The 8 Hawks of Tennessee

The 8 Hawks of Tennessee

Tennessee is home to a diverse range of hawk species, each with unique characteristics and behaviors that make them fascinating to observe. Whether soaring high above the landscape or perched on a branch, hawks are some of the most iconic birds of prey in the state.

They play an important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, controlling rodent populations, and keeping other bird populations in check.

This article will introduce you to some of the most common hawk species found in Tennessee and provide tips for identifying them in the field.

From the massive and majestic Northern Goshawk to the sleek and agile Cooper’s Hawk, each species has its own distinct features and behaviors that make them easily recognizable.

With this guide, you’ll gain a better understanding of these incredible birds and be able to appreciate the important role they play in the natural world. So, grab your binoculars and get ready to discover the hawks of Tennessee!

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 a frequent sight in Tennessee throughout the year. It can be found across the Eastern United States, from South-East Canada to Mexico.

This hawk has a distinctive brownish head and a pale reddish chest with stripes. It is characterized by an unusually long tail compared to other hawks. The name “Red-Shouldered Hawk” comes from the visible red shoulders that can be seen when the bird is in flight.

This hawk thrives in deciduous swamps and bottomland hardwood forests, making Tennessee an ideal habitat.

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

The Red-Shouldered Hawk’s mating season begins in April, and it prefers to breed in mixed wooded areas close to bodies of water, away from human presence. These hawks tend to choose nesting spots in forests with a variety of tree species.

They are usually monogamous and highly territorial, with males courting females by flying in circles above them and swooping down close to them. Once they nest, the pair builds a large tree nest and will often reuse it in the next breeding period.

In terms of diet, the Red-Shouldered Hawk hunts primarily in or around woodlands, perching on tall trees or gliding over the terrain in search of prey. They mainly eat small mammals such as voles, mice, and moles.

However, crayfish and small birds also make up a significant portion of their diet, especially in winter when small mammal populations are low.

Unfortunately, the Red-Shouldered Hawk population has declined in the past century due to the clearing of old-growth forests. However, since conservation efforts began in the 1950s and hunting these birds was outlawed, the population has stabilized.

The banning of certain pesticides, especially DDT, has also contributed to the stabilization of their population. As a result, the Red-Shouldered Hawk is no longer considered in need of conservation efforts.

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

The Northern Harrier is the second most commonly seen hawk in Tennessee and also one of the largest. It breeds in the Northern United States, throughout Canada and Alaska, and is a winter guest in Tennessee.

This bird’s overall grayish appearance has earned it the nickname “Gray Ghost.” Up close, it looks similar to an owl, though the two are not closely related. The Northern Harrier tends to inhabit open areas such as moorlands, bogs, prairies, and marshes.

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

The Northern Harrier is one of the few raptors that are polygynous, with a male breeding with up to five females in a single season.

Breeding season typically starts in April, with the male performing a courtship flight to attract a chosen female by diving and looping in the air. As a bird that spends most of its time in open landscapes, the Northern Harrier nests on the ground, building nests from small twigs and lining them with soft materials like grass and leaves.

They are known to nest in small colonies, potentially for safety reasons.

The Northern Harrier’s diet consists mainly of small mammals such as voles and ground squirrels, with small birds also occasionally making up part of their diet.

They hunt by circling above open terrain, using their keen senses to locate prey before swooping down and surprising their targets from behind while flying just a few meters above the ground.

The Northern Harrier has a wide distribution range and is not currently facing any significant threats aside from habitat loss and poisoning of prey. However, because of their extensive range, the species is not currently at risk of experiencing a rapid population decline.

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 a commonly spotted bird in Tennessee all year round. This species has a vast range, stretching from Panama to Alaska, and is present in almost all parts of North America.

With a short and red tail, brown back, and pale underside, the Red-Tailed Hawk is the largest hawk found in Tennessee. Although there are 14 subspecies of this hawk in North America, they only vary in color, with the Tennessee Red-Tailed Hawk being quite similar in appearance to other Red-Tailed Hawks in the US, but noticeably larger.

This species is highly adaptable to various habitats but tends to favour woodlands and woodland edges.

A Red-Tailed Hawk sitting on a steel structure

During the breeding season, which starts in February, the male Red-Tailed Hawk courts its chosen female by flying high in the air and diving next to her.

Sometimes, the male will present prey to the female to win her over. In Tennessee, this species nests in tall trees, often taller than surrounding trees or in nest boxes, and often reuses the same nest from the previous year.

