10 Hawks in Nebraska (With Pictures)

10 Hawks in Nebraska (With Pictures)

Nebraska, a state rich with broad skies and rolling plains, offers a unique backdrop for observing some of nature’s most impressive birds of prey—hawks. Across its diverse landscapes, from the sandhills to the river valleys, Nebraska hosts a fascinating array of hawk species, each adapted to its niche environment. This article delves into the lives of these magnificent raptors that soar above the Cornhusker State.

From the commonly sighted Red-tailed Hawk patrolling the highways to the elusive Northern Goshawk in the dense pine forests, we will explore their habits, hunting techniques, and the roles they play in maintaining the ecological balance. Join us as we take a closer look at these powerful predators, whose presence is as commanding as the Nebraska winds, and learn about the importance of conservation efforts to ensure their survival and prosperity in the heartland.

1. 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, a frequent sight in the skies across North America, is easily recognized by its rich, russet-red tail that stands out against its otherwise brown and white mottled plumage. From the bustling cities to the serene countryside, these birds have a vast geographical range, adapting effortlessly to various environments.

I recently came home from a hike in California, and was shocked how normal it was to see these hawks everywhere. The striking red tail, more vivid in adults, serves as a captivating feature when observed soaring gracefully above open fields.

Red-Tailed Hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk is a master of construction, creating large nests of sticks and vegetation typically placed high in the fork of a sturdy tree. These nests become a lifelong project, as pairs often return annually, adding new layers to their aerial abode. Inside, the female lays 2-3 eggs, nurturing them with a watchful eye, while her mate becomes her steadfast provider and protector during this vulnerable time.

A versatile diner, the Red-tailed Hawk primarily feasts on rodents, rabbits, and squirrels, showcasing its role as a natural pest controller. This hawk has an adaptable palette, occasionally expanding its menu to include birds and reptiles, depending on the availability of prey in its environment. Its hunting strategy is patient; often perched silently before swooping down with breathtaking precision to capture its meal.

The conservation story of the Red-tailed Hawk is largely positive, with stable populations thanks to legal protections and widespread public appreciation. Efforts to preserve their habitats and curb pesticide use have helped maintain healthy numbers. Community engagement and educational programs continue to promote the welfare of these majestic raptors, ensuring their skies remain shared with us.

2. 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

Cooper’s Hawk carries an air of confidence as it patrols the woods and suburban backyards of North America. This medium-sized hawk sports a blue-gray back with a notably pale underbelly streaked with darker bands. As a resident from southern Canada to Mexico, this bird adapts seamlessly to both wild and urban settings, where it can often be seen perched stealthily, ready to launch after unsuspecting prey.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawks prefer to nest in the dense foliage of tall trees, constructing substantial nests that serve as the foundation for raising their young. These birds are attentive parents, with the female spending much of her time incubating the eggs while the male provides food, showcasing a strong pair bond and cooperative parenting approach.

Primarily, Cooper’s Hawks hunt medium-sized birds and small mammals, demonstrating remarkable flying skills that allow them to maneuver through cluttered tree limbs at high speeds. Their acute vision and quick response are essential in urban and wooded areas alike, making them adept hunters in various environments.

Historically, Cooper’s Hawks faced significant declines due to pesticide poisoning and hunting. However, conservation actions, including banning harmful pesticides and protecting significant habitats, have led to a notable recovery. These hawks have adapted surprisingly well to human-altered landscapes, which has helped in stabilizing their population.

3. 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 rare

The smallest hawk in North America, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, exhibits a slender body and relatively short, rounded wings paired with a long, narrow tail, which it uses adeptly when darting through dense forests.

Its geographical spread covers a broad spectrum, from the dense coniferous forests of Canada down to the wooded regions of Central America. These hawks have a steely gray back with soft, white underparts crossed with fine, reddish-orange banding.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawks build secretive nests, often in dense trees or thickets, hidden from the prying eyes of predators and humans alike. These structures are less grandiose than some, modestly crafted from twigs and lined with bark and leaves. The intimate space fosters a close-knit family unit, where both parents diligently share in chick-rearing duties from incubation to fledging.

