8 Hawks in West Virginia (With Pictures)

8 Hawks in West Virginia (With Pictures)

West Virginia’s diverse landscapes, from its sprawling forests to rugged mountains, create an ideal habitat for various hawk species. These majestic birds of prey are not only integral to the ecosystem for their role in controlling rodent and insect populations but also captivate bird watchers and nature enthusiasts.

In this article, we’ll explore the lives of hawks in the Mountain State, highlighting their migration patterns, breeding habits, and where you can spot these fascinating raptors. From the commonly seen Red-tailed Hawk to the rarer Northern Goshawk, each species offers a glimpse into the adaptability and diversity of avian life in West Virginia.

Whether you’re an avid birder or simply enjoy the beauty of wildlife, understanding these powerful predators can deepen your appreciation for West Virginia’s natural heritage.

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

Inhabiting the woodlands and riverine forests of North America, from southeastern Canada through the eastern United States and extending into parts of Mexico and Central America, the Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized raptor known for its vibrant plumage and distinctive voice.

Its shoulders and wings are adorned with rich reddish-brown tones, contrasting beautifully with the black-and-white checkered pattern on its flight feathers and tail. This bird’s striking appearance is complemented by its loud, distinctive kee-rah call, which echoes through its habitat.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

In the riparian forests and woodlands of West Virginia, the Red-shouldered Hawk weaves its life story among the trees. These hawks select tall trees near water bodies for their nests, creating large platforms of sticks and lining them with bark, moss, and leaves.

The choice of nesting site is strategic, offering easy access to hunting grounds and water. The building and maintenance of the nest are shared responsibilities, with both mates involved in creating a safe haven for their chicks.

The Red-shouldered Hawk in West Virginia thrives on a diet rich in variety, mirroring the abundance of the state’s ecosystems. These hawks hunt small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, often taking advantage of their proximity to water to catch frogs and snakes. Their hunting style is patient and calculated, using their keen vision to spot prey from a perch before swooping down in silence.

The Red-shouldered Hawk’s conservation narrative in West Virginia is a testament to the importance of wetland and forest conservation. These hawks have faced challenges from habitat destruction and degradation, especially in areas where forests have been fragmented by development. Conservation efforts have focused on protecting and restoring their natural habitats, emphasizing the importance of clean waterways and contiguous tracts of forest.

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, embarks on an impressive migration from the forests of northern Canada and the northeastern United States to wintering grounds in South America. This compact bird is characterized by its stout body, broad wings, and short tail, which aid in its long-distance flights.

In summer, its haunting whistle punctuates the forest’s calm, while its plumage blends seamlessly into the woodland canopy. Adults are distinguished by their rufous underparts and barred tail, a camouflage amidst the dense foliage. The Broad-winged Hawk’s annual migration in massive flocks, known as “kettles,” is a spectacular natural phenomenon, showcasing the interconnectedness of the Americas through the lens of avian migration.

Broad-Winged Hawk

The Broad-winged Hawk chooses the dense canopy as its nursery. These hawks craft their nests with meticulous care, using sticks to form a sturdy base and lining it with softer materials. Nestled within the seclusion of leafy boughs, these nests are safe havens for their young.

The Broad-winged Hawk’s diet in West Virginia reflects the rich biodiversity of the state. These raptors feast on a mix of small mammals, insects, and amphibians, taking full advantage of the seasonal abundance. Their hunting technique is a blend of patience and stealth, often lying in wait on a perch before making a swift and decisive strike.

The story of the Broad-winged Hawk in West Virginia is one of connectivity, linking their summer breeding grounds to their wintering habitats in South America. Conservation efforts for these hawks focus on preserving large tracts of forest to ensure they have the necessary habitat for nesting and feeding. The spectacle of their mass migration highlights the need for international cooperation in bird conservation, protecting flyways and stopover sites.

3. Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
  • Life span: Up to 15 years
  • Size: 24-29 in (61-74 cm)
  • Weight: 24-48 oz (680-1360g)
  • Wingspan: 45-52 in (114-132 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and rare

The Northern Goshawk, a symbol of the wild, untamed forests of the Northern Hemisphere, claims a territory that spans from the chilly reaches of North America and Europe to the dense woodlands of Asia.

This large hawk exudes a formidable presence, with broad, rounded wings and a long tail that enable it to navigate through dense foliage. Its plumage is a striking mix of slate gray above and finely barred below, with a distinctive white eyebrow stripe that gives it a fierce expression.

The Northern Goshawk’s commanding presence, marked by piercing yellow eyes and a stout body, reflects its status as a top predator in its forested domain.

Northern Goshawk

These birds prefer the densest parts of the forest, where they construct massive nests in large trees. The nests, architectural marvels of sticks and vegetation, are often reused and added to each year, becoming significant structures within their chosen trees. The goshawks’ nesting sites are fiercely defended against any intruders, a testament to their strong territorial instincts.

