The 8 hawks in Michigan

The 8 hawks in Michigan

Michigan is home to a variety of hawks, with some species being more common than others. Eight species are recognized on the state’s checklist as native to the area. Hawks are birds of prey known for their strong beaks, sharp vision, and swift movements used to catch their prey. Observing these hunters in action can be quite fascinating. In this article, we will explore the diverse range of hawks found in Michigan, noting that some species may only be present in the state during specific times of the year.

1. Red-Shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
  • Life span: 19 years
  • Size: 16.9-24.0 in (43-61 cm)
  • Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz (486-774 g)
  • Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in (94-111 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Red-Shouldered Hawk is a prevalent bird in Michigan and can be seen throughout the year. Its range extends from southeastern Canada to Mexico and can be found in all eastern states. These birds have a brownish head, with a pale striped, reddish chest.

A Red-Shouldered Hawk

They possess an unusually long tail for hawks and are named after the red shoulders that can be observed on the underside of the bird during flight. The Red-Shouldered Hawk typically inhabits deciduous swamps and bottomland hardwood forests, making Michigan an ideal habitat, especially the northern parts.

Nesting

The Red-Shouldered Hawk’s mating season begins in April. They prefer to breed in well-hidden, mixed wooded areas near bodies of water, and tend to nest in forests with diverse tree populations. Red-Shouldered Hawks are monogamous and territorial in nature.

During courtship, the male flies in circles above the female and makes swooping dives near her. Nesting pairs construct their nests in large trees and may reuse them in subsequent breeding seasons.

Diet

The Red-Shouldered Hawk is primarily a woodland hunter, perching on tall trees or gliding over the landscape in search of prey. Their diet is primarily composed of small mammals such as voles, mice, and moles. However, depending on local conditions, they may also consume crayfish and small birds, especially during the winter when small mammal populations are low.

Conservation

The Red-Shouldered Hawk population was once one of the most common raptors in North America, but due to the clearing of old-growth forests in the 1900s, its population has declined. However, conservation efforts since the 1950s and the outlawing of hunting these birds have stabilized the population, and it is no longer considered in need of conservation efforts. Additionally, the banning of certain pesticides, particularly DDT, has helped to stabilize the population.

Where to look for them

The best place to look for Red-shouldered Hawks in Michigan is in wooded areas, such as hardwood forests and swamps. They can also be found in parks and suburban areas with mature trees. The Huron-Manistee National Forest and the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge are two specific areas in Michigan that are known to be home to Red-shouldered Hawks.

2. Northern Harrier

  • Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
  • Life span: 12 years
  • Size: 18.1-19.7 in (46-50 cm)
  • Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz (300-750 g)
  • Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in (102-118 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Northern Harrier is a common observed hawk in Michigan year-round and is among the largest hawks in the state. This bird breeds in the northern United States, throughout Canada and Alaska, and can be found in southern Michigan year-round, and in northern Michigan during the summer period.

A Northern Harrier in flight scouting for prey, while showing its spectacular wings and owl-like face.

It is sometimes called the “Gray Ghost” due to its overall greyish appearance. Up close, it has a resemblance to an owl and is often mistaken for one, despite not being closely related. They primarily reside in open areas such as moorlands, bogs, prairies and marshes.

Nesting

The Northern Harrier is a polygynous raptor, meaning that the male will breed with up to five females during a single breeding season. The breeding season begins around April, and the male courts a chosen female by flying high in the air and making swooping dives near her, sometimes even making loops.

Being a bird that spends most of its time in open landscapes, the Northern Harrier also nests on the ground in open areas. The nests are made of small twigs and lined with soft materials such as grasses or leaves. Northern Harriers are known to nest in small colonies, possibly for safety reasons.

Diet

Like other harriers, the Northern Harrier’s diet is primarily composed of small mammals such as voles and ground squirrels, with small birds also being part of their diet. They hunt by circling above open terrain, listening and looking for prey, then fly down and hug the terrain, only flying a few meters above, surprising the prey from behind.

Conservation

The Northern Harrier has a large distribution range and does not have any specific threats, other than habitat loss and the poisoning of its prey. However, due to its large range, the species is not subject to rapid population decline.

