8 Hawks in Kentucky (With Pictures)

8 Hawks in Kentucky (With Pictures)

Kentucky, with its lush forests, rolling hills, and expansive farmlands, serves as a vital haven for a diverse array of hawk species. These raptors, with their keen eyesight and powerful flight, are not just spectacular to behold but play a crucial role in the ecological balance, acting as natural pest controllers and indicators of environmental health.

From the sharp-shinned hawk, navigating through dense woodlands, to the broad-winged hawk soaring high above the canopy, each species adapts uniquely to Kentucky’s varied habitats.

This article aims to explore the fascinating world of Kentucky’s hawks, shedding light on their behaviors, habitats, and the conservation efforts ensuring their survival. As we delve into the lives of these majestic birds, we not only celebrate their presence but also recognize the importance of protecting the natural landscapes that sustain them, ensuring Kentucky remains a haven for hawks and wildlife alike.

1. Red-Shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
  • Life span: Up to 12 years
  • Size: 18-20 inches (45-50 cm)
  • Weight: 12-26 ounces (350-740 g)
  • Wingspan: 40-48 inches (100-122 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Red-shouldered Hawk, a resident of the wet woodlands and riverside forests, boasts a breathtaking palette of chestnut and white feathers across its shoulders and belly, set against a backdrop of deep browns and blacks. Its distinctive, vibrant red shoulders catch the light as it soars, making it a standout in its lush, green habitat.

With a tail that features narrow white bands and wings that spread wide, the Red-shouldered Hawk navigates the air with a grace and precision that is a dance with the wind itself.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks prefer forested areas near water bodies for their nesting sites. They build their nests in tall trees, using sticks and lining them with softer materials. These hawks are monogamous and may use the same nest for several years. They typically lay 2 to 4 eggs, with both parents involved in incubation and feeding the young.

Their diet includes small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, reflecting the biodiversity of their wetland habitats. Red-shouldered Hawks hunt from perches, dropping down on prey spotted on the ground. They play a critical role in controlling populations of their prey species.

The main conservation focus for Red-shouldered Hawks is preserving their wetland and forested habitats. Efforts include protecting wetlands from development and pollution, which are critical for the hawks’ breeding and feeding. Environmental legislation and land management practices support these goals, ensuring the survival of Red-shouldered Hawk populations.

2. Broad-Winged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
  • Life span: 12 years
  • Size: 13.4-17.3 in (34-44 cm)
  • Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz (265-560 g)
  • Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in (81-100 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and common

The Broad-winged Hawk, a smaller raptor, weaves through the dense forests of North and South America with a stealth rarely matched by others in its family. Its compact body, cloaked in a tapestry of browns, blacks, and whites, allows it to navigate through trees with astonishing agility.

The hawk’s wings, though broad, are perfectly proportioned for swift, silent flight, and its tail features distinctive bands that become a blur as it darts through the canopy. With eyes that gleam with intelligence and curiosity, the Broad-winged Hawk embodies the spirit of the woods it calls home.

Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawks choose dense forests for nesting, building their nests in the crooks of trees. They use sticks to construct the base and line it with softer materials for insulation. The hawks are monogamous, often returning to the same nesting site annually. They lay 2 to 3 eggs, which are primarily incubated by the female while the male provides food.

These hawks have a varied diet that includes small mammals, birds, insects, and amphibians. They are particularly adept at hunting in dense woodland, using their agility to navigate through trees. The broad-winged Hawk’s diet changes with the seasons and available prey types, reflecting the ecosystem’s diversity where they live.

Broad-winged Hawks benefit from forest conservation efforts, as their primary habitat includes large, uninterrupted forested areas. Initiatives to protect these environments indirectly support the hawk’s population. Monitoring migratory patterns helps conservationists understand the impacts of climate change and habitat loss, which are the main threats to their populations.

3. Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
  • Life span: Up to 15 years
  • Size: 24-29 in (61-74 cm)
  • Weight: 1.5-3 lbs (680-1360g)
  • Wingspan: 45-52 in (114-132 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and rare

Spanning the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere, the Northern Goshawk is a sight to behold with its imposing size and fierce demeanour. Its plumage is a sleek gray, accented with fine white bars, giving it a camouflaged elegance amid the dense foliage.

The goshawk’s piercing red eyes, sharp beak, and long tail distinguish it as a formidable hunter and a solitary guardian of the forest. Its robust wings carry it silently over the canopy, a ghostly presence that commands respect from all who dwell within its realm.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawks prefer dense forest habitats for nesting, often selecting tall trees that provide ample cover. They build large, sturdy nests high above the ground, which are reused and added to over the years. Both parents participate in nest building and the defense of their territory, demonstrating strong territorial behaviour. Their nests are platforms for their 2 to 4 eggs, with incubation duties shared by both parents.

The diet of the Northern Goshawk is diverse, including birds, mammals, and occasionally insects and reptiles. They are powerful hunters, capable of catching prey in flight or on the ground. Their hunting strategy involves using the dense forest cover to ambush prey, relying on their agility and speed.

