Hawks Of Virginia: List of Worth-Seeing Bird Species & How To Locate Their Favorite Spot

Last Updated: May 14, 2021

There are eight species of hawks in Virginia.

The most popular and one of the largest hawks in North America happens to be a native to Virginia.

And...

Many of the migratory hawks can be seen in kettles leaving the state at Hawk Watch sites. The Grey Ghost is one of the most fascinating winter hawks in Virginia.

P.S. The call of that famous Virginia hawk sounds one of a kind. You might have overheard it in your neighborhood or in the movies.

You'll know soon enough.

The 8 Types of Hawks in Virginia

1. Red-Tailed Hawk (The Famous One)

  • Reddish brown and white hawkLength: 17.7 to 25.6 inches 
  • Wingspan: 44.4 to 52.4 inches
  • Weight: 690 to 1300 grams

Red-tailed hawks are the more recognizable raptors, not just hawks in Virginia. They can be seen on the interstate highways or perched on fence posts by the roadside.

These hawks are the largest of the Buteo subdivision in Virginia - a family of stocky raptors with broad wings who frequently soar - including Rough-legged, Board-Winged, and red-shouldered hawks.

Perhaps that's why they can occupy any territory with a natural ecosystem like marshes, forest edges, rivers, and mountain ranges.

Anywhere they can get the daily R's (rodents, reptiles, and rabbits) of every hawk and a tree to call home.

What's more fascinating about the red-tailed hawk is the sound of its call.

The piercing cry really is one of a kind. A red-tailed hawk call is often for "badass bird or dangerous wild west" sound effects in movies.

Red-tail hawks stay year-round in Virginia.


2. Rough-Legged Hawk (The Hare's Foot)

  • 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 have a botanical name of Buteo Lagopus, which literally means hare's foot. It's attributed to the extension of feathers down their feet.

Well, it makes sense with the furry legs because they live in parts of Canada and the Arctic region. But these hawks come down to Northern Virginia for warmth during the cold winters.

Their range in Virginia is at a stretch of their winter journeys, so they aren't plentiful here.

Rough-legged hawks have been spotted more frequently in Northern Virginia and areas around the eastern shore. A prominent location is the Kiptopeke State Park in Northampton County near Cape Charles.

Most rough-legged hawks are tundra-nesting bird species, unlike most of their mates in Virginia. So they are more likely to be found in open spaces like agricultural fields.

Their "kiii!" reverberates in open fields, so you surely know when they are around.


3. Northern Goshawks (The Great Gray-and-White)

  • 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 large forest-dwelling hawks with distinctive plumage. Adults have a slate-gray back with heavily stricken bars over their breasts.

Also, they are the largest accipiters in the whole of North America. These stocky hawk species love to ambush their prey in a hot chase for dinner.

It's uncommon to see one in the suburbs. They are forest-dwelling hawks. The northern goshawks take residence in deciduous woodlands with trees like beech and oak as preferences.

But...

Be careful!

Northern goshawks protect their nests against humans with a ferocity unseen among hawks.

A northern goshawks "ki-ki-ki" call is hard to miss in the woods. Listen to this one calling to pick up his sound: 


4. Sharp-Shinned Hawk (The Small and Mighty)

  • brownish white colored hawkLength: 9.4 to 13.4 inches
  • Wingspan: 16.9 to 22.1 inches
  • Weight: 87 to 218 grams

Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest accipiter Virginia hawks. But they make up for what they lack in size with ferocity and determination while hunting.

It's no wonder sharp-shinned hawks would thrive anywhere with a dense forest, even if it's inside the cities of Virginia.

These hawks terrorize bird feeders, going up against larger songbirds, all for survival.

Don't bother chasing them because they'll be back. Takedown the feeder for a couple of weeks till it leaves - it's probably only one.

Actually, you may mistake a cooper's hawk for a sharp-shinned. Both are identical, but cooper's are almost twice their size.

A sharp-shinned also has a different call. It has a solemn "kik-kik-kik" call compared to the raspy cooper's.

Sharp-shinned hawks are mostly seen when migrating in hundreds across coastlines and lakeshores in Virginia. Or a typical hawk watch site.


5. Cooper's Hawk (The Songbird Hunter)

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

In Virginia, cooper's hawks are seen in thick forests like most accipiters and many backyard feeders. For some reason, they no longer shy away from populated human residences.

Cooper's hawks are the large doppelgangers of sharp-shinned hawks. Their rusty barred breasts and slate gray behind are almost indistinguishable. Except for Cooper's blood-shot red eyes.

The resemblance of cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks can be confusing even for trained eyes.

I've regretted not having binoculars on me when I once saw what looked like cooper's on a telephone mast. It could easily have been a female sharp-shinned.

