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8 Hawks of the Prairie State Illinois

8 Hawks of the Prairie State Illinois

Illinois, the Prairie State, is home to 8 different hawk species, and offers hawk-watching experiences year-round! Hawks are part of a group of birds called “birds of prey” who uses their sharp vision, strong beaks and pointy talons to catch prey in air or on the ground. Truly a spectacle to watch.
The Illinois hawk species vary in their way of life, hunting technique and their favorite meals, ranging from insects to small mammals. Some of the United States’ smallest and largest hawks resides in Illinois.

In this article we will look at the 8 different species Illinois has to offer, their way of life and learn how to differentiate between them, as some can be very similar!

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

The Red-Tailed Hawk is the one of the most common birds found in the United States throughout the year and is also one of the most common hawks in Illinois. The species has an enormous range and can be seen in almost all parts of North America ranging from Panama to Alaska.

Being the second largest hawk seen in Illinois, the Red-Tailed Hawk has a very distinctive short and red tail, with a brown coating on the back and a pale underside. The hawk is believed to have around 14 subspecies in North America, varying only in colors, with the Illinois Red-Tailed Hawk looking a lot like the other ones found in the United States.

Having a large distribution area, this species is also extremely adaptable to different habitats, but overall preferring sparse woodlands and woodland edges.

A Red-Tailed Hawk taking a rest in a tree during fall
A Red-Tailed Hawk taking a rest in a tree during fall

Nesting

The breeding season for the Red-Tailed Hawks 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 and mate with him. In Illinois, the Red-Tailed Hawk will make its nest in a tall tree, usually taller than the surrounding trees or in nest boxes set up in residential areas. 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 their diet with a lot of 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. Most of their hunting is, however, done 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 a lot in North America, likely 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 Illinois with no real concentration hotspot. Even though there is no geographical hotspot, their favoured habitat in Illinois is sparse woodlands. In winter they’re less abundant, because the some of the population will migrate south for the winter.

2. 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 also a very common bird in Illinois 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 today. 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 only be seen on the underside of the bird when in flight. The bird usually lives in deciduous swamps and bottomland hardwood forests.

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

Nesting

The Red-Shouldered Hawks will usually begin their 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 extremely 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, making western and southern Illinois a good home. 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 and is now believed to be increasing. 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 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 and western parts of Illinois but is widespread throughout the whole state.

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

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is by far the smallest hawk found in Illinois, 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. Because of their secretive way of living, there are still unanswered questions about this bird.

A Sharp-Shinned Hawk resting on a branch in the morning sun
A Sharp-Shinned Hawk resting on a branch in the morning sun

Nesting

During courtship display, the male and female will soar and circle above the forests of Illinois 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 and stalking mammals on the ground.

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 a lot and is presumed to be 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 Illinois, with a winter population density highest in north Illinois. When visiting Illinois 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 Illinois at around September/October and is one of the most plentiful raptors seen during migration.

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 extremely agile and is known for hunting prey much larger than in self, made possible by its incredible flying skills in dense forests.

The Cooper’s Hawks are garish with a pale orangy barring on its chest. They are often mistaken for Sharp-Shinned Hawks, because of their overall similarity. 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 for Sharp-Shinned Hawks 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 or human made structures left in forests.

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 to say the least. In the beginning they saw a threefold increase in population over a short period of time, followed by a steep decline due to farmers and hunters killing the birds. 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 common in all of Illinois with no real population centre. They will mostly reside near or in thick forests and are 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. 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 Illinois in the breeding season. 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 bodies of water.

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 they will glide to their 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 but is mostly found in forests near bodies of water. If you’re lucky to see a migration event of Broad-Winged Hawks, you’re not in doubt if you it!

6. Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
  • Life span: 6 years
  • Size: 20-9-25.2 in
  • Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz (265-560 g)
  • Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
  • Status: Least Concern

Like Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, the Northern Goshawk is an extremely agile bird, manoeuvring in forests with incredible dexterity. They’re also very secretive, hiding in deep forests.

Illinois marks the hawk’s southern limits, with a small non-breeding population residing in the northern parts of the state. The Northern Goshawk has a dark grey upper body with lighter great underparts, barred with black stripes.

