9 Species Of Colorado Hawks: Identifying Sounds, Features & Migratory Patterns

Brown hawk standing on a wood

Last Updated: May 9, 2021

Hawk watching is a thing, and you can enjoy the sight of nine hawks in Colorado.

Which ones?

The Centennial state not only hosts the largest of hawks yearly but also some of the largest kettles you'd ever see. And you'd be fascinated by how some Colorado hawk sounds.

It could be easy for you to see some of the common hawks depending on your location. But with some, you'd have to take a trip into the great outdoors to find them.

Now, let's get to know the hawks of Colorado.

9 Types of Hawks in Colorado 

You can ID these hawks simply by studying their pictures and sounds. If it's any different, you'll find out as you read ahead. Also, be sure to watch the video of how each Colorado hawk sounds. 

1. Red-Tailed Hawk

  • Red-tailed hawk standing on grassLength: 17.7 to 25.6 inches 
  • Wingspan: 44.4 to 52.4 inches
  • Weight: 690 to 1300 grams
Red-tailed hawks are the largest Colorado hawks you'd see. Only a few others like the Osprey have a longer wingspan but are smaller by height.

For such large raptors, it's no surprise they are the most commonly seen hawks in the state or worldwide. Of ten raptors you'd see, eight are likely to be red-tailed hawks.

The easiest way to spot one is while on a drive - anywhere - watching for their signature red tail in the sky. Or peer at fences and telephone posts, and you certainly would find one scouting for prey. Red-tailed hawks are open-country birds that hunt in fields, meadows, etc.

In addition, it's unlikely you'd miss the raspy scream of the red-tailed hawk. It's been used in movies and cartoons like SilverHawks, for instance, which remains a classic. Even eagles don't sound as ferocious.

Metaphorically, they are called the Bald Eagle's voice actor.

Like most buteo hawks, red-tails soar the skies in a flap-flap-glide sequence when they hunt or defend their territory.


2. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

  • hawk facing right on a branchLength: 9.4 to 13.4 inches
  • Wingspan: 16.9 to 22.1 inches
  • Weight: 87 to 218 grams

The sharp-shinned is a small hawk that's often mistaken for the much larger cooper's hawk. Since both are rarely ever seen together, you'd likely make a mistake even after learning about them.

So, how are they identical?

These two birds have a striking blue-gray back with long broad bands on their long tail. The underparts are distinctive red-orange with white bars. And a small head that doesn't extend past their wings in flight.

Sharp-shinned hawks survive in dense forests because of their diminutive size (for a hawk) and acrobatic flight. But they'd fly in the open or in urban areas with tree cover nearby.

Unlike prideful red-tailed hawks, they may leave their habitat to hunt at bird feeders if there's one close by.

When they, or any raptors, start hunting at your feeder, it's best to take it down for a couple of weeks to clear the air of danger.

The best time to spot sharp-shinned hawks is during fall migration. They usually have the highest migration numbers, with up to thousands traveling at a time.

The Dinosaur Ridge hawk watch site is a great place to catch these birds migrating.


3. Cooper's Hawk

  • Red-orange hawk on branch of a treeLength: 14.6 to 17.7 inches
  • Wingspan: 24.4 to 35.4 inches
  • Weight: 22o to 680 grams

Cooper's Hawks are essentially large-sized sharp-shinned hawks. The only difference I've seen in appearance is their bloodshot red eyes.

Aside from that, both birds are identical. However, a significant difference between them is how they sound.

Cooper's Hawks have a deep "cak-cak-cak" sound, though also high-pitched, can be easily distinguished from that of Sharp-Shins.

With a bit of patience, guidance, and studying both birds, you'd learn to tell the difference.

However, Cooper's Hawks are more regular in human residencies. You can almost tell you have a cooper's hawk at sight if it's hunting songbirds or doves in your backyard.

Cooper's Hawks in Colorado stay in mountainous regions in spring and summer. Many visit the plains during winters, some staying back all year.


4. Northern Goshawk

  • brown hawk on a snowy fieldLength: 20 to 25.2 inches
  • Wingspan: 40.5 to 46.1 inches
  • Weight: 631 to 1364 grams

Northern Goshawks are one of the most giant hawks native to Colorado. Notably, they are the most giant accipiters - forest-dwelling hawks with long tails - like Cooper's and Sharp-Shins.

These hawks have a striking slate-gray plumage barred with white on their underparts. Juveniles would appear brownish.

In a nutshell, it won't be hard to identify them, except Goshawks are secretive.  Plus, with their hunting style: speed, agility, and acrobatics, it's hard to catch a full glimpse of them.

Northern Goshawks that live in Colorado are found in mountainous forests or in the foothills.

While this Colorado hawk sounds differently for many occasions, one is prominent. A quick succession of high-pitched "ki-k-ki" calls, repeated up to twenty times.


