Tennessee’s Diverse Range of Hawk Species

Tennessee is home to a rich assortment of hawk species, each playing a vital role in maintaining a balanced and thriving ecosystem. Among these majestic birds, the Red-Shouldered Hawk stands out with its distinctive features and behaviors, while the Northern Harrier, known as the “Gray Ghost,” is the second most frequently spotted hawk in the state. The Red-Tailed Hawk, with its imposing size and signature red tail, is another common sight, while the agile and skillful Cooper’s Hawk impresses with its flying prowess. Concealed within the forests of Tennessee, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, the smallest hawk in the region, keeps a watchful eye. Meanwhile, the Broad-Winged Hawk, renowned for its migration spectacle, graces the state with its presence year-round. Finally, the Northern Goshawk, highly adept at navigating dense forests, maintains a small non-breeding population in Tennessee. Together, these hawk species contribute to the diversity and beauty of Tennessee’s wildlife.


Tennessee is a state known for its abundant wildlife and diverse ecosystems. One group of birds that flourishes in this region is hawks. These majestic birds of prey are not only a sight to behold but also play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Tennessee is home to a variety of hawk species, each with its own unique characteristics and behaviors. In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of Tennessee’s hawk species, their importance in the ecosystem, and the different types of hawks commonly found in the state.

Importance of Hawks in the Ecosystem

Hawks are apex predators, occupying the top of the food chain in their respective habitats. As such, they play a vital role in controlling populations of small mammals and birds. Their hunting skills help keep these populations in check, preventing overpopulation and maintaining a balanced ecosystem. By preying on rodents, hawks indirectly contribute to the control of disease-carrying pests and the maintenance of healthy forests and farmlands.

Additionally, hawks act as indicators of overall ecosystem health. Their presence and abundance can reflect the quality of the environment, indicating the availability of prey species and suitable habitats. Monitoring hawk populations can provide valuable insights for conservation efforts and help identify potential environmental issues.

Tennessees Diverse Range of Hawk Species

Frequent Sight: Red-Shouldered Hawk

One of the most frequently seen hawks in Tennessee is the Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). This medium-sized hawk stands out with its distinctive features. It has a reddish-brown chest and belly, with horizontal white bars on its wings and a reddish shoulder patch. The head of the Red-Shouldered Hawk is adorned with a black and white striped pattern, giving it a unique appearance.

In terms of behavior, the Red-Shouldered Hawk is often seen perched on treetops or utility poles, actively scanning its surroundings for prey. It primarily feeds on small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and occasionally, birds. Its characteristic call, a series of clear whistles, adds to its charm and makes it easily identifiable. The Red-Shouldered Hawk’s adaptability to a variety of habitats makes it a frequent visitor in Tennessee.

Second Most Common: Northern Harrier

Known as the “Gray Ghost” of Tennessee, the Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) is the second most commonly seen hawk in the state. This hawk is easily distinguishable by its unique hunting behavior. Unlike many other hawks, the Northern Harrier relies on a combination of low, slow flight and a keen sense of hearing to locate prey in open fields and marshes.

The Northern Harrier has a distinctive appearance, with a slender body, long wings, and a long tail with a white rump patch. The males are gray with lighter underparts, while the females and immature birds have brown plumage. This sexual dimorphism is a notable feature of the Northern Harrier.

In terms of habitat, the Northern Harrier prefers grasslands, marshes, and agricultural fields. During migration, large numbers of Northern Harriers can be seen in Tennessee as they move to their wintering grounds further south. The presence of these graceful hawks adds beauty and diversity to the state’s avian population.

Tennessees Diverse Range of Hawk Species

Commonly Spotted: Red-Tailed Hawk

The Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is another hawk species commonly spotted in Tennessee. This large bird of prey is known for its size and impressive hunting abilities. The Red-Tailed Hawk is easily identified by its broad wings, rounded tail, and distinct red tail feathers, which give it its name.

This hawk species exhibits significant variations in plumage, ranging from light to dark morphs. While the majority of Red-Tailed Hawks have brown upperparts and a pale underbelly with a red tail, some individuals show darker plumage overall. The variability in coloration is influenced by the bird’s age and geographic location.