The diet of the Sharp-shinned Hawk is almost exclusively small birds, which it catches with stealth and agility in mid-air chases through the forest canopies. This hawk waits quietly and patiently before launching a swift, powerful attack on unsuspecting songbirds at bird feeders or in bushes.

Conservation efforts for Sharp-shinned Hawks have focused on mitigating habitat loss and the dangers posed by pesticides. Being a smaller raptor, they are particularly vulnerable to these threats, and bird conservation groups actively work to enhance public awareness and protect forest habitats to support their populations.

4. 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 rare

A denizen of wooded areas, the Broad-winged Hawk presents a compact and stocky silhouette with broad wings, as its name suggests. During the summer months, it inhabits the eastern forests of North America before embarking on a spectacular migration to South America, forming large flocks known as “kettles” that can number in the thousands.

Its plumage is predominantly dark brown with white bands on the tail, offering perfect camouflage among the dense canopies.

Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawks prefer the seclusion of dense forests for nesting. They build relatively small nests compared to their body size, which are usually well hidden among the tree branches. During the breeding season, these forests resonate with the distinctive calls of Broad-winged Hawks, signalling their presence to each other and their young.

Insects, small rodents, and amphibians constitute the primary diet of the Broad-winged Hawk. This bird takes full advantage of the forest’s bounty, adeptly navigating through dense foliage to snatch up unsuspecting prey. Their hunting tactics are a testament to their mastery of the forest environment.

The Broad-winged Hawk faces challenges from habitat fragmentation and loss, particularly in their breeding territories. Conservationists emphasize the importance of maintaining forest integrity and connectivity to support their migratory and breeding needs. Public awareness and involvement in habitat protection efforts have been crucial in mitigating these threats.

5. 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

Visiting the northern tundra and the open prairies of North America as a winter guest, the Rough-legged Hawk brings with it an air of the Arctic. It displays a variety of plumages from light to dark, all typically featuring bold patterns of black, white, and brown.

This hawk is unique for its feathered legs down to the toes, an adaptation to its cold breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle before migrating south to escape the harsh winter.

Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawks breed in the Arctic tundra, where they construct nests on cliff ledges or ground, depending on the absence of trees. These birds are unique in their use of terrain, sometimes nesting in rock outcroppings that offer protection against predators. During the breeding season, the bleak, isolated expanses of the Arctic are filled with the life and vigor of these hawks raising their young.

The Rough-legged Hawk’s diet is uniquely adapted to its Arctic home, consisting primarily of lemmings and voles. During winter migrations further south, they adjust their diet to include small mammals and birds typical of open fields and prairies, showcasing their adaptability to different prey sources depending on their environment.

The conservation of Rough-legged Hawks involves protecting vast tracts of tundra and boreal forest that are essential for their breeding. Efforts are also made to monitor their populations, especially as climate change alters their Arctic habitats. These hawks are generally less affected by human encroachment due to their remote nesting sites, but environmental changes pose new challenges.

6. Swainson’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
  • Life span: Up to 15 years
  • Size: 18-22 inches (46-56 cm)
  • Weight: 1.4-2.4 pounds (650-1,100 g)
  • Wingspan: 47-59 inches (119-150 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and common

The Swainson’s Hawk is a traveler of great distances, migrating from the grasslands and prairies of North America to the pampas of Argentina in a remarkable display of endurance.

Recognizable by its light-coloured belly and darker chest and head, this hawk adjusts its habitat seasonally, showcasing flexibility and resilience in its lifestyle. The underwing, seen during flight, exhibits a striking contrast of white and dark, capturing the essence of an open sky.