Northern goshawk
A domesticated Northern Goshawk

Nesting

Northern Goshawks are known to mate for life. During courtship, their way of finding a mate is similar to the Sharp-Shinned Hawk. The male and female will soar and circle above forests, where the male will perform dives in front of her and presenting her food. When making nests, the female usually does the work, while the made provides food. Nests are usually made high up in tall trees in dense forests.

Diet

The Northern Goshawks will eat mostly anything, an don’t stick to mammals like other hawks. Medium-sized birds like crows and pigeons make up a large part of their diet year-round. They do, however, also eat mammals like voles, rabbits and squirrels.

Conservation

Like many of the other hawks on this list, the use of DDT in the 1960’s and 1970’s has had an impact on the species’ population, however smaller than for the other hawks. Their habitats are, however, under a lot of pressure as they reside in deep forests, that are being logged at unprecedented speeds, causing forest fragmentation and thus ruining their habitat. The rise in bird feeders in private gardens, has given the Sharp-Shinned Hawk good possibilities to find easy prey.

Where to look for them

Living in large forests, Illinois is not an optimal place to find this bird. They’ve also mostly only been spotted in the northern parts of the state. If venturing into deep forests, be aware of their calling sounds, as they mostly only call when close to their nests. Northern Goshawks are extremely territorial and can also attack humans coming too close to home, so approach nests with a lot of care and attention.

7. Rough-Legged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
  • Life span: 3 years
  • Size: 18.5-20.5 in
  • Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
  • Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in
  • Status: Least Concern

As the only hawk breeding in the high arctic, the Rough-Legged Bird is a common winter guest in Illinois. The plumage of the Rough-Legged Hawk is mostly brown, with a lighter head. Spots of dark feathers are common throughout the whole body.

Their undersides have a large dark spot, making them easy to distinguish from other hawks. Due to their home range stretching far into the arctic, their legs are covered in feathers all the way down to the toes, which is also the reason for their name.

Close-up photo of a Rough-Legged Hawk
Close-up photo of a Rough-Legged Hawk

Nesting

Unlike other hawks, the Rough-Legged Hawk will find its nesting place the fall before the breeding season, which starts around may. When leaving their breeding habitats for winter, they will scout for areas with high density of prey that they will use in the next breeding season. In the breeding season, the males and females circle together high in air where the male will perform a “sky dance”, flapping to high elevation and then diving steeply. Nests are made on cliffsides in a bulky mess of sticks, bones and other hard materials.

Diet

The primary diet of the Rough-Legged Hawk is small mammals like voles and lemmings, but they’re known to supplement their diet with a lot of smaller birds. Most of their hunting is done by waiting in high places like trees, scouting for prey and swooping down for the kill. Unlike other hawks, the Rough-Legged Hawk also readily feeds on carrion in winter times and steals food from other birds.

Conservation

No specific threats are a problem for this hawk species. Breeding in the high arctic, direct human interference is not a problem in their breeding season, but accidental and indirect poisoning of prey is a problem in their wintering grounds, as well as habitat loss in their breeding grounds due to climate change. Little is known about their current status, but their population is believed to be stable.

Where to look for them

When arriving in Illinois in winter, their primary habitat are open fields, making the state a suitable wintering ground. They will often hover in headwind looking for prey, or sit on fenceposts, treetops, and utility poles. Their dark spot on the underbelly makes them easy to distinguish from other hawks. They are present in most of Illinois during the winter, but in more scarce densities in the southern parts near St. Louis and Marion.

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 breeding visitor in Illinois Its normal range stretches from Northern Alaska to the south of Argentina and is usually seen in large open areas. Illinois seems to be the eastern limit of their range in the United States.

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.

Swainson's hawk

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. They have been seen breeding in most of Illinois, with the highest concentrations of birds being around Chicago and St. Louis, as well as around Springfield. They will usually sit on utility poles and fence posts in the open fields, looking for prey.

Conclusion

Illinois is a great place to visit for hawk watching. Its home to a lot of breeding birds during the summer and is a winter paradise for a lot of North American hawks. Seeing hawks hunt in the wild is an experience that even experienced birders appreciate, as it truly is a magnificent sight. Illinois is the eastern limit for some bird species, and southern limit for some others, making the state a well visited area for hawks with widely different life histories.

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.