-Shouldered Hawk is a majestic bird, known for its striking appearance and distinct call. This medium-sized hawk has a length of about 17 to 24 inches and a wingspan of approximately 37 to 43 inches. One of its most distinctive features is the beautiful reddish-brown coloration on its shoulders, often referred to as “shoulder patches.”

In terms of behavior, Red-Shouldered Hawks are typically solitary birds, although they may form breeding pairs during the mating season. They build their nests in the forks of trees and are known for their impressive displays of aerial acrobatics during courtship. These hawks primarily feed on small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Red-Shouldered Hawks can be found in a variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, and wetland areas. They are commonly spotted in the eastern and southern regions of the United States, including Alabama. These hawks are year-round residents in Alabama, meaning they can be observed throughout the entire year.

Red-Tailed Hawk

The Red-Tailed Hawk is one of the most widespread and well-known hawks in North America. This large raptor has a wingspan that can reach up to 56 inches and a length between 18 and 26 inches. As the name suggests, the red coloration of its tail is a key identifying feature of this species.

When it comes to behavior, Red-Tailed Hawks are highly adaptable and can be found in a wide range of habitats, from open fields and grasslands to forests and deserts. They are skilled hunters and predominantly feed on small mammals, such as rodents and rabbits. Red-Tailed Hawks are also known for their soaring flight, which allows them to cover vast distances while searching for prey.

In Alabama, Red-Tailed Hawks are a common sight throughout the year. Whether you’re exploring the woodlands or driving through the countryside, keep your eyes peeled for these majestic birds soaring through the sky.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawks are classified as accipiter hawks, along with Sharp-Shinned Hawks. These medium-sized hawks measure between 14 and 20 inches in length, with a wingspan of approximately 27 to 36 inches. They have short, rounded wings and long tails, which aid in their agile flight and maneuverability.

When it comes to behavior, Cooper’s Hawks are known for their skillful hunting techniques. They have a remarkable ability to navigate through dense vegetation and chase down their prey, which primarily consists of small birds. These hawks are incredibly efficient hunters and are capable of capturing their prey mid-flight.

Cooper’s Hawks can be found in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, forests, and suburban areas. They are year-round residents in Alabama, meaning they can be spotted at any time of the year. Keep an eye out for these agile hawks as they swiftly dart through the trees in pursuit of their next meal.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp-Shinned Hawks are another accipiter species found in Alabama. They are smaller in size compared to Cooper’s Hawks, measuring between 10 and 14 inches in length. These hawks have short, rounded wings and a long, narrow tail that aids in their rapid and precise flight.

Behaviorally, Sharp-Shinned Hawks are highly skilled predators, specializing in hunting small birds and mammals. They are known for their remarkable agility and speed, making them formidable hunters in forested areas. These hawks often surprise their prey, swiftly swooping down on them and capturing them with their sharp talons.

Sharp-Shinned Hawks can be found in a variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, and suburban areas. Like their accipiter counterpart, Cooper’s Hawks, they are year-round residents in Alabama. So, keep your binoculars handy and keep an eye out for these nimble hunters as they navigate through the dense vegetation.

Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier, also known as the Marsh Hawk, is the only type of harrier found in North America. These unique raptors have a distinctive flight style, characterized by their low, hovering flight over open fields and marshy areas. They have long wings and a long, narrow tail that aids in their maneuverability while hunting.

In terms of behavior, Northern Harriers are skilled hunters that specialize in capturing small mammals, such as mice and voles. They have a keen sense of hearing and are capable of locating their prey by listening for their rustling movements in the grasses. These hawks are also known for their incredible courtship displays, which involve spiraling flights and aerial acrobatics.

Northern Harriers can be found in Alabama during the winter months. Open fields, marshes, and wetlands are ideal habitats for these beautiful harriers. So, if you’re out exploring Alabama’s natural wonders during the winter, keep an eye out for the Northern Harrier gliding gracefully across the landscape.

Broad-Winged Hawk

The Broad-Winged Hawk is another buteo species that can be observed in Alabama. These hawks are the smallest buteos in North America, measuring between 13 and 17 inches in length, with a wingspan of approximately 31 to 39 inches. They have relatively short, rounded wings and a long, slightly rounded tail.