Where to look for them

The best place to look for Northern Harriers in Michigan is in open grasslands, marshes, and wet meadows. These birds of prey hunt by flying low over the ground, so they can often be seen hunting in these types of habitats. The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and the Seney National Wildlife Refuge are two specific areas in Michigan that are known to be home to Northern Harriers. Additionally, the grasslands of the Huron-Manistee National Forest and the Grasslands of the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge are good spots to spot Northern Harriers.

3. 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

The Red-Tailed Hawk is a common bird found in Michigan year-round, with a wide range that stretches from Panama to Alaska and can be found in nearly all parts of North America. As the second largest hawk found in Michigan, it is easily recognized by its distinctive short, red tail and its brown back and pale underside.

A Red-Tailed Hawk sitting in a tree during autumn.

The species has 14 subspecies in North America, which differ in coloration. The Michigan Red-Tailed Hawk is similar in appearance to the other subspecies found in the United States but is generally larger. With a large distribution area, this species is highly adaptable to different habitats, but prefers woodlands and woodland edges.

Nesting

The Red-Tailed Hawk’s breeding season begins around February, and the male performs a courtship flight for the chosen female, flying high in the air and making swooping dives near her. The male may also catch prey and present it to the female as a way to win her over. In Michigan, they typically build their nests in tall trees, taller than the surrounding trees or in nest boxes. These nests are often reused by the same pair in subsequent years.

Diet

The primary diet of the Red-Tailed Hawk is small mammals such as voles, rats, and rabbits, but they are also known to consume small birds as well. They hunt by perching in trees and making surprise attacks on prey or by gliding 20-50 meters above the ground, scanning for prey.

Conservation

Over the last 100 years, the Red-Tailed Hawk’s distribution range has expanded, possibly due to the conversion of deep woodlands to patchy woodlands due to logging. Like most other hawks, the main threats to this species are illegal shootings by humans and poisoning of prey.

Where to look for them

The best place to look for Red-tailed Hawks in Michigan is in open areas, such as fields, grasslands, and along roadsides. They can also be found in suburban areas and along the edges of forests. The Huron-Manistee National Forest, The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and the Seney National Wildlife Refuge are some of the specific areas in Michigan where Red-tailed Hawks can be found. Additionally, you can also find them in the agricultural lands in the southern part of the state.

4. 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

The Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized bird that can be found throughout North America and as far south as Mexico. It is a forest-dwelling bird known for its agility, and for hunting prey much larger than itself, thanks to its exceptional flying abilities.

A marked and trained Cooper’s Hawk sitting on a tree trunk

Adults are striking, with pale orange barring on their chest, and are often mistaken for Sharp-Shinned Hawks. They are stealthy and intelligent predators, which sometimes causes them to be disliked by homeowners as they may hide around bird feeders for an easy meal, not the food in the feeders themselves.

Nesting

The Cooper’s Hawk breeding season starts around March, and during this time the male performs a courtship flight for the chosen female, flying high in the air and making spectacular aerial acrobatics. Once paired, the two sexes fly around their nesting area with slow, exaggerated wingbeats to mark their territory. The nests are built in tall trees, often on existing structures such as old bird nests.

Diet

The primary diet of the Cooper’s Hawk consists of small birds that they catch either in mid-air or by ambushing them while they are sitting on branches. They are also known to eat small mammals such as mice and voles, which they catch in less spectacular fashion than the small birds.

Conservation

The population of Cooper’s Hawk has had a tumultuous history since the 1900s. At first, there was a threefold increase in population over a short period, followed by a steep decline due to hunting. As hunting was outlawed, the population started to increase again, until DDT was introduced and killed large parts of the population again. In recent times, the population appears to be stable, with poisoning of prey being the main contributor to early death in the species.

Where to look for them

The best place to look for Cooper’s Hawks in Michigan is in wooded areas, especially deciduous forests. They can also be found in suburban areas with mature trees. The Huron-Manistee National Forest, The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, and the Isle Royale National Park are some specific areas in Michigan where Cooper’s Hawks can be found. Additionally, Cooper’s Hawks are also known to live in areas with dense wooded areas such as, maple-beech-birch forests, and dense residential areas with large trees.

