“Hawk” is a broad term used to describe an entire class of diurnal, meaning active during the day, predatory birds. There are over 250 species of predatory birds worldwide. Over 15 of those species are found in North America with nine of those inhabiting the Buckeye state. In this article, we take aim at learning more about the hawks in Ohio.
According to the Ohio Ornithological Society, nature has gifted all species of hawks with extraordinarily sharp color vision and the best overall eyesight in the animal kingdom. This enables the hawk to see greater distances than humans with eight times our visual acuity.
All hawks are fleet fliers with some being able to attain speeds in excess of 150 mph while diving. Ohio hawks are divided into the two classifications of accipiters and buteos with members of both groups being found in Ohio. Some species migrate thousands of miles annually while others live in an area year round.
While all species of hawks share similar characteristics, we see a broad diversity in size and form. Unlike most species, female hawks are larger and stronger than the males, sometimes by twice as much. All hawks, including the species of Ohio hawks, are protected by state and federal laws.
Many species of hawks mate for life and remain together year round whereas others only remaining together during the breeding season. Depending on the species, hawks lay between one and five eggs per year with incubation taking three to six weeks.
Like all birds. hawks must consume large quantities of food in comparison to their body weight as well as feed their young. As such, the best places to spot the birds is in hunting and nesting areas. Here is a list of the nine species of Ohio hawks:
Sharp-Shinned Hawk: Accipiter Striatus
The Sharp-Shinned hawk is the smallest species of hawk found in the United States. Its wings are rounder than many other species and their stomach has an orange tint with mostly gray backs. The Sharp-Shinned hawk populations are on the decline. As they are migratory, sharp-shinned hawks are found in the northern half of Ohio during the non-breeding season and in southern Ohio year round.
- Length: 9 1/2 to 13 1/2 inches
- Weight: 3 to 7 1/2 ounces
- Wingspan: 17 to 22 inches
Feeding Behavior: The sharp-shinned hawk hunts primarily in wooded areas by hiding in trees and diving down on its prey that consists of small mammals and birds. Sharp-shinned hawks also ambush other birds by staking out bird feeders in rural areas
Nesting and Young: Nesting sites are typically high up in dense stands of evergreens like spruce or fir. Nest are built on a platform of sticks and padded with bark and grass. Both sexes gather nesting material, but the female usually handles the construction. Females stay with the young for two weeks and the male brings food. Young will start perching on branches at three to four weeks and fly at about six weeks of age.
Cooper’s Hawk: Accipiter Cooperii
The Cooper’s hawk occupies a large range covering most of North America. It lives year round in Ohio and can be found in every region of the state. While slightly larger than sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks belong to the same subgroup as the sharp-shinned hawks and share many of the same features. This causes young sharp-shinned hawks to sometimes be confused with Cooper’s as the young have the same orange belly. However, the orange shading fades at maturity and the two species are then much easier to tell apart.
- Length: 14 1/2 to 17 1/2 inches
- Weight: 7 1/2 to 24 ounces
- Wingspan: 24 1/2 to 35 1/2 inches
Feeding Behavior: The Cooper’s hawk hunts similarly to the sharp-shinned variety, swooping down from hidden perches, but are more willing to venture into open areas. Their ability to fly swiftly through congested woodlands gives Cooper’s hawks and advantage over other hawk species. The Cooper’s hawk hunts small birds and rodents, such as mice, rats, chipmunks and squirrels and will also stake out bird feeders.
Nesting and Young: Nesting sites are in trees 25 to 50 feet above the ground and often built on top of preexisting nests of other birds and squirrels. Nests are built but both sexes and consist of sticks lined with bark. The female broods the young for two weeks while the male hunts for the family. Young will begin perching at about four weeks and fly in five.
Northern Goshawk: Accipiter Rentilis
The northern goshawk is one of the larger Ohio hawks. It has a unique, slightly menacing, appearance with knife like red eyes with a black stripe on the side of its head. Along with a black beak, dark-brown back and black-and-white stripes running down its front, the northern goshawk is one of the more readily identifiable specie of hawk. Still, the northern goshawk is not easy to find. While it can occasionally be found further south in Ohio, the northern goshawk is typically only found around Lake Erie during the winter months.