The primary diet of the Red-Tailed Hawk consists of small mammals like voles, rats, and rabbits, but they also eat smaller birds. They hunt using trees for camouflage and surprise attacks or by gliding 20-50 meters above the ground while looking for prey.

Over the last century, the Red-Tailed Hawk has extended its distribution range, possibly due to more deep woodlands being converted to patchy woodlands due to logging activity.

However, like most other hawks, this species is threatened by illegal shootings by humans and poisoning of prey.

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

The Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized bird that can be found throughout North America, including as far south as Mexico. This bird is known for its agility and impressive flying skills, which allow it to hunt prey much larger than itself.

Adults have a striking appearance, with pale orange barring on their chests. They are often confused with Sharp-shinned Hawks.

These smart and stealthy predators are sometimes viewed negatively by homeowners, as they have been known to hide around birdfeeders to catch unsuspecting prey – and it’s not the birdseed they’re after!

A marked and trained Cooper’s Hawk sitting on a branch

During the breeding season, which begins around March, the male Cooper’s Hawk displays impressive aerial acrobatics during his courtship flight for a chosen female.

Once the pair is formed, they will mark their territory by flying around their nesting area with slow, exaggerated wingbeats. Their nests are typically located in tall trees and often built on top of old bird nests or other pre-existing structures.

Cooper’s Hawks primarily feed on small birds, which they catch either mid-air or by ambushing them while sitting on branches. They also consume small mammals like mice and voles, which they catch in a less spectacular fashion than their bird prey.

The conservation status of Cooper’s Hawks has been a rollercoaster ride since the 1900s. Initially, their population saw a threefold increase in a short period of time, followed by a steep decline due to hunting.

Once hunting was outlawed, their population began to increase again until the use of DDT caused a significant population decline once again. In modern times, their population seems to be stable, with prey poisoning being the largest contributor to their early deaths.

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 the smallest hawk found in Tennessee, as well as the United States. Their coloration is grayish on the back and orangy on the chest, which can make them difficult to distinguish from Cooper’s Hawk. However, the stripes on their tail feathers can be used to tell them apart. Due to their small size, they tend to be very secretive and often conceal themselves in forests during the breeding season.

A Sharp-Shined Hawk taking a rest on a branch in the morning sun.

During the mating season, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk engages in an elaborate courtship ritual involving soaring and circling above the forest canopy, calling out to its mate.

The male will also impress the female by performing a breathtaking aerial display, diving next to her, and showing off his full body. The birds are very secretive during nesting and will build their nests in the densest coniferous trees in thick forests, close to the trunk to stay hidden.

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is a skilled predator that mostly feeds on small birds and mammals, similar to its larger cousin, the Cooper’s Hawk. It often hides in thick bushes or trees, waiting for its prey to come to it. The hawk is also known for its impressive aerial manoeuvres, such as catching small birds mid-air.

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk, like many other bird species, was heavily impacted by the use of harmful chemicals like DDT in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the ban on these chemicals, the population has rebounded and is currently at an all-time high.

The increasing popularity of bird feeders in private gardens has provided the Sharp-Shinned Hawk with an easy source of prey, helping it recover from the poisoning of the past.

6. 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 is a common year-round sight in Tennessee as it breeds in the northern parts of the state. Birders consider the migration of the Broad-Winged Hawk as one of the greatest spectacles to witness.

During the fall, thousands of these hawks gather in large flocks as they prepare to migrate to South America. Their dark brown bodies and pale whitish bellies with horizontal bars are striking features.

A Broad-Winged Hawk hiding between branches while taking a rest

The Broad-Winged Hawk is a fascinating bird that breeds in the northern parts of Tennessee and can be found year-round.

During the breeding season, which typically starts in April, the male will perform its elaborate courtship display for a female, involving aerial acrobatics and diving. The pair will then build their nest together in deciduous trees in the forests near the Tennessee river and up towards Maine, but only in non-peninsular parts of Tennessee.

This hawk is less picky with its diet than other hawks, with small mammals like voles still making up the bulk of their food intake, but they will also consume amphibians, insects, birds, and reptiles. Their hunting technique involves hiding on low-hanging branches and gliding toward their prey, using their sharp talons to catch it.

The Broad-Winged Hawk faces a major threat from forest fragmentation in their breeding range, as they require deep forest cover for breeding and nesting. However, conservation efforts in the United States appear to be helping the species recover, as the population is thought to be increasing.