These powerful raptors feed on a variety of prey, including birds, small mammals, and occasionally reptiles and insects. Their hunting strategy is a blend of stealth and power, often launching surprise attacks from a hidden perch or pursuing prey with relentless agility through the forest. The goshawk’s diet is crucial for the health of the ecosystem, naturally regulating prey populations and ensuring ecological balance.

The conservation of the Northern Goshawk in West Virginia is a complex challenge, involving the protection of their dense forest habitats. These birds are indicators of the health of their environment, and their presence signifies well-managed, mature forests. Efforts to conserve the goshawk include managing forests for old-growth characteristics, monitoring populations, and research to understand their needs better.

4. Rough-Legged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
  • Life span: Up to 15 years
  • Size: 18-20 in (46-51 cm)
  • Weight: 24-52 oz (680-1470g)
  • Wingspan: 52-54 inches (132-137 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and rare

The Rough-legged Hawk, a visitor from the Arctic tundra, graces North America with its presence during the winter months. This large raptor is unique for its feathered legs down to the toes, an adaptation to its chilly homeland.

It boasts a broad geographical range, migrating from the northernmost reaches of Alaska and Canada to winter across the United States. Displaying a variety of plumages, from light to dark morphs, all individuals have distinctively patterned underwings and tails.

Rough-Legged Hawk

The Rough-legged Hawk, a winter visitor to West Virginia, brings a touch of the Arctic to the state’s landscapes. While they do not breed in West Virginia, their nesting behaviour in the Arctic tundra is fascinating, constructing nests on cliff faces or the ground, using sticks, bones, and vegetation. This choice of nesting site in their breeding grounds reflects their adaptation to the harsh Arctic environment, a stark contrast to the rolling hills and forests of West Virginia where they spend their winters.

During their winter stay in West Virginia, Rough-legged Hawks adapt their diet to the available prey, primarily feeding on small mammals such as voles and mice found in open fields. Their hunting strategy involves hovering in the air, using their exceptional vision to spot prey before swooping down to capture it.

This ability to hover, unique among hawks, showcases their specialized hunting skills and adaptability to different environments, ensuring their survival in the diverse landscapes of West Virginia.

The conservation of the Rough-legged Hawk in West Virginia focuses on the preservation of their winter habitats. As visitors from the North, these hawks rely on open fields and marshlands to hunt and roost. Conservation efforts include maintaining open habitats and monitoring populations to understand their migration patterns better.

The challenges of climate change and habitat loss in their Arctic breeding grounds also impact their winter survival, making global conservation efforts crucial for their continued visits to West Virginia.

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: Breeding and common

Stretching across open habitats from the northern reaches of Alaska and Canada down through the United States to Central America, the Northern Harrier is a distinctive presence with its owl-like face and long, slender wings and tail.

This medium-sized raptor’s unique facial disc channels sound to its ears, enhancing its ability to detect prey by sound as well as sight. Exhibiting sexual dimorphism, males are gray with black wingtips, while females and juveniles wear a mottled brown cloak, blending into the marshes and grasslands they frequent.

Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier, a graceful presence in West Virginia’s open landscapes, crafts its nests on the ground, a rare trait among hawks. These ground nests, hidden among tall grasses or in wetlands, are made of sticks and vegetation, camouflaged to protect from predators. The male may service multiple nests, providing food for the females and their chicks.

These raptors glide low over fields and marshes, preying on small mammals, birds, and insects. Their owl-like facial disc helps funnel sound, aiding in the detection of prey hidden beneath the vegetation. This method of hunting, relying on both sight and sound, highlights the Northern Harrier’s adaptation to its environment, ensuring its success as a predator in the diverse habitats of West Virginia.

Conservation efforts for the Northern Harrier in West Virginia have focused on preserving and restoring their grassland and wetland habitats. Threats such as habitat loss and degradation have prompted actions to protect these critical areas, ensuring the harriers have suitable nesting and hunting grounds. Public awareness campaigns and habitat management practices are essential components of these efforts, aiming to maintain the biodiversity of West Virginia’s open landscapes.

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 across a wide geographical expanse, inhabiting varied landscapes across North America, from southern Canada to Mexico. This bird exhibits a strikingly sleek profile, with long, rounded wings and a long tail that often shows a distinctive rounded or squared-off tip. Adults are adorned with a blue-gray back and a rich, rufous-striped chest, presenting an air of elegance.

Cooper’s Hawk

Preferring the solace of dense trees, these hawks build substantial nests high above the ground, often reusing and adding to the previous year’s structures. Both male and female contribute to the nest-building, weaving a sturdy platform of sticks that cradles their future offspring.

The choice of location is strategic, offering protection and a strategic vantage point to survey their territory for any signs of intruders or prey.

These birds of prey have a particular taste for medium-sized birds and small mammals, which they hunt with precision in the dense woodland and sometimes, surprisingly, in suburban areas. Their hunting technique is a thrilling spectacle, involving high-speed chases through the trees, demonstrating their agility and determination.

