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The 8 hawks of Florida: Aerial acrobatics and flight shows

The 8 hawks of Florida: Aerial acrobatics and flight shows

There are many different types of hawks in Florida, some more common than others. It is generally said that 8 species are recognized on the states checklists as native species. Hawks are one of many types of birds of prey, and are predatory animals who uses strong beaks, sharp vision and talons in swift movement to catch their unsuspecting prey.

It’s fascinating to watch these hunters find their prey.

In this article, we will take a look on the diverse selection of hawks seen in Florida. There are hawks year-round in Florida, but some of the birds on this list will only be here during certain 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 the most common bird in Florida and is seen year round. Their range stretches all the way from South-East Canada to Mexico and is present in all the eastern states. The bird has brownish head with a pale striped reddish chest.

They have a quite uncommonly long tail for hawk standards. The name is given to this hawk, as the red shoulders can be seen on the underside of the bird when in flight.

The bird lives in deciduous swamps and bottomland hardwood forests, making Florida an exceptional home.

A Red-Shouldered Hawk taking a rest on a residential wooden fence
A Red-Shouldered Hawk taking a rest on a residential wooden fence.

Nesting

The Red-Shouldered Hawk will begin its mating season in April. The breeding habitat of this bird is mixed wooded areas often near a body of water, well hidden from humans.

The Red-Shouldered Hawk has a tendency to use forests with a lot of tree biodiversity to nest in. Most hawks, including the Red-Shouldered Hawk are monogamous and very territorial. When courting, the male will fly in circles above the female and swoop down right next to the female.

When nesting, the Red-Shouldered Hawk pair will build a nest in a large tree and often reuse the nest in the next breeding period.

Diet

The Red-Shouldered Hawk primarily hunts around or in woodlands. They will be perched on top of tall trees or gliding over the terrain while looking for prey.

The majority of their diet consists of small mammals like voles, mice and moles. Depending on local prey conditions, crayfish and small birds also play a large role in their diet, especially in winter when small mammal populations are smaller.

Conservation

120 years ago, the Red-Shouldered Hawk used to be one of the most common raptors in North America, but due to clearing of old growth forests since the 1900’s the population has been in decline.

Since the 1950’s when conservation efforts started to take place and the outlawing of hunting these birds, the population has stabilized and is no longer considered in need of conservation efforts. Banning of some pesticides, especially DDT has also helped stabilize the population.

Where to look for them

The Red-Shouldered Hawk has a very distinctive calling sound. When walking around wet forests, listening after this call is the best way to find them. Look for treetops near water, where you might see them perched looking for prey.

The birds are mostly found in the southern part of Florida and east of Orlando but is widespread throughout the whole state.

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

Being the second most frequently seen hawk in Florida, the Northern Harrier is also one of the largest hawks in Florida. This bird breeds in the Northern United Sates and throughout Canada and Alaska and is a wintering guest in Florida.

Due to its overall greyish appearance, this bird is sometimes referred to as the “Gray Ghost”. When seen up close this bird resembles an owl and is also often mistaken for owl, even though they’re not closely related.

The bird primarily resides in open areas like moorlands, bogs, parries and marshes.

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

Nesting

The Northern Harrier is one of the only raptors who are polygynous, where the male will breed with up to 5 females in a single breeding season. The breeding season starts around April, and the male will make its courtship flight for a chosen female, by flying high in the air and diving next to her, sometimes even making loops in the air.

Being a bird spending most of its time in the open landscapes, this bird also nests in the open on the ground. The nests are made of small twigs and are lined with soft material like grasses or leaves. The Northern Harriers are known to nests in small colonies, possibly for safety reasons.

Diet

Like other harriers, the Northern Harrier primarily and almost exclusively hunt for small mammals like voles and ground squirrels. Small birds are also known to be part of the Northern Harriers diet.

The Northern Harrier hunts by circling above open terrain listening and looking for prey, after which it will fly down and hug the terrain, only flying a few meters above and surprising its prey from behind.

Conservation

The Northern Harriers have a large distribution range and does not have any particular threats against them other than habitat loss and poisoning of prey. But due to their large range the species is not subject to rapid population decline.

Where to look for them

Arriving in September the Northern Harrier is distributed throughout all of Florida, with the highest densities around Tallahassee and northwest of Miami. The best way to find this bird is to head to large open grasslands, bogs or marshes. Look for the circling bird high in the air or when they swoop down to hug the terrain.

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 another common bird found in Florida throughout the year. The species have a huge range and can be seen in almost all parts of North America from Panama to Alaska. Being the largest hawk seen in Florida, the Red-Tailed Hawk has a distinctive short and red tail, with a brown coating on the back and a pale underside.

The hawk has 14 subspecies in North America, varying only in colors, with the Florida Red-Tailed Hawk looking a lot like the other ones found in the United States, but is quite a lot larger. Having a large distribution area, this species is also extremely adaptable to different habitats, but overall preferring woodlands and woodland edges.