5. 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

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is the smallest hawk found in Michigan and in the United States. They have a greyish back and an orangy chest, which make them similar in appearance to the Cooper’s Hawk. One way to distinguish them is by the stripes on the Sharp-Shinned Hawk’s tail. Due to their small size, they are also very secretive, often hiding in forests during the nesting season.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Nesting

During the courtship period, the two sexes of Sharp-shinned Hawk will soar and circle above forests calling to each other. The male performs a typical hawk courtship display by diving near the female and displaying his full body. When building nests, they look for the densest coniferous trees in thick forests, where they build the nest close to the trunk for added camouflage.

Diet

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk hides in thick bushes or trees and waits for prey to come to them. Their diet mostly consists of small birds and mammals, similar to the Cooper’s Hawk. They also possess aerial maneuverability, capturing small birds in mid-air.

Conservation

Like many other hawks, the use of DDT in the 1960s and 1970s had a significant impact on the population of the Sharp-Shinned Hawk. However, since the banning of chemicals like DDT, their population appears to have increased and is now at an all-time high. The increase in bird feeders in private gardens also offers the Sharp-Shinned Hawks more opportunities to find easy prey, helping them recover from the poisoning of the 60s and 70s.

Where to look for them

The best place to look for Sharp-shinned Hawks in Michigan is in wooded areas, especially coniferous forests. They can also be found in suburban areas with mature trees. The Huron-Manistee National Forest, The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, and the Isle Royale National Park are some specific areas in Michigan where Sharp-shinned Hawks can be found. They are known to also hunt in areas with small mammal populations and birds, so areas with dense underbrush or thickets, orchards, and wooded residential areas are also good places to spot these birds. Additionally, during migration, sharp-shinned Hawks can often be seen in wooded areas along shorelines of the Great Lakes.

6. 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

The Broad-Winged Hawk can be spotted throughout Michigan in the spring-summer breeding season. For birders, one of the most impressive sights to behold is the migration of the Broad-Winged Hawk, when they gather in large flocks of thousands of individuals during the fall en route to South America. The body of the Broad-Winged Hawk is dark brown with a pale whitish belly that features horizontal bars.

Broad-winged hawk

Nesting

The breeding season for the Broad-Winged Hawk begins in April, and during this time the male will perform aerial acrobatics in a courtship display for a chosen female. Both the male and female build the nest in deciduous trees located deep in the forests, particularly near the Tennessee River and up towards Maine.

Diet

The Broad-Winged Hawk has a diverse diet, and unlike other hawks, it is not picky with its food choices. Its primary diet consists of small mammals such as voles, but it also feeds on amphibians, insects, birds and reptiles. These birds hide in well-concealed low-hanging branches and surprise their prey with their talons as they glide down to catch it.

Conservation

The major threat to the Broad-Winged Hawk is forest fragmentation in its breeding range. However, their population is thought to be increasing, possibly due to conservation efforts in the United States. Despite being exposed to forest fragmentation the species population is thought to be increasing, possibly due to conservation efforts in the United States.

Where to look for them

The best place to look for Broad-winged Hawks in Michigan is in wooded areas, especially hardwood forests. They can also be found in suburban areas with mature trees. They are known to congregate in large numbers during migration, so areas with large concentrations of trees, such as the Huron-Manistee National Forest, The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, and the Seney National Wildlife Refuge are some specific areas in Michigan where Broad-winged Hawks can be found.

Additionally, during the migration season, broad-winged hawks can be spotted along the shorelines of the Great Lakes, as well as at Hawk-watching sites on the tops of hills or ridges with good visibility to the surrounding area.

7. 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

The Rough-Legged Hawk is the only hawk species that breeds in the high Arctic and is a common winter visitor to Michigan. They have a mostly brown plumage, with a lighter-coloured head, and dark spots scattered throughout the body.

Their undersides have a large dark spot, making them easily distinguishable from other hawks. Their name “Rough-Legged” originates from the fact that their legs are covered in feathers all the way down to the toes, which is an adaptation for living in their Arctic breeding range.

Close-up photo of the Rough-Legged Hawk.

Nesting

The Rough-Legged Hawk differs from other hawks in that they locate their nesting sites in the fall, prior to the breeding season which typically begins in May. Before leaving their breeding habitats for the winter, they will scout for areas with high concentrations of prey to use during the next breeding season. During the breeding season, males and females engage in aerial courtship, where the male performs a “sky dance” of flapping and steep diving. Nests are constructed on cliff sides using a bulky mixture of sticks, bones, and other hard materials.