7. 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

The Northern Goshawk shares the same remarkable agility as the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-Shinned Hawk, making it highly adept at navigating through dense forests.

Known for its secretive nature, this bird of prey is often concealed by the forest canopy. While the Northern Goshawk’s breeding range typically extends further north, a small non-breeding population can be found in the northern regions of Tennessee, marking the species’ southernmost limit.

Distinguished by its dark grey upper body and lighter, black-striped underparts, this bird is a striking sight to behold.

A Northern Goshawk sitting in the snow

The Northern Goshawk is a monogamous bird, with courtship behaviour similar to the Sharp-Shinned Hawk.

During mating season, the male and female will circle above forests, with the male performing impressive dives and offering food to impress the female. Nest building is done by the female, with the male providing food.

Their nests are usually located high up in tall trees in dense forests.

In terms of diet, the Northern Goshawk is known to eat a variety of prey, including medium-sized birds like crows and pigeons, as well as mammals like voles, rabbits, and squirrels.

Although the impact of DDT on their population has been less severe than for other hawks, the Northern Goshawk is still under pressure due to habitat destruction from logging and forest fragmentation.

On a positive note, the rise in bird feeders in private gardens has provided a new source of easy prey for the Northern Goshawks.

8. Rough-Legged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
  • Life span: Up to 15 years
  • Size: 18-20 in (46-51 cm)
  • Weight: 1.5-3.25 lbs (680-1470g)
  • Wingspan: 52-54 inches (132-137 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Rough-Legged Hawk is a unique species, breeding only in the high Arctic and visiting Tennessee during winter.

Their brown plumage is accented with a lighter head and dark spots throughout their body. The large dark spot on their underside distinguishes them from other hawks. They have feathered legs that extend all the way down to their toes, a characteristic that is adapted to living in their Arctic breeding range.

This is where their name “Rough-Legged” originates.

Close-up photo of the Rough-Legged Hawk

During the fall, Rough-Legged Hawks scout for nesting sites in areas with high concentrations of prey for the next breeding season, which starts in May.

During the breeding season, males and females engage in aerial courtship with the male performing a sky dance. Nests are constructed on cliff sides using a mixture of sticks, bones, and other materials.

Their primary diet consists of small mammals such as voles, lemmings, and ground squirrels, but they also hunt small birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. In the winter and during migration, they are more likely to prey on birds such as grouse, ptarmigans, and ducks.

The Rough-Legged Hawk is not currently facing any significant threats, but indirect poisoning of prey during their wintering grounds and habitat loss due to climate change could pose concerns. While there is limited information on their population status, they are believed to be stable.

Where to find Hawks of Tennessee

Hawks are prevalent in Tennessee and can be easily spotted with some knowledge and preparation. These birds are mostly active during the day, so it’s essential to know where and when to look for them.

Visiting specific locations where hawks are commonly found is a great way to increase your chances of seeing them. Many state parks and wildlife refuges in Tennessee offer trails designed for optimal wildlife viewing.

These trails are usually safe and offer guided tours by experienced birdwatchers who can help spot hawks hidden by brush or camouflaged against their surroundings.

When arriving at prevalent hawk watching spots, it’s important to stay safe, both for your sake and the birds. Here are some good precautions to take:

  • Be aware of your surroundings: Hawks tend to fly low to the ground when hunting, so keep an eye out for them in open fields or along the edges of forests.
  • Don’t feed them: While it may be tempting to toss food to a hawk, this can encourage them to approach humans more closely and become less wary. This is known as habituation and can in the long run become dangerous for humans and the hawks.
  • Avoid nesting areas: During breeding season, hawks can become particularly territorial and protective of their nests. If you see a hawk flying around a particular area repeatedly, it may be best to avoid that spot.

Here are a few popular spots to look for them in Tennessee:

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park
  • Radnor Lake State Park
  • Reelfoot Lake State Park
  • Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge


Hawk watching in Tennessee is a popular activity, especially during the breeding season when many birds can be seen, and in the winter when North American hawks migrate to the area due to its mild climate.

Observing these birds of prey hunt in their natural habitat is a breathtaking experience that even seasoned birders appreciate.

Historically, hawk populations faced significant declines due to hunting and the use of pesticides that contaminated their prey. However, since the ban on DDT and the hunting of most raptors in the mid-20th century, many of these species have rebounded, with populations now either stable or on the rise. As a result, spotting hawks in their natural habitat has become more common.