Another way to be sure is that they call differently. Cooper's hawks have a different "cak-cak-cak" call that sounds quite like an alarmed hen with chicks.

Accipiters like cooper's and sharp-shinned have a sweet tooth for songbirds. Not the daily R's diet of rodents, rabbits, and reptiles like other hawks.


6. Broad-Winged Hawks (The Migratory One)

  • hawk flying in the skyLength: 13.4 to 17.3 inches
  • Wingspan: 31.9 to 39.4 inches
  • Weight: 265 to 560 grams

Broad-winged hawks are the smallest Buteos and live in the forests of Virginia. They can also be found in the mountain ranges.

While the broad-winged hawks are native to Virginia, they begin migration in fall to spend winter in South and Central America. Then, they return in spring when the vegetation booms.

It takes a migrating Broad Winged Hawk about 40 days to get to its destination. These raptors travel in hundreds (some, thousands) of kettles, soaring only with the aid of hot air in the sky.

Also, many individual raptors join the group to locate this rising hot air.

Broad-winged hawks have a distinct tri-banded (black-white-black) tail when they are in flight. This would help in their identification better while they’re on their migratory journey.

Otherwise, they mostly perched on trees close to forest undergrowths.

Moreso, Bbroad-winged hawks have a screaming call that's similar to the sound of a dog whistle. They give a high-pitched "kee-eeee," with the second note stressed.


7. Red-Shouldered Hawk (The Secretive One)

  • red shouldered hawk on a fenceLength: 16.9 to 24 inches
  • Wingspan: 37.0 to 43.7 inches
  • Weight: 486 to 774 grams

Red-shouldered hawks are native to Virginia, spending most of their days in wet woodlands with deciduous trees.

These birds of prey have black and white-colored wings and a barred reddish body, which gives them their red shoulder.

Some birders find them identical to red-tailed hawks, but they are easy to tell apart. Unlike the red-tailed, adult red-shouldered hawks have banded tails and reddish-brown arms in flight.

Also, red-shouldered hawks are more secretive. They are primarily found in the swamps, wet woodlands, and densely forested areas.

The closest you'd find them cohabiting with humans is on farmlands and in the suburbs.

For unknown reasons, red-shouldered hawks ward off American crows with a passion. The crows return the favor like Batman and the Joker.

More often, they'd chase after an American crow or great horned owl in a scenic battle for food or territory.

But a more effective way to find red-shouldered hawks is to listen for their whistling "kee-aah." They sound like gulls but with the authority of red-tailed hawks.


8. Northern Harrier (The Owl Hawk)

  • Brown hawk with open wings flyingLength: 18.1 to 19.7 inches
  • Wingspan: 40.2 to 46.5 inches
  • Weight: 300 to 750 grams

The northern harrier is the only subspecies in North America. They are winter visitors to the Mother of States.

Most northern harriers breed in the Arctic Tundra - an open-country habitat north of the arctic circle. Habitually, they occupy grasslands and marshes in Virginia, a similar environment to their arctic home.

Wonder why I call them the Owl Hawk?

Northern Harriers, like owls, have facial disks (circular arrangement of feathers on the hawk's face) to heighten hearing.

To maximize this, they glide low over marshes, like many owls, mainly relying on their hearing to pinpoint prey, which is unlike other hawks. 

The northern harrier can be easily recognized by sight with its hybrid hawk/owl look. A white patch on their rump also stands out.

Aside from that, adult northern harriers have a distinctive pail gray look that has earned them the name: "Gray Ghosts."

What could also be telling about northern harrier hawks in Virginia is their call. It's different from the fearsome note of most hawks. A single high-pitched "kek" note is repeated in rapid succession of about 2 seconds. It sounds similar to being at sea.


Frequently Asked Questions About Hawks in VA

What Hawks Live In Virginia?

Eight (8) different species of hawks live in Virginia, as I’ve mentioned above. To reiterate:

  1. Red-Tailed Hawk
  2. Rough-Legged Hawk
  3. Northern Goshawk
  4. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
  5. Cooper's Hawk
  6. Northern Harrier
  7. Broad-Winged Hawk
  8. Red-Shouldered Hawk

Can You Kill A Hawk In Virginia?

Hawks are protected by federal and Virginia state laws. It would be an offense to kill one even if it were damaging your property.

If hawks become a menace, you can only obtain a permit from Wildlife Services to do them any harm. 

Wrapping Up 

Every day is an opportunity to spot the hawks of Virginia.

Are you prepared? Do you know how every Virginia hawk sounds or looks like now? Also, do you recognize the one-of-a-kind call of the red-tailed hawk?

If not, I believe you would hear and see one soo. Now that you have it in your subconscious. You may have to leave your comfort zone to spot elusive forest-dwelling hawks like the northern goshawk. 

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