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Hawks In Tennessee: Top 9 Species to Identify

Written by Garrett Hayes

Last updated on Mar 27th, 2024
Hawks In Tennessee

Most people know Tennessee for its rich art and culture, especially its country music scene. 


Tennessee is also a wildlife paradise. It is a great destination for birdwatching, especially if you want to see birds of prey in action. 

A landlocked state, Tennessee birds have ecologically-diverse habitats, making it home to several species of hawk. 

With 56 state parks, you have a long list of places to see hawks up-close in The Volunteer State. Identifying them, however, can be confusing, especially for a beginner. 

Read on and learn more about the common hawks of Tennessee, including their physical characteristics, feeding behaviors, and habitats. 

Get To Know The Most Popular Hawks In Tennessee 

1. Red-Tailed Hawk 

Red-Tailed Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis 
  • Weight: 24.3 to 51.5 ounces 
  • Length: 17.7 to 25.6 ounces  
  • Wingspan: 44.9 to 52.4 inches 

One of the most familiar hawks in North America, the red-tailed hawks are large raptors with very broad bodies, wide and short tails, and rounded wings. 

Red-tailed hawks are rich brown above the body and pale underneath. The belly has streaks, and it has a dark bar between the wrist and shoulder. Meanwhile, the tail is cinnamon-red above and pale below. 

When it comes to habitat, red-tailed hawks prefer being in open areas, such as fields, parklands, woodlands, and agricultural lands. You can also find them in scattered elevated perches on tall trees and telephone poles along roads. 

The diet of a red-tailed hawk includes small mammals, such as rats and voles. They also eat smaller birds, such as pigeons. 

The red-tailed hawk is known for its high-pitched sound, which is often used in movies to depict bald eagles and other raptors. 

2. Broad-Winged Hawk 

Broad-Winged Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Buteo platypterus 
  • Weight: 9.3 to 19.8 ounces 
  • Length: 13.4 to 17.3 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 31.9 to 39.4 ounces 

As they are named, the most prominent feature of broad-winged hawks is their broad wings. They also have short and dark-brown bodies. You will find a white spot on their bellies. The tails have distinct black and white bars. 

The broad-winged hawk has two morphs. Only the dark forms are in Tennessee, but even so, their sightings are rare. 

For the best chances of seeing broad-winged hawks in Tennessee, look for them in the fall from mid-September to early October when they are fairly common. After such, they will migrate in large groups to South America. 

In the wild, the natural habitats of broad-winged hawks include under-forest canopies, mountains, and coastlines. 

When looking for a breeding pair, males are showy. They will perform a variety of aerial displays to lure a mate. When it is successful, a female hawk will join mid-flight, hooking its feet and spiraling to the nest. 

3. Red-Shouldered Hawk 

Red-Shouldered Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Buteo lineatus 
  • Weight: 17.1 to 27.3 ounces 
  • Length: 16.9 to 24 inches 
  • Wingspan: 37 to 43.7 inches 

You will find red-shouldered hawks throughout the year in Tennessee. It has vibrant-colored feathers and a long tail, making them quite easy to recognize. 

Other distinct physical features of these raptors include the reddish-brown feathers on the chest with red barring on the underparts. This is where the bird got its name. 

In-flight, the dark and white checkered wings of these birds are visible. The wide tail, meanwhile, will show prominent thick black bands. 

Those who want to see red-shouldered hawks in The Volunteer State should head to deciduous conifer forests. They are also frequent in flooded swamps, eucalyptus groves, and dense woodlands. It is seldom that you will see them on roadsides. 

The red-shouldered hawk is known for being the noisiest among raptors. It makes up to seven different calls, most of which are during courtship. 

4. Sharp-Shinned Hawk 

Sharp-Shinned Hawk 
  • Scientific Name: Accipiter striatus 
  • Weight: 2.9 to 7.7 ounces 
  • Length: 9.1 to 15 inches 
  • Wingspan: 17 to 27 inches 

Male sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest hawks not just in Tennessee, but also in North America. Females are known for being up to a third larger. 

A mature sharp-shinned hawk is blue-gray on the upper body with red-orange bars on the chest. It also has a strongly banded tail, and yellow eyes, feet, and legs. Meanwhile, young sharp-shinned hawks are mostly brown with white underparts and vertical streaks. 

While they are known for being secretive birds, these raptors are seen when they are flying across forest edges. A sharp-shinned hawk is known for being agile, capable of speeding through dense woods once it sees its prey.  

In backyards, it is common to see a sharp-shinned hawk near bird feeders. It will catch small birds, so some people do not like having them on their properties. 

Because of their migratory patterns, sharp-shinned hawks are not year-round residents in Tennessee. It is especially rare to see them from March to June, which is the mating season. You will find most of them in Eastern Tennessee. 

5. Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-Legged Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Buteo lagopus 
  • Weight: 25.2 to 49.4 ounces 
  • Length: 18.5 to 20.5 inches 
  • Wingspan: 52 to 54.3 inches 

Rough-legged hawks are some of the most recognizable raptors in Tennessee. They have pastel heads while the underbellies are dark. The tail is light-colored, but it gets darker approaching the tip. Plus, they have feathered legs, which look rough, which is where the bird got its name. 

While rough-legged hawks are seen in the state, they are rare. They come in the winter when the birds migrate from the Arctic. They account for less than 1% of hawk sightings in Tennessee. Rough-legged hawks thrive in open countries with high cliffs and narrow ledges. 

Aside from their appearance, another easy way to identify the presence of a rough-legged hawk is to listen to its cat-like cry. It also whistles when hissing. 

6. Cooper’s Hawk 

Cooper’s Hawk 
  • Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii
  • Weight: 7.8 to 14.5 ounces 
  • Length: 14 to 20 inches 
  • Wingspan: 24 to 39 inches 

Fast, fearless, and aggressive, the cooper’s hawk is present in Tennessee in the winter. If you want to see cooper’s hawks, forest edges should be on the top of your list of go-to places for birdwatching. 

It is common for most people to confuse a cooper’s hawk with a sharp-shinned hawk. The former is larger and is almost the same size as a crow. Both birds have dark banded tails, red-orange breasts, and blue-gray backs. 

Cooper’s hawks have a varied diet. They will eat small mammals and even medium-sized birds. Some of its favorites include rats, ground squirrels, snakes, doves, and pigeons. 

7. Northern Goshawk  

Northern Goshawk
  • Scientific Name: Accipiter gentilis 
  • Weight: 22.3 to 48.1 inches 
  • Length: 20.9 to 25.2 inches
  • Wingspan: 40.5 to 46.1 inches 

If you want to see large hawks in Tennessee, the northern goshawk should be on your radar. Although, this bulky accipiter is not as common as the other birds of prey on this list. Spring and autumn are the best times to see them in the state before they start their migration. 

Mature northern goshawks have dark slate-gray upper bodies and barred pale gray lower bodies. It also has a dark head and white stripe along the eyes. Juveniles, meanwhile, are streaky and brown. 

Wild forests are among the preferred habitats of northern goshawks. They like coniferous forests, although they also survive in deciduous hardwood forests. 

8. Swainson’s Hawk 

Swainson’s Hawk
  • Scientific Name: Buteo swainsoni 
  • Weight: 24.4 to 48.2 ounces 
  • Length: 18.9 to 22.1 inches
  • Wingspan: 46 to 54 inches 

While they are not as common as the other birds of prey in Tennessee, you can occasionally find them in the state. They are social raptors, so they often gather in groups, especially when it is not the breeding season. 

With their broad wings, it is easy to identify Swainson’s hawks when you see them soaring in the sky. They have dark-colored feathers and bright white under-body.

When hunting, Swainson’s hawks perch on the top of high places, including telephone poles and tall trees. It preys on rabbits, mice, squirrels, young salamanders, and large insects. 

Most of the time, Swainson’s hawks are in grasslands and other open areas. Your best chance of seeing them in Tennessee is in the summer. 

Swainson’s hawks are susceptible to attack from predators, including golden eagle, coyote, and bobcat. They can also suffer from egg loss due to predation from great-horned owls, especially with those they share a nest with. 

9. Northern Harrier 

Northern Harrier
  • Scientific Name: Circus hudsonius 
  • Weight: 11 to 27 ounces 
  • Length: 21 to 25 inches 
  • Wingspan: 41 to 46 inches 

As the name suggests, northern harriers are native to Canada and the eastern United States. Nonetheless, they arrive in Tennessee in the winter. 

When you see northern harriers for the first time, you might think of them as owls because they have a similar facial appearance. They have a permanent frown because of their protruding brow bone. 

If you want to see a northern harrier in its natural habitat, make sure to visit open areas, including those with low shrubs and tall vegetation. 

Bonus: Osprey 


Also known as the sea hawk, river hawk, or fish hawk, they look like hawks, but they are from a different family than the birds on this list. In Tennessee, they are common in coastal areas. 

BirdingHub Talk: This journey with hawks is probably one of your coolest (since you're doing this in the comfort of your soft swivel chair)! Continue with your itinerary here -- Hawks Of New Jersey.

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Frequently Asked Questions 

What hawks are in Tennessee? 

Tennessee is home to at least nine hawks, including the following: red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, red-shouldered hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, rough-legged hawk, cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk, Swainson’s hawk, and northern harrier. 

What is the most common hawk in Tennessee? 

The most common hawk in Tennessee is the red-tailed hawk. You can find it perching on the top of trees along roadsides. They are also present even in wooded residential areas. These hawks are year-round residents in Tennessee.  


Whether they are hunting for prey on the ground or soaring high in the sky, seeing a hawk is a visual treat. These raptors are present throughout the year in Tennessee, although some species of the hawk are migratory. 

Are there other hawks in Tennessee that you would like to add to this list? Leave a comment below and let us know of any bird of prey we missed. 

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