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Hawks in Massachusetts: 8 Common Species To See


It is becoming increasingly necessary for birders and others who are also observing, hunting, or studying hawks to identify them accurately in the field. 


Field identification of hawks can be tricky due to the birds' wariness of humans, plumage variation, and ability to shift forms when flying. So, when birdwatching from one state to another, you probably wonder what Massachusetts hawks you might encounter around the area.

Read on as we provide you with a comprehensive overview of different hawk field marks and behavioral characteristics. Hopefully, it will help you learn more about these mighty, intelligent creatures.

Different Species Of Hawks In Massachusetts

If you're passionate about wildlife and highly fascinated by birds of prey, you will never run out of opportunities to observe the different hawks of Massachusetts. Although, you may only encounter a Peregrine Falcon around the state during migration. 

Hawk on tree branch

Nonetheless, a few areas near the coast, such as Cape Cod, are year-round homes for these falcons. Even the American Kestrel, the smallest and most colorful falcon, used to populate Massachusetts in large numbers until habitat loss reduced their numbers dramatically. 

Even UMass Lowell got its nickname, River Hawks, inspired by the osprey. School administrators believe that the osprey, also known as the river hawk, is unique, vigorous, and resilient, the same traits that represent their students.

Individuals passionate about falconry find the state an excellent spot to do this sport in open meadows in Western Massachusetts. The state's Wildlife Service allows activities providing the perfect opportunity to learn more about these raptors.

Read Also: Birds in Massachusetts

The state parks in Mount Tom State Reservation offer various birders worldwide the finest hawk-watching spots. The area is likewise an excellent place for hiking and viewing breathtaking sceneries.

Some US states like Virginia allow you to spectate about these birds of prey. You can learn more about the hawks of Virginia and start your next adventure over there!

Here are the different types of hawks in Massachusetts you could encounter there:

1. Cooper's Hawk

Some birders do not enjoy the sight of this hawk at their bird feeders. The Cooper has an undesirable reputation for visiting feeders in winter to target a mourning dove, red winged blackbird, and a European starling.

This hawk drastically increased in numbers and has become widespread throughout the state, at the same time that the number of kestrels continues to decline. 

Aside from feeding on small birds, a raptor as agile and powerful as Cooper's hawk specializes in preying an American Kestrel. You will likely encounter this creature in woodlands, forests, and suburban areas, but it migrates southward in winter to find a reliable food source.

This hawk's female is more sizable than the males; it has a similar-looking plumage to the sharp shinned hawk. An adult Cooper has its upper body in bluish-gray plumage; it has a blackish head with white and reddish-brown streaks underneath.

2. Sharp Shinned Hawk

Unless there is a natural disruption or some human activity preventing trees from growing in Massachusetts, the state is generally forested. As such, the sharp-shinned hawk is among the breeding kind you can find in the state's forests and woodlands.

You may spot this hawk soaring along the mountain ridges and coastlines; it is a familiar sight in North and Central America. Missouri hawks provide the same experience for bird watchers stationed in this US state.

Even the golden eagle is a rare passing species during spring and fall migration in Massachusetts. Like the Cooper, sharp-shinned hawks can fly rapidly and make sudden turns around any backyard snags, fences, thickets, or trees.

Such ability makes this raptor a constant threat to songbirds feasting at feeding stations. It lingers in its natural habitat; you can spot it too in suburban areas during the breeding season. This hawk eventually migrates across the United States and Mexico during the colder months.

Furthermore, the sharp-shinned is the smallest accipiter in North America, smaller than the almost identical Cooper's hawk. It has a shorter tail but longer and wider wings; males have a slate blue shade above, light blue with a reddish-orange wash underneath.

Females are brownish-gray, while juveniles are browner with bold streaks on their breasts and on the underside feathers, which is how this creature got its name. The hawk catches its game by surprise by launching from its perch once it spots a target.

3. Red Tailed Hawk

This hawk, also well-known as the Buteo Jamaicensis, will sometimes prey on a young turkey vulture, forcefully taking it from its nest.