Conservation efforts for Northern Goshawks have focused on preserving and managing forest habitats to ensure these birds have suitable nesting and hunting grounds. Challenges such as logging and land development pose threats to their habitat, making conservation work essential. Research and monitoring are ongoing to better understand their population trends and habitat needs.

4. Rough-Legged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
  • Life span: Up to 15 years
  • Size: 18-20 in (46-51 cm)
  • Weight: 1.5-3.25 lbs (680-1470g)
  • Wingspan: 52-54 inches (132-137 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and uncommon

The Rough-legged Hawk, a visitor from the Arctic, graces the open fields and marshes of North America with its presence during the winter months. Its name derives from the feathered legs that keep it insulated against the biting cold of its home range.

This hawk’s plumage is a mosaic of blacks, whites, and browns, with patterns that mimic the barren landscapes it frequents. With wings that catch the wind like sails, the Rough-legged Hawk glides over the frozen terrain, a graceful nomad in search of milder climates.

Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawks breed in the Arctic tundra and migrate to Kentucky for winter, where they do not nest but roost in open areas or tall trees. In their breeding grounds, they nest on cliffs or ground, using sticks and vegetation. Their migration to Kentucky highlights their adaptability to different environments and the importance of suitable winter habitats.

In Kentucky, Rough-legged Hawks feed on small mammals, particularly voles and mice. Their hunting technique includes hovering in the air before diving to catch prey, adapted to open fields and marshes. Their presence contributes to controlling rodent populations during the winter months.

The conservation of Rough-legged Hawks involves protecting winter habitats and ensuring safe migratory routes. Efforts include habitat preservation and monitoring populations to understand their migration patterns better. International cooperation is also vital due to their long migratory journeys from the Arctic breeding grounds to wintering sites like Kentucky.

5. Northern Harrier

  • Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
  • Life span: Up to 12 years
  • Size: 18-20 inches (45-50 cm)
  • Weight: 12-26 ounces (350-740 g)
  • Wingspan: 40-48 inches (100-122 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and uncommon, with some breeding pairs

Unique among its raptor relatives, the Northern Harrier glides low over meadows and marshes, its slender body and long wings casting a shadow over the grasses below. Its face is distinctive, framed by a facial disk of feathers that focuses sound to its ears, much like that of an owl.

This adaptation, combined with its mottled brown and white plumage that blends seamlessly into the landscape, makes the Northern Harrier a silent spectre on the hunt, a master of stealth in the open country it prefers.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harriers are unique among Kentucky hawks for their ground-nesting habits, often in open fields or marshes. They construct their nests from grasses and other vegetation, creating a platform to lay their eggs. This ground-level nesting makes their eggs and young vulnerable to predators, highlighting the importance of tall grasses and marsh vegetation for protection.

Their diet mainly consists of small mammals and birds, which they hunt by flying low over open fields and marshes. Northern Harriers use their acute hearing, in addition to their vision, to detect prey. Their hunting technique and diet play a significant role in controlling rodent populations, benefiting agricultural areas and natural ecosystems.

Conservation efforts for Northern Harriers focus on preserving and restoring their grassland and marsh habitats. These areas are threatened by agricultural expansion, urban development, and wetland drainage. Conservation strategies include land management practices that maintain the open habitats Northern Harriers require for nesting and hunting.

6. Cooper’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
  • Life span: 12 years
  • Size: 14.6-15.3 in (37-39 cm)
  • Weight: 7.8-14.5 oz (220-410 g)
  • Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in (62-90 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Cooper’s Hawk, a medium-sized raptor, thrives in both dense forests and urban areas across North America. Its sleek, blue-gray back and rust-barred chest make it a striking figure as it patrols its territory.

The hawk’s long tail and rounded wings are designed for sudden bursts of speed and agility, enabling it to weave through trees and obstacles with ease. The Cooper’s Hawk carries an air of confidence, its sharp gaze scanning the landscape with an intensity that is both commanding and captivating.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawks nest in large trees, often in wooded areas or forests. They build substantial nests from sticks and line them with bark and leaves. These hawks are territorial during the breeding season, aggressively defending their nests. They lay 3 to 5 eggs, with the female primarily incubating them while the male provides food.

The diet of Cooper’s Hawks consists mainly of medium-sized birds and small mammals. They are skilled hunters, using the cover of trees to ambush their prey. Their presence in urban and suburban areas has increased due to the availability of prey like pigeons and other birds.

Conservation efforts for Cooper’s Hawks include measures to protect their nesting habitats and reduce mortality from human activities, such as collisions with vehicles and windows. Urban and suburban environments have become important habitats for these hawks, and initiatives to make these areas safer for them are ongoing.

