The Empire State is known for many things, but not so much for its birdlife. Interestingly, many species thrive in New York. Most of the birding hotspots lie in the forested regions up north and around the Great Lakes, but even New York City has an impressive roost. While it may not be considered a birding wonderland, the parks, and green spaces of the city are home to a surprising variety of birdlife. And if you’re just expecting doves and pigeons, think again. Common birds in the Big Apple include jays, crows, robins, cardinals, chickadees, and woodpeckers. Several raptors also inhabit the city that never sleeps.
In this article, we take a look at the hawks of New York. Hawks are diurnal birds of prey of the Accipitridae family, which includes eagles, kites, and buzzards. Hawks are intelligent birds and remarkable hunters equipped with sharp vision and acute hearing.
Most hawks are monogamous and highly territorial, with many species forming lifelong pair bonds. Typical of raptors, females are larger and heavier than males. During courtship, hawks engage in elaborate aerial displays. Hawk nestlings – also known as eyases – are at least semi-altricial, meaning that they rely on a high degree of parental care after hatching.
At least eight species of hawks can be found in New York. The best time of year to spot them is during the fall migration as they fly south for the winter. But even during spring and summer, you may encounter a breeding pair of hawks.
Did you know? A flock of migrating hawks is called a “kettle”.
Hotspots for hawk-watching include the Derby Hill Bird Observatory, Chestnut Ridge, Fire Island, and Hook Mountain State Park, among others, where you can join volunteers and enthusiasts.
Types Of Hawks In New York:
1. Red-Tailed Hawk
- Scientific name – Buteo jamaicensis
- Lifespan – 30 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 18 to 26 in
- Weight – 1.5 to 3.8 lb
- Wingspan – 3 ft 5 to 4 ft 10 in
Owing to its remarkable ability to adapt to different habitat types, the red-tailed hawk is the most abundant and widespread hawk species on the continent and the most common in New York. The red-tailed hawk is one of the largest species of hawks in North America. It is named for the rusty-red upper tail. The plumage of red-tailed hawks varies considerably aside from this trademark feature. Their natural habitat includes open country, grasslands, croplands, and open forests. But red-tailed hawks are known to push the bounds of their habitat and are often found in metropolitan areas.
They can be found across the state, with breeding pairs nesting in apartment buildings and other high-rise buildings, and human-made structures. The nest is made of sticks and twigs and lined with strips of bark, pine needles, and other foliage. Also, look out for them perched on light poles, road signs, and fence posts along roadsides. The call is a screechy keeaaah given while soaring.
Just as they are flexible with their habitat, red-tailed hawks are also adaptable when it comes to their diet. Mammals and rodents are the main items on the menu for these sky beasts but they are opportunistic predators, and also feed on reptiles and birds, and may occasionally take amphibians and invertebrates. They hunt from a high perch and swoop down at their prey, snatching them up with large, powerful feet and long talons. Red-tailed hawks are skilled hunters that adapt their hunting strategy and technique to their prey and habitat. The red-tailed hawk is a thriving species with an increasing population.
Fun fact: Red-tailed hawks are the most common falconry hawk species in the United States.
2. Red-Shouldered Hawk
- Scientific name – Buteo lineatus
- Lifespan – 25 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 15 to 24 in
- Weight – 1.2 to 1.5 lb
- Wingspan – 35 to 50 in
The red-shouldered hawk is an attractive forest raptor. Its signature reddish shoulders are visible when perched, but a more striking feature of this hawk is the white spots on its back. They are often confused with the larger red-tailed hawks.
Red-shouldered hawks naturally inhabit woodlands and low-lying hardwood forests near rivers and deciduous swamps. Sadly, much of their habitat is impacted by deforestation and this has taken its toll on the species. They are, however, fairly adaptable, and when displaced they may take to woodlands near urban and suburban areas.
New York falls within their breeding range, and they occur across the state during spring and summer. You can also catch sight of resident birds in the northeast and migrants in the southernmost part of the city during winter. They can be found in forested areas and parks with lots of trees, often near water. Listen for their whistling call and look out for them circling above the nesting site. Red-shouldered hawks build stick nests in the main forks of large trees. They line their nests with shredded bark, leaves, and sprigs.
They primarily feed on rodents, hunting from a perch or while soaring – striking their prey from a height. Voles, gophers, moles, and chipmunks are some of their favored prey. They also feed on amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, crustaceans, and large insects. Red-shouldered hawks can take on larger prey. They are known to take down rabbits, squirrels, and medium-sized birds like pheasants and jays. During winter, they often target garden birds feeding at bird feeders.
Fun fact: Blue jays can mimic the call of the red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks. It is unclear if they do this to escape predation.