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawks are prairie-nesters, often choosing solitary trees or small groves as their nesting sites, which stand as sentinels over the expansive grasslands. The nest, made of sticks and lined with softer materials, becomes the center of their universe during the breeding season as they raise their brood with diligent care.

This hawk’s diet shifts dramatically with the seasons. In their breeding grounds, Swainson’s Hawks primarily consume insects such as grasshoppers and locusts, along with small mammals. When migrating to South America, their diet changes to include a variety of new and exotic prey items, reflecting their adaptability to different feeding environments.

Swainson’s Hawks are notably affected by agricultural pesticides, particularly in their wintering grounds in Argentina, where massive die-offs have occurred in the past. Conservation efforts now focus on international cooperation to ensure safe migratory routes and reduce pesticide exposure. Education campaigns and pesticide regulation have seen some success in reducing these incidents.

7. Ferruginous Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo regalis
  • Life span: Up to 20 years
  • Size: 22-27 inches (56-69 cm)
  • Weight: 2.6-4.4 pounds (1.2-2 kg)
  • Wingspan: 52-55 inches (132-140 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and uncommon

Commanding the open territories of North America’s interior west, the Ferruginous Hawk is the continent’s largest hawk. It dons a regal appearance with a predominantly pale body contrasted by rust-coloured shoulders and legs, and a broad, pale gape that sets it apart.

Preferring the wide, open spaces of prairies and desert lands, this hawk nests on the ground or low platforms, surveying its domain with sharp, discerning eyes.

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawks choose open areas to build their nests, either on rocky outcrops or in low trees, rarely above the surrounding landscape. Their nests are large structures of sticks, from which they can survey the open plains. Mating pairs return yearly, adding material to reinforce the structure as a testament to their long-term bond.

As the largest hawk in North America, the Ferruginous Hawk preys on rabbits, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs. Its hunting strategy involves soaring high and then swooping down at high speeds to capture prey on the open plains, a sight that embodies the raw beauty and harshness of their habitat.

The conservation of the Ferruginous Hawk is focused on protecting prairie ecosystems from overdevelopment and degradation. Efforts include land management practices that preserve the natural grasslands essential for their survival. Conservationists work to balance human activity with the needs of wildlife, striving to ensure a future where these majestic birds continue to rule the skies.

8. 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

Vibrantly attired with rich, chestnut-red shoulders that contrast beautifully against its stark white and black barred underparts, the Red-shouldered Hawk is a resident of the eastern woodlands and parts of California.

This hawk’s range stretches from southern Canada through the eastern United States and down into Mexico, preferring deciduous forests and wooded swamps where its colourful plumage blends perfectly among the autumn leaves.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks build nests in the forks of tall trees near water sources like rivers or swamps. Their nesting sites are often reused year after year, with both partners diligently repairing and building onto the existing structure. During the nesting period, their vocal calls can frequently be heard as they communicate with their mate and chicks.

Their diet mainly consists of small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, indicative of their preference for riparian or wetland habitats. Red-shouldered Hawks have adapted to hunt effectively in partially wooded environments, swooping down silently to snatch up unsuspecting prey near the water’s edge.

Red-shouldered Hawks benefit from targeted conservation efforts focusing on preserving wetland habitats and managing forests sustainably. These practices help maintain the ecosystems required for their survival. Public education on the importance of these habitats has also improved their status in many parts of their range, allowing them to thrive.

9. Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter atricapillus
  • 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

Robust and fierce, the Northern Goshawk commands the northern forests across the globe, ranging from North America to Europe and Asia. This bird of prey wears a cloak of slate gray with a subtle barred pattern across its chest, conveying a stern appearance complemented by a striking white eyebrow stripe.

The Northern Goshawk is a symbol of the wild, untamed wilderness, often remaining elusive, hidden within the confines of dense woodland.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawks are secretive nesters, choosing tall, dense trees to construct their sturdy nests. These sites are reused and added to each year, creating massive structures that are central to their breeding rituals. The solitude of their chosen nesting sites reflects their need for seclusion during the critical breeding season.