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

Nesting

The breeding season starts around February, and the male will make its courtship flight for a chosen female, by flying high in the air and diving next to her.

The male will sometimes catch prey and present it to the female in order to win her over. In Florida, the Red-Tailed Hawk will make its nest in a tall tree, usually taller than the surrounding trees or in nest boxes. The nests made in trees are often reused the next year by the same pair.

Diet

The primary diet of the Red-Tailed Hawk is small mammals like voles, rats and rabbits but they’re known to supplement a lot on smaller birds. The Red-Tailed Hawk will sometimes use trees for camouflage while looking for prey, swooping down to the prey in a surprise attack. They also hunt by gliding around 20-50 meters above ground looking for prey.

Conservation

Over the last 100 years, the Red-Tailed Hawk has extended their distribution range quite a lot possibly due to more deep woodlands being converted to patchy woodlands due to logging activity. Like most other hawks, the biggest threats to this species is illegal shootings by humans and poisoning of prey.

Where to look for them

They often sit on fenceposts and treetops near roads scanning for prey in nearby fields. They’re common throughout all of Florida with no real concentration hotspot. In winter they’re more abundant, because the northern populations will migrate to Florida for the winter.

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

Cooper’s Hawk is a medium sized bird commonly found throughout North America and even as far south as Mexico. This forest dwelling bird is particular agile and is known for hunting prey much larger than in self, made possible by its incredible flying skills. The adults are garish with a pale orangy barring on its chest.

They are often mistaken for Sharp-Shinned Hawks. Being stealthy and smart predators, houseowners often dislike them, as they will hide around birdfeeders for an easy meal – and it’s not the food in the bird feeders!

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

Nesting

The breeding season starts around March and the male will make its courtship flight for a chosen female, by flying high in the air and diving next to her making some of the world’s most spectacular aerial acrobatics.

When the pair has been made, the two sexes will fly around their nesting area with slow exaggerated wingbeats, marking their territory. The nests are made in tall trees usually on already made structures like old bird nests.

Diet

The diet of Cooper’s Hawk consists primarily of small birds that they catch either mid-air or by ambushing them when they’re sitting on branches. They’re also known to eat small mammals like mice and voles that they will catch in less spectacular fashion than the small birds mid-air.

Conservation

The conservation state of Cooper’s Hawk has been a rollercoaster ride since the 1900’s. In the beginning they saw a threefold increase in population over a short period of time, followed by a steep decline due to hunting.

As hunting was outlawed the population started to increase again, until DDT was invented and used, killing large parts of the population again. In modern times the population seems to be stable, with prey poisoning being the largest contributor of early death in the species.

Where to look for them

The bird is rather common in most of Florida with and mostly in the central parts of peninsular Florida. They are, however, very stealthy and hard to detect. They’re small and often flying in thick forests manoeuvring between the branches. This also makes them unique, so look for their orangy bellies when walking in dense forests.

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 by far the smallest hawk found in Florida, and also in the United States. They’re greyish on the back and orangy on the chest, looking very similar to Cooper’s Hawk.

A good way to tell them apart is the stripes on the Sharp-Shinned Hawks tail. Being small they’re also extremely secretive, often hiding in forests during nesting season.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk
A Sharp-Shined Hawk taking a rest

Nesting

During courtship display, the two sexes will soar and circle above forests calling for each other. The male will perform the typical hawk courtship aerial show by diving next to the female, showing his full body.

When making nests the hawks will look for the densest coniferous tree in thick forests where they will build a nest close to the tree trunk to be as hidden as possible.

Diet

Hiding in thick bushes or trees the Sharp-Shinned Hawks will wait for prey to come to them. Their diet mostly consists of small birds and mammals, much like the Cooper’s Hawk. It also shows similar aerial manoeuvrability as Cooper’s Hawk, catching small birds mid-air.

Conservation

Like many other hawks, the use of DDT in the 1960’s and 1970’s has had a large impact on the species’ population. Since the banning of chemicals like DDT, the population seems to have increased and is at an all-time high.

The rise in bird feeders in private gardens, has given the Sharp-Shinned Hawk good possibilities to find easy prey and thus recover from the poisoning of the 60’s and 70’s.

Where to look for them

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is a common winter guest in all of Florida. When visiting Florida then will often hunt in or near forests and woodlands edges where they will glide over terrain when not hiding in the thick bushes.

They’re easiest to see when they will arrive to Florid at around September/October and is one of the most plentiful raptors seen during migration.

6. Short-Tailed Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo brachyurus
  • Life span: 20 years
  • Size: 15–17 in (38–43)
  • Weight: 0.8–1.1 lb (362 –500 g)
  • Wingspan: 32.6-40.5 in (83-103 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

Native to South America, this bird is only found in Florida in the United States where its both breeding and wintering. The bird is very dark brown all over the upperparts with a pale underside. It is a secretive bird and thus not a lot is known about its way of life.