In terms of behavior, Broad-Winged Hawks are known for their impressive migration patterns. They breed in the northeastern United States and Canada during the summer months and then migrate to Central and South America for the winter. Along their migration route, these hawks form enormous flocks known as “kettles,” which can consist of thousands of birds.

During their breeding season, Broad-Winged Hawks can be found in the forests of Alabama. Their distinctive call, resembling a high-pitched whistle, is often heard echoing through the trees. So, if you’re taking a peaceful hike through Alabama’s woodlands during the summer, keep an ear out for this unique vocalization.

Rough-Legged Hawk

The Rough-Legged Hawk is a rare visitor to Alabama but can occasionally be spotted during the winter months. These hawks are native to the arctic tundra and often migrate south in search of food. They have adapted to cold environments, with feathered legs and feet that help insulate them against freezing temperatures.

In terms of physical characteristics, Rough-Legged Hawks are slightly larger than Red-Tailed Hawks, measuring between 18 and 24 inches in length, with a wingspan of approximately 49 to 57 inches. They have broad wings and a short, square tail. These hawks also exhibit significant variation in coloration, with both light and dark morphs.

Rough-Legged Hawks prefer open fields and prairies as their wintering habitats. They primarily feed on small mammals, such as voles and mice, which are abundant in these grassland environments. So, if you happen to stumble upon a vast, open field in Alabama during the winter, keep your eyes peeled for the elusive Rough-Legged Hawk.

Identifying Hawks

Identifying hawks can be an exciting and rewarding endeavor. Each species has distinct physical characteristics and behaviors that can help you differentiate them from one another. Here are some key features to look out for when identifying hawks:

Physical characteristics

  • Size: Hawks vary in size, ranging from around 10 inches to over 24 inches in length. Wingspan can also vary significantly, with some hawks having wingspans exceeding 50 inches.
  • Coloration: Pay attention to their color patterns on the body, wings, and tail. Some hawks have distinctive markings or patterns that can aid in identification.
  • Plumage: Hawks exhibit various plumage variations, including light and dark morphs. These differences can be useful in distinguishing between species.


  • Flight style: Hawks have different flight styles, ranging from soaring to agile, acrobatic flight. Some hawks soar on thermal updrafts, while others navigate through dense vegetation with precision and agility.
  • Hunting techniques: Hawks have different hunting techniques and prey preferences. Some hawks specialize in capturing small birds, while others primarily feed on small mammals or reptiles.
  • Vocalizations: Pay attention to their calls. Each hawk species has a unique vocalization that can be used for identification.

Field marks for each species

  • Red-Shouldered Hawk: Look for the distinctive reddish-brown shoulder patches and checkered pattern on the wings.
  • Red-Tailed Hawk: Pay attention to the red coloration of the tail and their large size.
  • Cooper’s Hawk: Look for their rounded wings, long tail, and bluish-gray coloration on the back.
  • Sharp-Shinned Hawk: Pay attention to their small size, rounded wings, and long, narrow tail.
  • Northern Harrier: Look for their low, hovering flight style over open fields and their long, narrow wings.
  • Broad-Winged Hawk: Pay attention to their smaller size, short, rounded wings, and high-pitched whistle-like vocalization.
  • Rough-Legged Hawk: Look for their feathered legs and feet, broad wings, and variation in coloration.

By carefully observing these physical characteristics, behaviors, and field marks, you can become more proficient at identifying hawks and appreciating the incredible diversity within this group of birds. Happy hawk-watching!


Hawks are undoubtedly some of the most captivating and awe-inspiring creatures that grace the Alabama skies. From the majestic Red-Shouldered Hawk to the elusive Rough-Legged Hawk, each species offers a unique glimpse into the natural world. Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or simply looking to spend a peaceful day in nature, keep your eyes peeled for these incredible raptors. With their distinct physical characteristics, behaviors, and habitats, hawks are a constant reminder of the beauty and diversity that surrounds us. So, grab your binoculars and embark on an adventure to discover the magnificent hawks of Alabama.

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