3. Northern Harrier
- Scientific name – Circus hudsonius
- Lifespan – 16 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 16–20 in
- Weight – 12 to 19 oz
- Wingspan – 38–48 in
The northern harrier is the only harrier species in North America. It is a large, slender hawk with exceptionally long wings and a long tail, typical of harriers. Its face is curiously owl-like in appearance. Northern harrier males have dark grey upperparts, whereas females are dark brown. Both sexes are white below and bear a characteristic white rump patch prominent when they are in flight.
Northern Harriers breed in the northernmost parts of the continent and migrate south for the winter. They favor open habitats such as grasslands, fields, prairies, and wetlands, nesting on the ground in dense vegetation.
They can be spotted in northern New York during spring and summer, and throughout the state outside the breeding season, especially during the fall as they migrate south for the winter. They are best-spotted in flight. Look out for the V-shaped wing and low, coursing flight pattern. The call is a series of kek notes.
Did you know? Unlike most hawks and other raptors, northern harriers are polygynous. Males mate with several females during the breeding season.
Harriers hunt by flying low over open fields while scanning the ground below. Its long wings dip into a shallow V-shape as it glides close to the ground. Northern harriers mostly prey on small mammals and occasionally birds. They supplement their diet with amphibians, reptiles, and insects. Populations of northern harriers are on the decline due to habitat loss and indirect poisoning by harmful pesticides.
4. Cooper’s Hawk
- Scientific name – Accipiter cooperii
- Lifespan – 20 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 14 to 20 in
- Weight – 11.9 to 1.248 lb
- Wingspan – 24 to 39 in
Named after ornithologist William Cooper, this medium-sized hawk is a member of the Accipiter genus. They are often confused with the similar but smaller sharp-shinned hawk and the northern goshawk. The plumage of Cooper’s hawks varies from blue-grey to greyish-brown above. They are cream-white below with reddish bands and streaks. Their heads are capped with a crown of dark brown feathers that when ruffled, may give it a squarish appearance. They have strong, robust legs and thick toes with powerful talons. Cooper’s hawks occur in a wide range of habitat types, from deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests to woodlands, farmlands, and floodplains.
Look out for these hawks in the forested parts of central and northern New York during summer. Outside the breeding season, they occur in the south of the city. The common call is a loud kek kek kek, although they are not particularly vocal birds. They build bulky platform nests in the forks of large trees up to fifty feet above the ground. They build their nests out of sticks and twigs and line them with bark strips and foliage.
The Cooper’s hawk is an agile raptor and a bold, aggressive predator capable of hunting large, evasive prey. During a hunt, it encircles its targeted prey in a twisting flight, occasionally dashing from tree to tree before picking up speed for its attack. Cooper’s hawks prey on small to medium-sized birds, as well as small mammals and reptiles.
Historically, this species was intensely persecuted by direct poisoning, shooting, and trapping due to competition with humans for game birds. As their numbers declined, the species became increasingly shy and elusive. They were also heavily impacted by indirect pesticide poisoning. Today, their population numbers are stable and increasing thanks to government protection and the ban of DDT pesticides.
5. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
- Scientific name – Accipiter striatus
- Lifespan – 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 9.1 to 15 in
- Wingspan – 17 to 27 in
- Weight – Males: 2.9 to 7.7 oz
The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest hawk in North America, with males as little as nine inches long. Sharp-shinned hawks have broad wings and long, slender yellow legs for which they are named. They are blue-grey above and barred white below with tawny thighs. Their eyes are orange-red, and they have rufous-colored cheeks.
This small raptor inhabits woodlands and forests. Sharp-shinned hawks construct stick nests in large conifers or deciduous trees in dense forests. In New York, sharp-shinned hawks can be seen during fall and winter across the state but mainly in the forested areas upstate. Look out for their characteristic flap and glide flight pattern. The call is a high-pitched kek kek kek.
Sharp-shinned hawks prey on small birds such as sparrows, warblers, and tits. They use the element of surprise to capture their prey. These little hawks are agile raptors, adept at navigating dense thickets, in which they are concealed by foliage as they stalk their prey. The species once suffered sharp declines due to indirect poisoning from pesticides. But since the ban of DDT, populations are thriving.
6. Broad-Winged Hawk
- Scientific name – Buteo platypterus
- Lifespan – 12 years (average)
- Size – 13 to 17 in
- Weight – 9.3 to 19.8 oz
- Wingspan – 29 to 39 in
The broad-winged hawk is a small to medium-sized raptor with short, broad wings for which it is named. Its wings have a characteristic tapering appearance uncommon in hawks. Its plumage is dark brown above and white below with brown barring. There are two color morphs of the species. The light morph has more white in its plumage than the predominantly brown dark morph.
