The Hawks Of Ohio – 9 Species To Look For
The hawks of Ohio

The Hawks Of Ohio – 9 Species To Look For

Named the buckeye state after the ubiquitous trees dotting the landscape, Ohio boasts a diversity of birdlife. Birds native to Ohio include the great blue heron, the cardinal – which is also the state bird – and a variety of warblers.

Ohio is also rich in raptors. Bald eagles, ospreys, and black vultures are just some of the birds of prey in Ohio a keen observer may encounter. The state also boasts several types of hawks and falcons. In this article, we take a look at the different species of hawks of Ohio.

Several prominent rivers run through the state, including the Cuyahoga, the Maumee, and the Great Miami River. The state’s vast open fields, woodlands, forests, and swamps provide ideal habitats for hawks.

Hawks belong to the Accipitridae family, which also includes buzzards, kites, and eagles. In North America, the majority of hawks fall under the Buteo genus. Interestingly, Buteo species are called buzzards in other parts of the world. Goshawks, sparrowhawks, and several other hawks fall under the Accipiter genus, also known as the “true hawks.”

Hawks are highly intelligent creatures and excellent hunters. They possess acute hearing and incredibly sharp vision. They are diurnal, highly territorial birds. Typical of raptors, most hawks are monogamous, with many species forming lifelong pair-bonds. Females are significantly larger and heavier than males. Pairs engage in elaborate aerial courtship displays that may entail acrobatic cartwheels, dives and twists, impressive sky-dancing, and free-falling with interlocked talons. The nestlings of hawks are altricial or at least semi-altricial, meaning that they need a high degree of parental care until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Let’s learn about the kinds of hawks found in Ohio.

Types Of Hawks In Ohio:

1. Red-Tailed Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
  • Lifespan: 25 years (wild); 29 years (captivity)
  • Size: 18 to 26 in
  • Weight: 1.5 to 3.8 lb
  • Wingspan: 3 ft 5 to 4 ft 10 in

The red-tailed hawk is the most abundant and widespread type of hawk in North America. What makes this resilient raptor so prolific is its ability to adapt to a wide range of environments.

They favor the open country, typically occurring in grasslands, croplands, and open forests. But they are known to push the bounds of their habitat into sandy deserts, dense forests, and even urban areas.

Red-tailed hawks are the second-largest Buteo hawks of North America after the ferruginous hawk, and it is among the largest raptors of Ohio.

The species gets its name from the rusty-red on the upper side of its tail. Aside from this trademark feature, the plumage of red-tailed hawks varies considerably. There are fourteen subspecies, each with a unique coloration and distribution range.

Red-tailed hawk

Just as they are flexible with their habitat, red-tailed hawks are highly adaptable with their diet. They are opportunistic predators, and while their main prey are mammals and rodents, they also feed on reptiles and birds and may occasionally take amphibians and invertebrates. They usually hunt from a high perch, swooping down at their prey. Red-tails have large, powerful feet with long talons. They are excellent hunters and can adjust their hunting strategy and techniques to their prey and habitat.

Red-tailed hawks nest in the canopy of tall trees up to seventy feet high. They also make use of human-made structures such as towers, power-line poles, and high-rise buildings. The nest is made of sticks and twigs and lined with strips of bark, pine needles, and other foliage.

The feathers of the red-tailed hawk are considered sacred to some Native American tribespeople and are used in religious ceremonies.

Red-tailed hawks are the most common falconry hawk species in the United States.

Did you know? They are often called “chicken-hawks” alongside sharp-shinned hawks and quail hawks stemming from a somewhat false reputation for preying on poultry. And while they may opportunistically take a chicken now and then, neither species specializes in poultry predation or preys on chickens enough to warrant the name. Unfortunately, the alias took and often results in indiscriminate persecution of these birds by poultry farmers and enthusiasts.

Where to look for them? Red-tailed hawks can be spotted in open fields on elevated perches such as tall trees, poles, and fence posts.

2. Red-Shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
  • Size: 15 to 24 in
  • Weight: 1.2 to 1.5 lb
  • Wingspan: 35 to 50 in

Red-shouldered hawks are attractive forest raptors. The dark-brown and white spotted upper-wings and back sharply contrast against the barred warm red of the breast and belly. They have long yellow legs and a long tail. Its signature reddish shoulders are visible when perched, but a more striking feature of this hawk is the white spots on its back. None the less, they are often confused with the larger red-tailed hawks.

Red-shouldered hawks 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 human habitations and suburban areas.

Red-shouldered hawk

Ohio is home to sedentary populations of red-shouldered hawks and also hosts wintering birds migrating from the northeast. Breeding pairs build stick nests in the main forks of large trees. They line their nests with shredded bark, leaves, and sprigs.

Red-shouldered hawks primarily feed on rodents. They hunt from a perch or while soaring and strike 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.

Where to look for them? Red-shouldered hawks in Ohio can be found in deciduous woodlands near rivers and swamps and around suburban woodlands and gardens.

3. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
  • 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. The plumage varies across sub-species.