7. Red-Tailed Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
  • Life span: 10-15 years
  • Size: 19.7-25.6 in (50-65 cm)
  • Weight: 31.8-51.5 oz (900-1460 g)
  • Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in (114-133 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Red-tailed Hawk is a formidable presence across North America, from the deep forests of Alaska to the tropical climates of Panama. Renowned for its distinctive reddish-brown tail, which contrasts vividly against its more muted body of browns and whites, this hawk exudes a regal air as it soars high above.

Its broad wings and sturdy body make it a master of the skies, capable of hovering over open fields and woodlands with an unmatched grace. The Red-tailed Hawk’s commanding gaze, sharp beak, and talons reveal its predatory prowess, making it a symbol of strength and resilience in the avian world.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks in Kentucky prefer to nest in high places where they have a broad view of the surrounding area, typically choosing tall trees or cliffs for their nesting sites. They build large nests using sticks and branches, often returning to the same nest year after year, adding new material each time. The nests serve as a platform for laying 2 to 3 eggs, which are incubated by both parents. This behaviour ensures the safety and warmth of the eggs until they hatch.

The Red-tailed Hawk’s diet is predominantly composed of small to medium-sized mammals, such as rodents, rabbits, and squirrels, making it an essential predator in controlling these populations. Additionally, they may also feed on birds and reptiles depending on availability. Their hunting strategy involves soaring high above the ground or sitting perched on high vantage points to spot and swoop down on their prey.

The conservation status of the Red-tailed Hawk in Kentucky has improved over the years due to several factors, including legal protection from hunting and pesticide regulation. These measures have helped to stabilize and increase their populations. Conservation efforts also include habitat preservation and public education programs about the importance of these birds to the ecosystem.

8. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
  • Life span: 5 years
  • Size: 9.4-13.4 in (24-34 cm)
  • Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz (87-218 g)
  • Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in (43-56 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and common, with some breeding populations

The Sharp-shinned Hawk, the smallest hawk in North America, flits through the forest with an agility that belies its delicate stature. Its feathers are a blend of slate gray and soft reddish-browns, providing perfect camouflage against the bark and leaves of its woodland home.

The hawk’s thin legs and namesake sharp “shins” are well-adapted for navigating through dense foliage, and its small, fierce eyes sparkle with determination. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a testament to the fact that power and prowess need not come in large packages.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawks build their nests in dense forests, preferring coniferous or mixed forests. They use twigs and branches to construct their nests, usually high up in trees. These hawks lay 3 to 5 eggs, with the female primarily responsible for incubation while the male hunts for food. Their secretive nature makes their nests challenging to locate.

Their diet mainly consists of small birds, making them important for controlling bird populations. Sharp-shinned Hawks are agile fliers, capable of navigating through dense forests to catch birds in mid-air. They also eat rodents and insects, depending on availability.

Conservation efforts for Sharp-shinned Hawks focus on preserving forest habitats and reducing threats from pesticides and window collisions. Public education on making windows bird-safe and protecting nesting areas helps support their populations. Despite challenges, their adaptability to different environments has helped them maintain stable population levels.

Where to find Hawks in Kentucky

In Kentucky, hawks can be observed across diverse landscapes, from the dense forests and rolling hills to the expansive farmlands and wetlands that define the Bluegrass State. Finding these majestic birds of prey requires patience, a keen eye, and an understanding of their habitats and behaviours.

To increase your chances of spotting hawks in Kentucky, embark on your adventure during the early morning or late afternoon hours when hawks are most active, either hunting or soaring on thermals. Equipping yourself with a pair of binoculars and a field guide to birds of prey will enhance your experience, helping you identify different species from a distance.

Here are four prime areas in Kentucky where you’re likely to spot hawks:

  • Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area: This vast area offers a mix of habitats, including open lands and dense forests, making it an ideal spot for observing a variety of hawks, especially during migration periods.
  • Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest: The extensive forested areas and open fields provide perfect hunting grounds for hawks, with designated trails offering birdwatchers ample opportunity to spot these raptors.
  • Mammoth Cave National Park: Surrounding one of the world’s longest cave systems, the park’s rich biodiversity supports a healthy raptor population, with hawks frequently seen gliding over open areas.
  • Sloughs Wildlife Management Area: Especially during the winter, this area becomes a haven for migrating hawks and other birds of prey, offering exceptional opportunities for observation and photography.

Exploring these areas, staying quiet, and minimizing movement will increase your chances of seeing hawks in their natural setting, offering a glimpse into the fascinating world of Kentucky’s birds of prey.


Kentucky’s varied landscapes provide a rich tapestry for hawks and those eager to observe these majestic birds of prey. From the dense forests of the Appalachian foothills to the open spaces of its numerous wildlife reserves, the Bluegrass State offers ample opportunities for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

Whether you’re an experienced birder or someone simply looking to connect with nature, Kentucky’s hawks offer a captivating window into the world of avian predators. By visiting the recommended areas and employing patience and respect for wildlife, you can experience the awe-inspiring presence of hawks, further enriching Kentucky’s natural heritage and the broader ecosystem.

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