Broad-winged hawks breed in the northeast of the United States and migrate south for the winter from Mexico to Brazil. They nest in forests near rivers, wetlands, and open fields. They build their nests out of sticks and twigs in deciduous trees often, at the forest edge.
Kettles of broad-winged hawks can be spotted during the fall, engaging in migration displays as they fly south for the winter. Look for them around forested areas near water. They may be seen circling above the canopy. Listen for their piercing whistle-like call.
Broad-winged hawks prey on small mammals, especially rodents such as voles, shrews, and chipmunks. They also feed on reptiles, amphibians, and even nesting cardinals and other small birds. During winter, they may also take insects and crustaceans. Broad-winged hawks watch their prey from low, concealed branches before gliding sharply toward their target. They typically skin and pluck their prey first, particularly amphibians and birds. Although the overall population of broad-winged hawks has increased, they are still impacted by the decline and fragmentation of their coveted forest habitats.
7. Rough-Legged Hawk
- Scientific name – Buteo lagopus
- Lifespan – 2 years (average); 17 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 18–24 in
- Weight – 1.3 to 3.7 lb
- Wingspan – 47 to 60 in
Also known as the rough-legged buzzard, this is a large, brown hawk with a speckled plumage. Rough-legged hawks have long, white tail feathers with dark bands at the edge. They appear similar to the common buzzard, the red-tailed hawk, and the ferruginous hawk. Rough-legged hawks are named for the feathering on their legs that continues down to the feet, giving the legs a rough appearance.
The feathers on their legs keep them warm as they breed in the arctic and migrate south for the winter. They prefer open habitats such as prairies, deserts, and fields. Rough-legged hawks nest on cliff ledges and rocky outcrops and build their nests out of twigs, sedges, feathers, and other soft materials. They can be seen during the fall migration and in the early winter in the southernmost parts of the state. Look out for them on fence posts and utility poles along roadsides. Sadly, they are susceptible to collision with vehicles during winter.
Fun fact: Rough-legged hawks often build their nests close to those of peregrine falcons, presumably for protection but possibly also due to a high number of rodents near peregrine nests.
Rough-legged hawks mostly feed on rodents and other small mammals and birds. They also eat insects and carrion and often steal the prey of other birds. They hunt from a perch or in-flight while soaring or hovering.
8. Northern Goshawk
- Scientific name – Accipiter gentilis
- Lifespan – 17 years (maximum)
- Size – 18 to 27 in
- Weight – 0.8 to 4.9 lb
- Wingspan – 35 to 50 in
The northern goshawk is a distinctive, widespread raptor, and the largest member of the Accipiter genus. It has a relatively large bill, long wings, a short tail, and stocky legs. Its plumage varies from blue-grey to brownish-grey above. It has pale grey to white underparts with dark streaks.
Northern goshawks inhabit deciduous forests or large coniferous tracts. They build large stick nests in the tallest tree of the dominant tree type in a given landscape, but may also occupy the nests of other birds such as ravens or crows.
Although uncommon in New York, there have been a few rare sightings. The call is a screaming keeaaah. They are shy birds that are aggressively defensive of the nesting site giving a rapid ke ke ke alarm call. If you are lucky to spot a northern goshawk, make sure not to get too close as they are known to attack humans if they feel threatened.
Fun fact: During the breeding season, northern goshawks mate over 500 times per clutch. This averages around ten times per day throughout the season and is the male’s way of making sure the offspring are his own.
Northern goshawks are powerful hunters that prey on large birds and small to medium-sized mammals. They typically use a combination of speed, agility, and concealment to stalk and ambush prey. These large hawks have a wide and varied diet that may include up to 500 species. Common mammalian prey includes squirrels, rabbits, and hares. And among their favored avian prey are corvids, pigeons, and game birds. This is a resilient species with a stable population. The main threat to northern goshawks appears to be deforestation. The extent to which populations are impacted, however, is unknown.
Spotting a hawk in New York is an unexpected pleasure. Hawks have captured the interest and fascination of humans since ancient times. They are remarkable creatures and are among the most intelligent birds. For this reason, they are easily trained and have been used in falconry for centuries.
Throughout history, hawks have suffered various conservation issues. The main threats they have faced have been the destruction of their habitats, indiscriminate persecution, and indirect poisoning by harmful pesticides. Fortunately, through legislated protection efforts and by adopting more responsible agricultural practices, the populations of most species have recovered and are now stable, with some even thriving. It is now up to communities and governing bodies to ensure the protection of their dwindling natural habitats.