5. Broad-Winged Hawk

  • hawk flying in the skyLength: 13.4 to 17.3 inches
  • Wingspan: 31 to 39.4 inches
  • Weight: 265 to 560 grams

Broad-winged Hawks are one of the most common hawks in North America. They have this reputation of single-handedly bringing hawk watching into the limelight.

Why not?

They enjoy long-distance migration in a flock of thousands, circling in the sky like a tornado whirlpool, a well-known occurrence among birders.

Birders can see these raptors passing through not only Colorado but the whole of eastern United States.

Broad-winged hawks live in coniferous or deciduous woodlands, on the opposite end of larger Red-Tailed or Red-Shouldered Hawks. As they are highly migratory, they move to South and Central America in winter.

Listen for the ear-piercing "ke-eeee" whistle of the Broad-Winged Hawk at any time of the year.


6. Rough-Legged Hawk

  • brown hawk standing on a fieldLength: 18.5 to 20.5 inches
  • Wingspan: 52 to 54.3 inches
  • Weight: 715 to 1400 grams

Rough-Legged Hawks are chiefly birds of the Arctic, spending most of their time in the tundra region. They have a similar lifestyle with snowy owls, except more of them come down south.

In Colorado, these raptors arrive around October and stay as late as May before heading back up north. In a way, it replaces the Swainson's Hawk when it leaves the state for the winter.

Both hawks species are identical and have relatively long wingspans to hover in open country. But the predominantly white tail of the Rough-legged sets it apart.

It's easy to identify a Rough-legged Hawk in flight even while driving at high speeds. Hey, keep your eyes on the road now. 😉

7. Swainson's Hawk

  • Dark brown and white hawkLength: 18.9 to 22.1 inches
  • Wingspan: 46 to 54 inches 
  • Weight: 693 to 1367 grams

Swainson's Hawks are widespread across Colorado, where they breed primarily in grasslands and open areas. They leave the state around September and October to winter in faraway Argentina.

Swainson's, unlike other buteos, have no problem feeding on the ground, in tilled lands where there are no perches.

These raptors, in fact, will feed primarily on grasshoppers and crickets when they migrate to South America.

Listen for the soft, shrill "weeee" of the Swainson's, which is quite similar to the Red-Tail's. But definitely not as vicious.


8. Ferruginous Hawk

  • hawk held by a manLength: 22.1 to 27.2 inches
  • Wingspan: 52.4 to 55.9 inches 
  • Weight: 977 to 2071 grams

The name "ferruginous" comes from the rusty, reddish-brown color of these hawks.

Ferruginous hawks, slightly larger than Swainson's, are considerably large buteo hawks. Compared to other hawks, females can be over twice the size of their males.

These large rufous-colored hawks are year-round occupants of Colorado. Some fly in from the north during winter.

Ferruginous hawks also happen to love the open country. Also, they can be found in prairies, sagebrush steppe, and grasslands.

These hawks are prolific gliders, maybe even better than Red-Tails and Swainson's, but it'd be a close call.

When alarmed, they literally scream!

Listen:


9. Osprey (Fish Hawk)

  • hawk hunting for a fish in the waterLength: 21 to 22.8 inches
  • Wingspan: 59.1 to 70.9 inches
  • Weight: 1400 to 2000 grams

All the hawks I've listed so far would eat the three R's (rodents, reptiles, and rabbits). Not Ospreys who aren't "true owls". These vulture-looking hawks feed mainly on fishes.

And they are built for it with opposable talons for extra grip on slippery fish.

Plus, Ospreys are larger and longer-winged than Red-Tailed Hawks, who only edge them a bit in length.

They are regarded as the whitest raptors because all their underparts are snow white. Only its extraordinarily long wings are black and a brown stripe through the eye and center of the head.

The call of the Osprey is rather pleasant and chicky.


Frequently Asked Questions About Colorado Hawks

What Hawks can be Seen in Colorado?

  1. Red-Tailed Hawk
  2. Cooper's Hawk
  3. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
  4. Northern Goshawk
  5. Ferruginous Hawk
  6. Broad-Winged Hawk
  7. Swainson's Hawk
  8. Rough-Legged Hawk
  9. Osprey (Fish Hawk - common name)

Are There Red-Tailed Hawks in Colorado?

Red-tailed Hawks are the most common hawks you'd see in Colorado. If you go on a long drive now, you almost certainly will find one soaring over a field. 

Wrapping Up

Hawk watching in Colorado can be lots of fun. Quite a handful of hawk species in the Centennial State have unique migratory patterns that leave you in awe.

Take a drive in the right environment, and you certainly would see a few. Visit parks or hawk watch sites like Dinosaur Ridge in the right season, and you just might see thousands.

Which Colorado hawk species have you seen so far?

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