Owls and hawks are top predators; these two birds of prey rarely attack each other, except for territorial disputes. However, there have been reports of one documented sighting of a red-tailed hawk snatching target from a snowy owl.

Read Also: Massachusetts Owls

Birds such as the red-tailed hawk with an expansive range typically have geographical variations. Its subspecies range from dark to light-colored hawks, but they all have broad wings and long, reddish tails regardless of geographic variety. 

Red-Tailed Hawk
Red-Tailed Hawk

The Harlan's subspecies feature a grayish to whitish tail, contrary to the Krider's subspecies' pink-washed hind part. On the other hand, a juvenile red tailed hawk retains a year-round plumage, its eye color ranging from pale yellow, tan, or pale gray.

Moreover, red-tailed hawks are no longer dependent on forests for their habitats. Due to the rich feeding opportunities, these hawks are well-adapted to urban and suburban environments, preferring to have their nest on top of a tall tree.

This creature is also the most popular for many falconers since these hawks are easily trapped and trained and are the most abundant in the state. The Redtail finds its target while perching on a tree, gliding and snatching a small rodent, rabbit, skunks, small bird, snake, and fish.

The Tufts Wildlife Clinic in the Wildlife Medicine Building on Cummings Veterinary Medical Center of Tufts University brought about new regulations on safe rodent control. It happened after a highly-potent rat poison caused the death of many red-tailed hawks.

This mighty creature even became more reputable due to some St. John hawks becoming aggressive towards two university employees while protecting a young fledgling.

Fun Fact: Did you know that this bird of prey is a familiar "personality" in cartoons? The ubiquitous Ohio hawk species is often called in as a voice over talent!

4. Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawk

Northern goshawks are slightly larger birds than crows, with black-colored heads, a white line above their eyes, and have slate-blue upperparts. You will also notice birds having fine streaks of white and gray underneath.

The geographic variable of this bird species has darker plumes with a dark nape and a more grayish breast.

It is the most sizable accipiter in the north, with females being more sizable and with slate-blue shades that look darker than the males. This raptor typically does ambush-style hunting from a perch, capturing birds and mammals in woodlands.

It is primarily inconspicuous in forests, but they have rapid, agile hunting movements. You will see them behaving defensively during nesting season, even striking humans on the head or back.

Goshawks, including sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, were unprotected birds until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has an amendment in 1918, extending federal protection for all birds of prey.

5. Broad Winged Hawk

Broad-winged hawk migration is one of the most extensive movements in the north. You will notice this hawk in massive flocks or "kettles," with thousands of other birds extending their flight time, believing probably of safety in numbers.

This hawk, also known as the buteo platypterus, also has light-morphed and dark-morphed variables.

The dark-morphed adult has its body, wings, and tail coverts in dark brown with two-toned underwings and white flight feathers. In contrast, the light-morphed adult's head is dark brown, with drabber cheek stripes.

Broad-winged hawks prefer to inhabit mixed coniferous or hardwood forests where swamps, lakes, and streams are nearby. It can be very protective of its nests in the same wooded area near water but sometimes uses an old nest from a crow or squirrel.

This creature typically feeds on amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. The hawk continues to be widespread, although it is also noticeable that it soars overhead in decreased numbers each year.

6. Red Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk
Red-Shouldered Hawk

The red-shouldered hawk is among the several types of hawks in Massachusetts with a medium-sized, slender body. It has rust-colored plumes contrasting with its black and white wings; the hawk also has long legs and tails.

This creature, a part of the Accipitridae family where the eagle also belongs, is typically a solitary hawk enjoying wooded areas where water is nearby. 

It inhabits freshwater wetlands, marshes, and suburban neighborhoods. Nevertheless, many parts of eastern North America are experiencing forest loss, which has led to a dramatic decline in red-shouldered hawk numbers. 

Since red-tailed hawks no longer rely on forests for their habitat, this species has now taken the place of the red-shouldered hawks in that region. When it comes to feeding habits, the red-shouldered hawks have this distinct behavior of using an old nest as their feasting platform.