- Length: 20 1/2 to 25 1/2 inches
- Weight: 22 to 48 ounces
- Wingspan: 40 1/2 to 46 inches
Feeding Behavior: These birds live in and hunt from high trees in primarily heavily forested areas. Intense and sometimes recklessly hunters, the northern goshawks will crash through the woods at high speed in pursuit of virtually any type of prey. This includes mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. Northern goshawks also frequently feed on carrion.
Nesting and Young: Nest sites are built 15 to 75 feet off the ground in a major crook in the trunks of deciduous trees in mixed forest. Nest may be reused each season and are built mostly by the female that consist of a platform of sticks padded with foliage. Male provides much of the food for the female from just before the eggs are laid. Parents are very aggressive in protecting the young and will attack anything that comes near the nest, including people. Young can fly by six weeks.
Red-Shouldered Hawk: Buteo Lineatus
Red-shouldered hawks are large when compared to other species and is found throughout Ohio all year. The red-shouldered hawk takes its name from the distinctive reddish-brown lines along the upper part of its wings. The birds have brown heads with light-brown stomachs and the wings carry a black-and-white checkered pattern. Coloring can vary somewhat from region to region, but in Ohio the birds are typically lighter-colored than in other parts of its range.
- Length: 16 3/4 to 24 inches
- Weight: 17 to 27 ounces
- Wingspan: 37 to 47 inches
Feeding Behavior: The red-shouldered hawk’s diet consists mainly of small mammals, like rabbits, but also feeds on reptiles and amphibians, such as snakes, frogs and salamanders. Red-shouldered hawks hunt in wooded areas from dead trees that do not have foliage so its vision won’t be obscured. Unlike many hawks, red-shouldered hawks employ their sharp hearing while hunting.
Nesting and Young: Red-shouldered hawks return to the same nest each year and are found in deciduous or conifers 30 to 65 feet above the ground in fork in the trunk or a large branch. Nest are a platform of sticks lined with moss and other green vegetation and built together by the pair. Female brood the young for three weeks while the male brings food. Young can fly in about six weeks are fed until about 16 weeks old.
Broad-Winged Hawk: Buteo Platypterus
Along with an unmistakable ear-shattering whistle, the broad-winged hawks is small bodied compared to other hawk species have brown spots on a white chest with a brown head and back. The broad-winged hawk only frequents Ohio during the breeding season, from about April to late fall, and migrates south for the winter in massive groups called “kettles.” During their breeding period these hawks can be found across the state, but are found mainly in the southern half of of Ohio.
- Length: 13 1/2 to 17 1/2 inches
- Weight: 9 1/2 to 19 1/2 ounces
- Wingspan: 32 to 39 1/2 inches
Feeding Behavior: Broad-winged hawks hunt mostly near the tree line along bodies of water by sitting in a tree or cruising along the water line looking for prey. The broad-winged feeds on a variety of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects that includes squirrels, snakes, lizards, crayfish and worms.
Nesting: Broad-winged hawks nest in the lower part of large deciduous or conifer trees roughly 25 to 40 feet off the ground. Nests are a collaborative effort constructed on stick platform and lined with moss and bark and preexisting nest of other birds are often remodeled. Broad-winged hawks aggressively defend a half-mile perimeter around the nest against any and all other birds of prey. Females stay with the young for two weeks while the male brings food. Young begin to perch at about four weeks and can fly at six weeks.
Swainson’s Hawk: Buteo Swainsoni
As the Swainson’s hawk is native to prairies and grasslands, it resides mostly in the western part of the country. The Swainson’s is identified by the gray feathers on its wings with a lighter underbelly and a yellow strip at the base of its beak. Even though its numbers are declining, we do on rare occasions see these birds in Ohio during the breeding season. Flocks often gather on the ground in open fields.
- Length: 18 3/4 to 22 inches
- Weight: 24 1/2 to 48 ounces
- Wingspan: 45 to 56 inches
Feeding Behavior: The Swainson’s hawk will not be found perched in a tree looking for prey, but on the ground hunting for insects such as caterpillars and grasshoppers. However, these hawks will also hunt small mammals, like mice and the occasional squirrel.
