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Hawks In North Carolina: 6 Common Species

NC Hawk

North Carolina is a haven for bird watchers all over the United States. In fact, according to the NCBRC (North Carolina Bird Records Committee), the Tar Heel State is home to over 470 bird species and one of the few that stands out is the hawks.

Have you ever wondered what the most common North Carolina hawks are? For more details on the different hawks of North Carolina and how to differentiate them, please read on…

Hawks in North Carolina

Hawks are common birds of North Carolina that can consume small mammals and birds and frogs and snakes. These birds can see in UV light, which helps them spot and hunt their prey; plus, the fact that they are popular in North Carolina means that you can find them anywhere in the state.

The largest North Carolina hawks are the Rough-legged hawks, while the smallest species is the Sharp-shinned hawk.

To spot the hawks of North Carolina, all you've to do is go to the high ridges, marshes, and grassland for some huge species.

You can find small-sized hawks like Cooper's hawk and Sharp-shinned hawks in the woodlands.

What Are the Most Common Hawks in North Carolina?

1. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Have you ever seen the small hawks that appear in a blur of motion and disappear the same way? If you have, then the chances are that you have seen the Sharp-shinned hawks. This is the United State’s smallest hawk and it’s locally known as a bold athletic flier.

These hawks have a distinctive proportion: long tails, short wings, and long legs, which come in handy when navigating the deep woods at high speeds. The females are about a third heavier and bigger than the males. This is a normal pattern in owls and hawks but rare among other birds.

And to identify them, you should look for some orange bars in the upper parts of its chest that fades towards its wings, back, and belly.

Other than being known as the smallest hawk species in the United States, these hawks in North Carolina are known for their exceptional hunting skills.

Instead of just going after its prey, the sharp-shinned hawk sits and waits under some foliage and waits for its prey to approach it. It's also known for potentially pursuing prey until it can snatch them with its claws.

They feed on birds, small mammals, frogs, lizards, and insects. Plus, their declining numbers mean that they can only be found in the forest canopies during the mating season.

2. Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Generally, the distribution of this hawk is unknown in the United States since they tend to migrate a lot, but you'll definitely find these hawks in North Carolina all year-round. And to see Cooper's hawk, all you have to do is take a hike in a wooden forested region or look above the next time you visit a suburban area with many trees.

Like the accipiters, Cooper's hawks of North Carolina have a unique flap-flap-glide pattern; therefore, you can easily spot them when flying from one tree to the next.

Cooper's hawk resembles the sharp-shinned hawk, but it's a bit larger; the females are usually larger than the males.

These medium-sized hawks come with the classic accipiter body shape, but in Cooper's Hawks, the tails appear rounded, shoulders broader, and head larger. The upper part of the adults is blue-gray with a dark, strongly banded tail and reddish bars on their underpart.

Like the Sharpies, this chicken hawk is also skilled and the world's most able flier. Their stealth and agility with power make them formidable predators that can chase their prey at very high speeds.

They feed on smaller birds and mammals; therefore, you should be surprised to see backyard hawks in NC preying on the tiny birds on your feeders.

3. Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Even though it can be found in North Carolina all year long, the Red-shouldered hawks can only be found in the coastal regions in winter. This species is easily identified by its copper feathers, making them one of the most beautiful hawks in the United States.

And if you think you have seen a beautiful hawk when it's perched, wait until the Red-shouldered hawk spreads its wings, and you see the reddish barring on its breast and red shoulders.

The Red-shouldered hawks are medium-sized, whose size ranges between the swan and crow with banded tails and make a unique cack-cack-cack call.

They can be found in wet-deciduous woodlands; therefore, if you see the Red-shouldered hawk, you should expect to find a marsh, river, or swamp nearby.

These North American raptors can also be sighted in suburban regions where homes are mixed into woodlands. Their huge presence in suburban areas is the key reason this state has a law against killing them.

This hawk can spend over 5 weeks preparing a neat nest to take care of its chicks. And like other hawks, the Red-shouldered hawk feeds on lizards, snakes, amphibians, and small mammals, but you should be surprised to find them consuming crustaceans, insects, and fish.

4. Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad-Winged Hawk

Like most hawks, this North Carolina hawk is known for breeding in the western part of this state before migrating to South America. The broad-winged hawks can only be seen in this state in fall when migrating. After all, when nesting, the broad-winged hawks spend most of the time hidden in dense and full forests that guarantee them some food.

This behavior comes in handy when nesting, raising young, and mating; plus, despite their bold status, they prefer staying away from human beings.

Seeking the broad-winged hawk should be left for the warm months due to their unique migratory habits.

They're known for moving just a bit in winter, but you can see a kettle of the Broad-winged hawk flying around after the cold season ends. Therefore, the best place to see this type of hawk in NC is at the Carolina Raptor Center.

Like most raptors, the broad-winged hawk feeds on various diets, but they tend to stick to small rodents, toads, and frogs.

They also feed on mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

5. Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk

As an exceptional hunter, this intimidating NC hawk with a huge wingspan can be seen soaring in the sky with its huge wings. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Red-Tailed Hawk can easily intimidate and feed on several small animals. It's one of the most common birds of prey in North Carolina, accounting for 9% of the bird sightings.

Thanks to the fact that they are ever hunting, these birds are very easy to spot as they love circling open fields slowly while looking for prey. As its name suggests, the Red-tailed hawks come with a wide, short red tail that stands out when they're flying.

They are huge creatures with broad rounded wings, between the size of a goose and crow. A huge percentage of the Red-tailed hawks have a pale underneath and brown back.

There are numerous morphs of the red-tailed hawk, with the Eastern morph found in NC having a white throat and defined belly band.

The Red-tailed hawk's high-pitched raspy screen is normally used in films for all raptors.

During the breeding season, a pair tends to do an exceptional sky dance when courting, where they clasp their talons while spiraling down to the ground.

Remember, the Red-tailed hawks that build their nests together pair for life. They can also be seen hunting prey together. They feed on small reptiles, birds, and mammals.

6. Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-Legged Hawk

Besides being proud birds, the Rough-legged hawks are protective and take their mating and nesting very seriously. And to keep their nest safe and prevent other birds from bothering them, they always build their nests high up in the sky where they can look down on the world below.

And the good thing about these birds is that they tend to reuse their sturdy nests every year; therefore, they always make sure that the nests are created using durable materials.

Unfortunately, they come from the arctic and can be found in NC in winter. These hawks can be sighted hovering all over open fields and marshes or perched on telephone poles.

These birds are huge hawks whose size ranges between a goose and a crow. This dark-brown hawk occurs in dark and light forms. They have some dark patches across their belly, end of their tail, and bends of their wings.

The rough-legged hawk gets its name from its feathered legs that keep it warm in the Arctic.

Like other raptors, the Rough-legged hawk mostly feeds on voles and lemmings. They eat small ground squirrels, mice, and voles in winter, among other small mammals.  

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Frequently Asked Questions

Are There Fish Hawks in North Carolina?

Yes, the Osprey, whose common name is a fish hawk, is one of the most common hawk species in NC. They have long, huge wings and can be found along the interior waterways and sea coasts, where they feed on fish.

How Big Are the Broad-Winged Hawks?

Weighing about 19.8oz, this species has a maximum length of about 17 inches and a wingspan of about 33 inches. But they have a short tail that measures between 5.7 and 7.5 inches.

What Is the Most Common Hawk in North Carolina?

The most common hawk in North Carolina is the Red-tailed hawk. This species can be found all over the state, and this includes on telephone lines and even in our backyards. In fact, it accounts for about 9% of the hawks sighted in this state.

Read Also: Hawks in South Carolina


As one of the United States' havens for bird watchers, North Carolina hosts some of the planet's most popular birds, and this includes hawks. In fact, the most common hawk in this state is the red-tailed hawk, while the largest is the Rough-legged hawk.

Even the arctic hawks, like the rough-legged hawks, migrate to NC during winter; therefore, visiting this state can be a treat for any birdwatcher.

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