This powerful predator preys on a variety of birds and mammals, reflecting its status as a top predator in its forest home. The Northern Goshawk relies on its powerful flight, stealth, and agility to pursue squirrels, hares, and woodland birds, often utilizing a surprise attack from a concealed perch.

The Northern Goshawk is considered a species of concern in some areas due to habitat loss and forestry practices that threaten its breeding areas. Conservation efforts are focused on protecting old-growth forests and regulating hunting to ensure stable populations, particularly in regions where their habitat continues to be fragmented.

10. Northern Harrier

  • Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
  • Life span: 5 – 7 years
  • Size: 18-24 in / 45-61 cm
  • Weight: 12.3-26.5 oz / 350-750 g
  • Wingspan: 40-48 in / 100-122 cm
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and common

Distinct for its owl-like facial disc that aids in sound detection, the Northern Harrier glides low over marshes and grasslands of North America, Europe, and Asia. Its geographical range is extensive, favouring open habitats where it can use its exceptional hearing and sight to hunt.

Males are gray with black wingtips, while females and juveniles show a brown and cream pattern, blending seamlessly with the waving grasses below.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harriers are ground-nesting birds, unique among hawks for their choice to build nests in tall grasses or marshes rather than trees. This strategy offers protection and camouflage, crucial for their survival.

During the nesting season, the male Northern Harrier can be seen performing spectacular food passes to the female, an aerial maneuver that strengthens their bond and ensures the welfare of their offspring.

Northern Harriers are unique among hawks for their reliance on a diet heavily skewed towards small mammals and birds, which they hunt using their acute hearing—unusual for raptors. Hovering low over fields and marshes, they use their owl-like facial structure to detect and pinpoint the rustles of their prey, making them formidable and efficient hunters.

Conservation efforts for the Northern Harrier include protecting wetland and grassland habitats essential for their breeding and foraging. Due to their ground-nesting habits, they are particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction and disturbances from agricultural activities. Programs aimed at conserving these habitats have been crucial in maintaining stable populations of this distinctive hawk.

Where to find Hawks in Nebraska

In Nebraska, the vast, open landscapes provide perfect opportunities for hawk-watching, an activity that can be very thrilling. To find hawks in Nebraska, you’ll want to visit during migration seasons—spring and fall—when these raptors are on the move to and from their winter grounds. However, many species can also be seen throughout the year, depending on where you look.

One of the best ways to spot hawks is to visit regions with wide, open fields where these birds hunt. Early morning or late afternoon, when hawks are most active, are ideal times. Also, I’ve noticed that these big raptors are more active when there is a bit of wind. Bring a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to help identify different species and their behaviours.

Here are four great areas in Nebraska where you can observe hawks:

  • Valentine National Wildlife Refuge – Located in the Sandhills region, this refuge provides a diverse habitat that is ideal for many hawk species, especially during migrations.
  • Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge – Another spot in the Sandhills, this refuge offers river valleys and rolling hills where hawks often hunt.
  • Ponca State Park – Situated in the northeastern corner of the state, this park is a known hotspot for bird watching, where cliffs and forests provide excellent nesting and perching sites for hawks.
  • Rowe Sanctuary – Located near Gibbon, this sanctuary is primarily known for sandhill cranes, but it also provides good opportunities to see hawks, particularly in the surrounding open fields and along the Platte River.

Each of these locations offers unique landscapes and potential sightings of various hawk species, making them excellent choices for both novice birdwatchers and experienced ornithologists.


All in all, Nebraska is a formidable state to go looking for these majestic animals. The state has a wide variety in species, and you can watch them year-round, due to both migrating and breeding populations. Hawk watching is a great way to spend time in nature as you will see some amazing landscapes while looking for these beautiful birds.

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