Nesting and Young: Nest of leafy green branches and weeds are built on a platform of sticks up to 30 feet high in trees. In open country, nests will be found in large shrubs or on cliffs and are typically well hidden by vegetation. Sometimes nests are built on top of abandon magpie nests. While the male brings food to the mother and young for the first two weeks after hatching, both parents hunt for the young until about 42 days when they are able to fly and hunt on their own.
Red-Tailed Hawk: Buteo Jamaicensis
The most common species of hawk in North America with a total population of over two million birds, the red-tailed hawk is a frequent sight in the U.S. Living year round in Ohio. Red-tailed hawks are high flying with spectacularly sharp vision to spot prey from high above the ground. Easily identified by its trademark reddish tail, the red-tailed hawk’s plumage can range from blackish to brown to almost white. These hawks have a blood curdling cry that most people who have ever ventured into the woods will recognize. While it is one of the larger species, the red-tailed hawk has a relatively low body weight in comparison to its length.
- Length: 17 3/4 to 25 1/2 inches
- Weight: 32 to 51 1/2 ounces
- Wingspan: 45 to 52 1/2 inches
Feeding Behavior: Red-tailed hawks hunt for small mammals, from mice to rabbits, and birds by soaring in circles high above open areas or sitting high atop tall trees and telephone poles. These birds will sometimes hunt together and we once witnessed a group of five red-tailed hawks surround a 20-pound wild turkey in a tree.
Nesting and Young: Nest can be as high as 120 feet above ground and are usually found in the tallest tree in an area. Red-tailed hawks also nest in cliffs, on giant cactus and man-made structures. Nests are built by both sexes and resemble a large bowl of sticks filled with finer green twigs. The male does most of the hunting for the first three weeks while the female broods the young. Young leave the nest after six weeks and are capable of full flight in seven weeks.
Rough-Legged Hawk: Buteo Lagopus
The rough-legged hawk is named for how its feathers cover the legs all the way down to its feet. This covering of feathers is to protect the birds legs from the arctic temperatures where the birds nest. Also sometimes referred to as “rough-legged buzzards,” the rough-legged hawk has a light and dark color variation. Not liking the warm weather, rough-legged hawks migrate south and spend the winter in Ohio to escape the bitter Arctic winter.
- Length: 18 1/2 to 20 1/2 inches
- Weight: 25 to 49 1/2 ounces
- Wingspan: 52 to 54 1/2 inches
Feeding Behavior: The bird’s diet consists mainly of rodents, such as mice, voles and the occasional squirrel, so rough-legged hawks are typically seen perched in trees around fields where the bird does its hunting.
Nesting and Young: Rough-legged hawks nest in the tops of trees, in cliffs, on large boulders and sometimes on the ground. Nests are a collaborative effort built of sticks and debris, such as bones, and lined with twigs, grass and moss. Females care for young while the male provides for the first two weeks. Young can fly at six weeks and stay with the parents for up to 11 weeks.
Northern Harrier: Circus Hudsonius
The northern harrier hawk is disappearing from much if its range across North America. Harriers are distinctive Ohio hawks with long wings and tails that make the birds supreme fliers. The northern harrier has a face that resembles an owl and sharp hearing. There are several types of harrier hawks, but the northern harrier is the only one indigenous to North America. While it breeds farther north, the northern-harrier winters in Ohio and are seen in various type of open terrain.
- Length: 18 to19 3/4 inches
- Weight: 10 1/2 to 26 1/2 ounces
- Wingspan: 40 to 46 1/2 inches
Feeding Behavior: The northern harrier is typically found in open areas like fields and marshes as it flies low to the ground, attempting to drive its prey from cover. It feeds mainly on rodents, but will eat animals up to the size of rabbits and ducks and its diet will vary by season and location. It will also eat reptiles, amphibians and carrion.
Nesting: The female does most of the nest building while her mate brings most of the material. Nests are typically shallow depressions in the ground filled with grasses, weeds and twigs. The mother stays with the young for the first two weeks while the male hunts and young can fly in 30 days.