This diet reflects their integral role in the ecosystem, controlling populations and maintaining balance.

The conservation story of the Cooper’s Hawk in West Virginia is one of cautious optimism. Once imperilled by pesticide use and hunting, these hawks have seen a resurgence thanks to dedicated conservation efforts. Legal protections, habitat conservation, and a growing public awareness of the importance of birds of prey in the ecosystem have all contributed to their recovery.

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

Renowned for its majestic presence across North America, the Red-tailed Hawk claims a vast territory that stretches from the dense forests of Alaska and Canada, sweeping through the United States, and reaching into the heart of Mexico.

This raptor is most easily identified by its rich, russet-red tail, which contrasts starkly against its creamy underbelly and brown-speckled back and wings. Mature birds boast this signature tail, which serves as a beacon among the varied landscapes they inhabit, from open fields to urban areas.

Their broad wings and soaring flight are emblematic of the open skies they dominate, making them a symbol of the wild and untamed wilderness that lies just beyond human reach.

Red-Tailed Hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk, a master of the skies over West Virginia, crafts its home with a keen eye for view and safety. These hawks select towering trees or cliff edges for their nests, which are hefty structures of sticks, lined with bark and softer materials for comfort.

Each spring, the air is filled with their renewed promises to each other as they refurbish their nests, a task that sees both partners sharing the load. Their preference for high perches offers them an unobstructed view of the sprawling landscapes below, a strategic advantage for spotting potential threats and opportunities.

Their diet is a testament to their adaptability, feasting on a variety of prey from small mammals like mice and voles to birds and even reptiles. Autumn’s dance brings a bounty of rodents scampering through fallen leaves, providing a feast for these raptors. Their hunting strategy is a blend of patience and precision, often seen soaring high before diving at breakneck speed to snatch up unsuspecting prey.

Once threatened by habitat destruction and the perils of DDT pesticide, concerted conservation efforts have seen their numbers stabilize and grow. Protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, these hawks have benefited from regulations that limit pesticides and promote the preservation of their natural habitats. Education and awareness campaigns have also played a crucial role, fostering a coexistence between these majestic birds and the human inhabitants of their territories.

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

The Sharp-shinned Hawk, the smallest hawk in North America, weaves through dense forests with remarkable agility. This raptor’s range is extensive, covering the expanse from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, down through the United States, to the woodlands of Central America.

Sporting a slender body, short, rounded wings, and a long, narrow tail, it maneuver through trees with ease. Adults display a striking appearance with slate-gray backs and orange-barred breasts, while juveniles present a browner hue with streaked underparts. Their sharp, piercing eyes add to their intense demeanour, making them formidable predators in their woodland realms.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Their nests, made from twigs and lined with bark and greenery, are often situated in the crotch of a tree, hidden away from prying eyes. The construction of these nests is a solitary task for the female, though her mate may supply the materials. This hidden fortress becomes a cradle for their young, shielded from the elements and predators.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk’s diet in West Virginia is a testament to its role as a proficient bird hunter. These agile raptors primarily feast on smaller birds, which they capture with startling speed and agility in mid-flight.

The dense forests and backyard feeders provide ample hunting grounds, where they dart through trees with remarkable dexterity to ambush their prey. Their presence is a natural control on the population of small birds, maintaining the delicate balance within their ecosystem.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk’s narrative in West Virginia is intertwined with challenges and triumphs. Facing threats from habitat loss and collisions with man-made structures, conservationists have rallied to their aid. Monitoring programs and habitat restoration efforts aim to safeguard their breeding and hunting grounds.

Public education initiatives are also critical, teaching residents to make their windows bird-safe and to preserve the natural wooded areas that are crucial for the hawks’ survival.

Where to find Hawks in West Virginia

In West Virginia, hawks can be found across various habitats, ranging from dense forests to open fields and even urban areas where they can find ample food sources. To spot these majestic birds, one should look towards the skies, particularly during the migration seasons of spring and fall when hawks are more actively moving.

Additionally, visiting state parks and wildlife refuges during early mornings or late afternoons when birds of prey are most active can increase your chances of sightings.

Four notable areas in West Virginia for hawk watching include:

  • Hawk’s Nest State Park, known for its stunning overlooks where you can spot several species soaring below.
  • Dolly Sods Wilderness, which offers a unique, high-altitude plateau environment that attracts birds of prey.
  • Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, providing a mix of wetlands and forests where hawks hunt.
  • Coopers Rock State Forest, featuring expansive views that make it a prime location for observing migrating raptors.

These locations offer not only the opportunity to see hawks but also the chance to enjoy West Virginia’s many beautiful landscapes.


West Virginia’s hawks embody the wild spirit and ecological richness of the state, from the high forests to the open fields. Conservation efforts and a deeper understanding of these majestic birds are essential to preserving their legacy and ensuring they continue to thrive in West Virginia’s diverse landscapes for generations to come.

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