A domesticated Short-Tailed Hawk sitting on a glove during a falconer show
A domesticated Short-Tailed Hawk sitting on a glove during a falconer show

Nesting

The breeding behaviour of the Short-Tailed Hawk is not well known, but it is thought that this bird behaves the same as other hawks when it comes to the male’s aerial displays for the female. The nest site is usually in tall pine or cypress trees and is very bulky.

Diet

The hawk is known to use the technique called kiting, where they will soar high above ground using the headwind to stand still in the air while scouting for prey bellow. In Florida they’re mostly known to eat small birds.

Conservation

Not a lot is known about the species, and no population surveys have been made, but it is thought to be an uncommon species. Due to its large range they’re considered by IUCN to be of least concern.

Where to look for them

Only around 500 individuals are believed to reside in the central parts of peninsular Florida. The best time to spot them is in the Florida Keys and Everglades National Park during fall migration where they will soar high above the ground in the morning.

7. 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 seen throughout Florida year-round as some of its breeding range lies in the northern parts of Florida. It is said that one of the greatest spectacles to watch as a birder is the migration of the Broad-Winged Hawk. They gather in large flocks consisting of thousands of individuals during the fall when its time to migrate to South America. The bodies of the Broad-Winged Hawk are dark drown with a pale whitish belly that has horizontal bars.

A Broad-Winged Hawk taking a rest
A Broad-Winged Hawk taking a rest

Nesting

Being monogamous, the breeding season starts around April, and the male will make its courtship flight for a chosen female, by flying high in the air and diving next to her doing aerial acrobatics in the meantime.

The nest is built by both the male and the female in deciduous trees deep in the forests near the Tennessee river and up towards Maine. In Florida they will only breed in the non-peninsular parts.

Diet

Unlike other hawks, the Broad-Winged Hawk is less picky with its food. The diet is still primarily consisting of small mammals like voles, but amphibians, insects, birds and reptiles are also making up a lot of their daily calorie intake. The birds will hide from well-hidden low hanging branches where the will glide to the prey, surprising it with its talons.

Conservation

Because the Broad-Winged Hawk spends the breeding and nesting season in the deep forests, forest fragmentation in their breeding range is a major threat to this species. Even though they’re 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 Broad-Winged Hawk is most easily seen when migrating. They, unlike other hawks, form large flocks when migrating in the fall to South America for the winter. During their breeding and nesting period, they are very secretive hiding in dense forests trying to avoid people. You’re not in doubt if you see one of the migration spectacles!

8. Swainson’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
  • Life span: 16-19 years
  • Size: 18.9-22.1 in (48-56 cm)
  • Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz (693-1367 g)
  • Wingspan: 46-54 in (117-137 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

Swainson’s hawk is a rare visitor in Florida. Its normal range stretches from Northern Alaska to the south of Argentina and is usually seen in large open areas.

Their large range makes it one of the most travelling birds in the world, with migration patterns many thousands of miles long. They have pale to white underparts with a dark reddish spot on the chest.

The tail is brownish with narrow dark bands on. The head and upperparts are dark brown.

A Swainson’s Hawk in a rain
A Swainson’s Hawk in a rain

Nesting

Being highly monogamous, this bird species is known to use the same nest for its whole lifespan. Like other hawks, the male will impress the female by a spectacular flight show, flying high in the air and diving right next to her.

The nests are built in small trees or large shrubs close to the ground compared to other hawks. They are usually well hidden, which is another unusual trait for hawks. In the United States they are primarily breeding in the parries and grasslands of the Midwest.

Diet

During early summer their primary diet consists of small mammals like mice and squirrels, but in other seasons a large part of their diet consists of insects, especially grasshoppers and dragonflies, making their diet unlike the other hawks.

Conservation

The Swainson’s Hawk population has been in decline since the middle of the 20th century due to pesticide use in its wintering grounds in Argentina. Because a large part of their winter diet consists of insects, pesticide use has had a particular strong effect on this bird.

Where to look for them

The usual wintering grounds for Swainson’s Hawk is deep in South America. Sometimes a few of the birds will winter in Florida. When looking for this bird in Florida, the area around Miami and West Palm Beach is the best place to look, as it has the highest concentration of birds in the winter. They will usually sit on utility poles and fence posts looking for prey.

Conclusion

Florida is a great place to visit for hawk watching. It has a lot of breeding birds during summer and many North American hawks visit during the winter due to the mild climate.

Seeing hawks hunt in the wild is an experience that even experienced birders appreciate, as it truly is a magnificent sight.

During the middle of the 20th century, almost all hawk populations were in decline due to hunting and the rapid increase in pesticide use, that would poison their prey. However, since the outlawing of both DDT and hunting of most raptors, many of the species have recovered and their populations are now either stable or increasing, making it more common to spot these birds in the wild.