The Red-Tailed Hawk is an opportunistic hunter, preying on a wide range of animals, including rodents, rabbits, snakes, and even carrion. It often perches on high vantage points such as trees or utility poles, scanning the surrounding area for potential prey. Its soaring flight and piercing scream make it an iconic symbol of the American countryside.

Medium-sized and Agile: Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is a medium-sized hawk species known for its agility and remarkable flying skills. This hawk is well-adapted for hunting in densely vegetated areas such as forests and woodlands, where it can navigate through the trees with ease.

Cooper’s Hawks have a compact body, relatively short wings, and a long rounded tail. The adult birds have blue-gray upperparts and reddish bars on their underparts. The juveniles, on the other hand, have brown plumage with vertical streaks, aiding in camouflage. This hawk species shows sexual dimorphism, with females being larger than males.

Due to their agility, Cooper’s Hawks are skilled at pursuing prey through complex foliage. They primarily feed on small to medium-sized birds, which they capture mid-flight in surprise attacks. Their remarkable speed and maneuverability make them formidable predators in their forested habitats. Observing a Cooper’s Hawk in action is a testament to the beauty and power of nature.

Tennessees Diverse Range of Hawk Species

Smallest Hawk: Sharp-Shinned Hawk

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) holds the title for the smallest hawk species found in Tennessee. Despite its small size, this hawk is a formidable predator, specializing in capturing and feeding on small birds.

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is often concealed within dense forested areas, where it patiently waits for passing prey. It has a short, rounded wingspan, a long tail, and slender legs that make it well-suited for maneuvering through trees. Its plumage varies between adults and juveniles, ranging from slate-gray to brown with fine white bars.

These hawks are skilled flyers and utilize their agility to surprise their avian prey. With a sudden burst of speed, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk swiftly captures its target, often executing intricate aerial maneuvers. While its small size may make it hard to spot, the presence of the Sharp-Shinned Hawk adds to the biodiversity and ecological balance of Tennessee’s forests.

Common Year-Round Sight: Broad-Winged Hawk

The Broad-Winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) is a hawk species commonly seen year-round in Tennessee. These medium-sized hawks are known for their unique migration spectacle, where thousands of individuals form large flocks during their annual journey to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

During the breeding season, Broad-Winged Hawks are widespread throughout Tennessee’s forests, nesting in trees and often returning to the same site year after year. They have a compact body with short, broad wings and a short, squared tail. Their plumage is variable, with light and dark individuals. The light morph individuals have a pale belly and dark upperparts, while the dark morph individuals have brown plumage overall.

The migration of Broad-Winged Hawks is an impressive sight to behold. Every fall, flocks of these hawks gather and soar in large numbers, known as “kettles,” as they ride thermal updrafts along their migration path. This phenomenon is not only a visual spectacle but also an important event for conservation research and monitoring efforts.

Tennessees Diverse Range of Hawk Species

Navigating Dense Forests: Northern Goshawk

The Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) is a hawk species highly adept at navigating through dense forests. Although not as commonly seen as some of the other hawk species in Tennessee, the Northern Goshawk is a remarkable bird with unique characteristics.

This large hawk has a slate-gray back and a lighter grey underbelly with fine white barring. It has a robust build, powerful wings, and a long tail that aids in maneuverability. The adults have bright red eyes, adding to their striking appearance.

While the Northern Goshawk primarily breeds in northern regions, a small non-breeding population can be found in Tennessee year-round. This hawk species prefers mature coniferous and mixed forests as its habitat, where it hunts a variety of prey including squirrels, rabbits, and birds.

The presence of the Northern Goshawk in Tennessee highlights the state’s diverse ecosystems and the importance of protecting these habitats. Their ability to thrive in dense forests demonstrates the resilience of these birds and their crucial role in maintaining ecological balance.


Tennessee’s diverse range of hawk species adds beauty, biodiversity, and ecological harmony to the state’s landscapes. From the frequent sightings of the Red-Shouldered Hawk to the unique migration spectacle of the Broad-Winged Hawk, each species contributes to the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Understanding the characteristics and behaviors of these majestic birds helps foster appreciation and conservation efforts to ensure their continued presence in Tennessee’s natural habitats. So, the next time you catch a glimpse of a hawk soaring through the sky, take a moment to admire its grace and remember the important role it plays in Tennessee’s rich and vibrant environment.

Tennessees Diverse Range of Hawk Species

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