Diet

Their diet primarily consists of small mammals, such as voles, lemmings, and ground squirrels. These hawks hunt by patrolling over open ground, often perched on a high vantage point, and then diving down to catch their prey on the ground or by hovering and then diving to capture prey. They also feed on small birds and occasionally reptiles, amphibians and insects as well. However, during the winter, when the prey becomes scarcer and also when they migrate to more southern areas, they are more inclined to prey on birds such as grouse, ptarmigans and ducks.

Conservation

The Rough-legged Hawk is not currently facing any major threats. Their breeding habitat in the high Arctic is largely free from direct human interference. However, accidental and indirect poisoning of prey during their wintering grounds, as well as habitat loss due to climate change, are potential concerns. Currently, there is limited information available on the population status of the Rough-legged Hawk, but it is believed to be stable.

Where to look for them

Rough-legged Hawks are not common in Michigan, and they are more likely to be seen during the winter months, when they migrate south from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra. They can be seen in open fields and prairies, along roadsides and in other open areas. They are also known to perch on power lines, telephone poles or other tall structures. The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, the Seney National Wildlife Refuge and the Huron-Manistee National Forest are some specific areas in Michigan where Rough-legged Hawks have been spotted in the past. The best time to spot them is during the winter months, when they are more likely to be seen in the state as they migrate south.

8. 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

The Northern Goshawk, like the Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, is known for its exceptional agility and ability to maneuver through forests with great dexterity. They are also very secretive birds, often hiding deep in the forest. The Rough-legged Hawk can be found in Michigan throughout the year in the northern half of the state and less commonly in the southern part of the state during the non-breeding season. The Northern Goshawk has a dark grey upper body and lighter gray underparts, which are adorned with black stripes.

Northern goshawk

Nesting

The Northern Goshawk is a species that is known to form monogamous, life-long pair bonds. Their courtship behaviour is similar to that of the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, with the male and female soaring and circling above the forest, where the male will perform aerial dives and present food to the female. During the nesting process, the female typically constructs the nest while the male provides food. Nests are typically built high in tall trees in dense forested areas.

Diet

They are carnivorous, and their diet primarily consists of small to medium-sized mammals, such as squirrels, rabbits, hares and small deer, as well as birds, such as grouse, pheasants, and pigeons. The Northern Goshawk is a skilled hunter, able to catch fast-flying birds and agile mammals in dense forests, they are opportunistic hunters that adjust their diet according to prey availability and local conditions. They tend to be more opportunistic than specialists hunters, and their diet can vary depending on where they live and what’s available. For example, in more urbanized areas, Northern Goshawks might take advantage of the opportunities to hunt pigeons and rock doves.

Conservation

Similar to other hawks on this list, the use of DDT in the 1960s and 1970s has had an impact on the population of the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, although to a lesser degree compared to other species. However, their habitats are facing significant pressure from logging and fragmentation of deep forested areas. Additionally, the increase in bird feeders in private gardens has provided the Sharp-Shinned Hawk with easy access to prey.

Where to look for them

The Northern Goshawk is a species of accipiter that is found in mature coniferous and mixed forests across Canada and Alaska, as well as parts of the northern United States. In Michigan, the best place to look for Northern Goshawks is in the northern and western parts of the state, where there are large tracts of coniferous and mixed forests. The Huron-Manistee National Forest, and the Ottawa National Forest are some specific areas in Michigan where Northern Goshawks have been seen. They also can be found in areas such as the Upper Peninsula, specifically the Porcupine Mountains and the Sylvania wilderness areas. Keep in mind that Northern Goshawks are a fairly secretive bird and can be difficult to spot, so patience and persistence are key when searching for them.

Conclusion

Michigan is a prime destination for hawk watching, with a variety of breeding birds present during the summer and many North American hawks visiting during the winter. Michigan has an abundance of good birdwatching location such as The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, The Huron-Manistee National Forest and the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Seeing hawks hunt in the wild is a thrilling experience that even experienced birders appreciate.

In the mid-20th century, almost all hawk populations were in decline due to hunting and the widespread use of pesticides that poisoned their prey. However, since the banning of DDT and the hunting of most raptors, many species have recovered, and their populations are now stable or increasing, making it more likely to spot these birds in the wild.