The sharp-shinned hawks in Ohio belong to the nominate group A. s. striatus. They are blue-grey above and barred white below with tawny thighs. Their eyes are orange-red, and they have rufous-colored cheeks.

sharp-shinned hawk

This small raptor inhabits woodlands and forests. Sharp-shinned hawks construct stick nests in large conifers or deciduous trees in dense forests.

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.

Where to look for them? Migrating birds can be spotted around open habitats or in flight. Sharp-shinned hawks are known to prey on garden birds at feeders.

4. Cooper’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
  • 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.

Cooper’s hawks occur in a wide range of habitat types, from deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forest to woodlands, farmlands, and floodplains. 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.

Cooper's hawk

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.

The Cooper’s hawk is an agile raptor and a bold, aggressive predator capable of hunting large, evasive prey. For this reason, it is often referred to as the big-blue darter, the striker, or the swift hawk. 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.

Where to look for them: Cooper’s hawks occur in wooded areas all across the state.

5. 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

It is a small to medium-sized raptor with short, broad wings, as the name suggests. Its wings have a characteristic tapering appearance uncommon in hawks.

The broad-winged hawk 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 hawk

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.

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.

Populations of broad-winged hawks are dropping in some parts due declining and fragmentation of their coveted forest habitats.

Where to look for them: They can be spotted around Ohio’s forests during the breeding season between April and August. They are often high up in the canopy, so listen for their high-pitched whistling call.

6. Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
  • Lifespan: 11 years (wild); 27 years (captivity)
  • Size: 18 to 27 in
  • Weight: 0.8 to 4.9 lb
  • Wingspan: 35 to 50 in

This is a distinctive, widespread raptor. The northern goshawk is 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.

They inhabit Ohio’s deciduous hardwood forests but in other parts of their range, they favor large coniferous tracts. Northern goshawks build their nests in the tallest tree of the dominant tree type in a given landscape. They build large stick nests but may also occupy the nests of other birds such as ravens or crows.

Northern goshawk

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.

There are ten recognized subspecies of northern goshawks. 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.

Where to look for them: Northern goshawks can be tricky to spot as they are often high up in the canopy. They occur in large hardwood stands. Bear in mind that the northern goshawk is fiercely territorial and possibly to most aggressive American raptor. They are known to attack humans venturing too close to their nests.

7. Rough-Legged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
  • Lifespan: 2 years (average); 18 years (maximum)
  • Size: 18–24 in
  • Weight: 1.3 to 3.7 lb
  • Wingspan: 47 to 60 in

It is a large, brown hawk with a contrasting 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, also known as rough-legged buzzards, are named for the feathering on their legs that continues down to the feet, giving the legs a rough appearance.

Rough-legged hawk

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.

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.

Where to look for them: You may catch sight of them in open fields. They can be sighted hovering over a spot above the landscape – a behavior uncommon for a raptor of its size.

8. Northern Harrier

  • Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
  • Lifespan: 16 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size: 16–20 in
  • Weight: 12 to 19 oz
  • Wingspan: 38–48 in

Harriers are hawks of the subfamily Circinae. 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.

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. They nest on the ground in dense vegetation. During winter they roost in small flocks.

Northern harrier

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.

Where to look for them: The best chance of a harrier sighting in Ohio is in the north-east, and although less likely, you may catch sight of them along the western banks of Lake Erie. Look for them on the ground, flying low, or on low perches.

9. Swainson’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
  • Lifespan: 17 years (wild); 24 years (captivity)
  • Size: 17–22 in
  • Weight: 1.8 lb to 2.5 lb
  • Wingspan: 46–54 in

Named after the British naturalist William Swainson, this hawk is colloquially known as the grasshopper or locust hawk due to its penchant for these insects.

Swainson’s hawks are rare in Ohio. Most populations breed in the western and central parts of the continent and migrate to South America for the winter. On occasion, a Swainson’s hawk is spotted in the eastern states.

They occur in open habitats such as grasslands, deserts, and prairies. They nest in isolated trees near the canopy, but they may also nest among shrubs and bushes or on the ground along river banks or cliff ledges. They build flimsy nests out of twigs, grasses, and other plant materials.

Swainson's hawk

Swainson’s hawks have brown upperparts and white underparts with a reddish chest patch and a white throat and face patch. In-flight, they can be identified by their underwings, which bear dark flight feathers and white inner-wings. The tail is banded grey-brown. A darker morph exists in the far west of its range.

Swainson’s hawks are predominantly insectivorous. They primarily feed on insects of the Acrididae family (grasshoppers and locusts). But also eat crickets and other insects depending on seasonal availability. Breeding birds switch to preying on small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

Populations of Swainson’s hawk have seen drastic declines due to habitat loss, indirect pesticide poisoning, and other incompatible agricultural practices.

Fun fact: The species is closely related to the Galapagos hawk, with the two sharing a common ancestor.

Where to look for them: If you are lucky enough to see this hawk in Ohio, it will likely be on the ground foraging for insects.


Hawks have captured the interest and fascination of humans since ancient times. They are remarkably intelligent creatures. According to a comprehensive avian IQ index, hawks are among the most intelligent birds. For this reason, they are easily trained and have been used in falconry for centuries. In fact, the sport was traditionally known as hawking.

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.