To boot, the peak migration of this creature is between October and November, but only a few birdwatchers witnessed these hawks' flights during this period.

Hence, despite the resurgence of this bird's breeding population during the early 1980s, it may not accurately represent this hawk's actual numbers in the state.

It is good news that following the ban on pesticide use, many raptor species, including this hawk, have continued to recover.

7. Rough Legged Hawk

Rough-legged hawks are rare, fairly irruptive winter migrants in Massachusetts. Its extensive breeding ground ranges from the northern parts of America, Siberia, and Europe. 

Observers might even notice how it occasionally moves over to an urban landscape during a period of migration, as this hawk prefers open countries.

Birders typically recognize this hawk with its small bill and small-sized taloned feet, perfect for catching smaller mammals. Its juvenile's distinguishing field mark is its plain-looking plumage, contrary to an adult's heavily-streaked feathers. 

Rough Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawk

Additionally, these raptors are among the species with extensive plumage variation—some are entirely black, others have more subtle shades that are almost creamy or white.

The rough-leggeds from the east can be tame or wary and like perching on exposed, high places or the ground. When spotting for lemmings and voles, its hunting style ranges from the usual perching position or hovering.

Voles are a significant part of this raptor's diet. The hawk seems to have remarkable x-ray vision, allowing it to see a vole's urine or scent markings only visible through UV light.

8. Northern Harrier

Northern harriers are migratory and wintering raptors that find the open sandy areas along coastal zones ideal for their hunting needs. This creature is also well-known as the marsh hawk.

You may spot it in salt and freshwater marshes, shrublands, and open fields since this hawk is dependent on grasslands for most of its livelihood.

It hunts rodents and small mammals close to the ground, using its sharp hearing ability to locate them. Once it spots prey, the marsh hawk suddenly drops to the ground, launching an attack. Males target birds more, while female harriers target mammals.

You can recognize harriers by their medium-sized bodies, long tails and legs, owl-like facial disk, and prominent white rump patch. The adult male of its kind has a faint, bluish-gray back, gray-colored rump with bold white bands, and it is white underneath.

Aside from being larger-sized than males, the females also have light brown to brown plumage with dark streaks and barred tails in black and tan. This hawk also likes to have its nest near the ground.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are hawks and falcons the same?

It is not unusual for some birders to encounter challenges in telling hawks and falcons apart. These two raptors have a lot in common, coming from the same Accipitridae family with overlapping characteristics.

Aside from the differences in taxonomies, falcons utilize their beaks to kill prey, including other birds and even bats.

At the same time, hawks use their claws to kill a rabbit, rat, and small mammal. Additionally, falcons are smaller birds than hawks, and they can also fly faster than the latter.

Which among the Massachusetts hawks is the most common?

The red-tailed hawk of Massachusetts is the most common buteo in the state and throughout most of America's northern part. It is easy to spot since this hawk prefers the countryside, suburbia, and open areas in cities.

You can tell an adult apart from the juvenile red-tailed hawk with its red tail; the latter has brown tail feathers throughout its first year. You will rarely see this creature in feeders unless you have a spacious backyard.

Which hawks of Massachusetts have gray plumage?

Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks have strikingly similar appearances, which is why some birders confuse one with the other. Both have bluish-gray shades contrasting with their brownish-gray plumage, except Cooper's hawk has a more sizable head and body than the sharp-shinned hawk.


In conclusion, it is only fair to assert that understanding the different types of hawks is fundamental to gaining a deeper appreciation of wildlife.

Even so, it takes intense commitment and perseverance to learn more about many kinds of habitats, social behavior, field marks, breeding, and migration patterns. Your experience in the field also contributes to the convenient identification of hawks in Massachusetts.

All these are crucial so that birdwatching of the different hawks of Massachusetts will become a more fun and enriching experience. May you find this article a handy source of relevant information, allowing you to enjoy all these magnificent birds of prey.

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