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Hawks Of New Jersey: 8 Garden State Species

Written by Garrett Hayes

Last updated on Apr 11th, 2024
Hawk Up Close

With their sharp talons and strong beaks for catching prey, hawks are powerful raptors. Even if they are fierce, they are quiet and gentle. Being such, they make great targets if you want to go birdwatching in New Jersey. They can even be backyard visitors! 

With 50 state parks and four national parks, there are many places where you can see hawks in New Jersey. For beginners, however, hawk identification can be a struggle. From their color to wingspan, they are different in many ways. If you need help differentiating one from the other, then read on! 

Identifying The Most Common Hawks in New Jersey 

1. Sharp-Shinned Hawk 

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Accipiter striatus 
  • Length: 9.1 to 15 inches  
  • Wingspan: 17 to 27 inches 

For easy identification of a sharp-shinned hawk, the first thing to look at is the orange bars on the upper chest, which turns paler upon reaching the belly. Meanwhile, their wings and back are blue-gray. 

The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest hawk that you will find in the state. It is smaller than a crow but slightly larger than a blue jay. 

The most common places to see sharp-shinned hawks in Jersey are in forests. They will also be present around bird feeders where they will hunt and prey. 

Most of the time, it will be sitting patiently, and upon seeing a prey, will dash at a high speed. 

Birds make up most of the diet of a sharp-shinned hawk, from the size of a sparrow to a robin. Occasionally, they also eat snakes, frogs, lizards, and large insects. 

You can also see them in feeders catching mourning doves, blue jays, and feral pigeons. 

While you can find a sharp-shinned hawk almost throughout the state, your best chance of spotting them would be at the state’s eastern border. 

2. Cooper’s Hawk 

Cooper’s Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii 
  • Length: 14 to 20 inches  
  • Wingspan: 24 to 39 inches 

You can see Cooper's hawks throughout the year in New Jersey. The best places to spot them would be at the edges of dense forests, although they can also visit backyards. 

It is easy to confuse a Cooper’s hawk with a sharp-shinned hawk because they are almost identical in terms of physical appearance. They both have a red-orange breast and blue-gray back. The biggest difference is the size, with Cooper’s hawk being larger. 

A Cooper’s hawk is fast and powerful, especially when it is hunting prey. It has a flap-flap-glide pattern, which is common in an accipiter. 

It is usual to find a Cooper’s hawk in your backyard doing the circle of life. It can be traumatizing for some people to see this raptor kill and leave other birds, including mourning doves and starlings. 

Aside from birds, a Cooper’s hawk can also eat small mammals, including ground squirrels and chipmunks. 

3. Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad-Winged Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Buteo platypterus 
  • Length: 13 to 17 inches  
  • Wingspan: 29 to 39 inches 

The broad-winged hawk is a part of the Buteo group of birds of prey, which are known for having broad wings that they use when soaring and chasing prey. 

One of the first things that you will notice in a broad-winged hawk is its stocky body, which is similar to a crow and goose. 

As for the colors, a broad-winged hawk has a reddish-brown head and pale belly. The breasts are barred, and the short square tails are narrowly banded. It also has brown wings. 

These large hawks can be hard to spot in New Jersey because they prefer living in deep forests. Your best chance of seeing broad-winged hawks is in the fall, which is the time when they migrate in massive flocks. 

Broad-winged hawks live in New Jersey and North America only in the summer. In the winter, they will fly to South America and Central America. 

4. Red-Tailed Hawk 

Red-Tailed Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis 
  • Length: 18 to 26 inches  
  • Wingspan: 41 to 56 inches 

The most common hawk you will find in New Jersey, the red-tailed hawk is a year-round resident. They have a wide distribution throughout the state, but most of their sightings were recorded on the western border where you will find them on cliff ledges and very tall trees. 

Red-tailed hawks are often easy to spot. Most of the time, you do not need to look far. On a long drive, they will appear on open fields slowly circling as they search for prey. They also frequently perch on the top of telephone poles. 

One of the defining physical characteristics of a red-tailed hawk is its wide and short red tail. Plus, it has large, broad, and rounded wings. Their upper body is brown and pale underneath. 

A red-tailed hawk has eyes that change colors as it grows older. It starts pale yellow and will grow darker through the years.  

The raspy screech of red-tailed hawks makes them easily recognizable. This is the same sound used in the movies to depict raptors. 

5. Northern Goshawk 

Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific Name: Accipiter gentilis 
  • Length: 18 to 27 inches  
  • Wingspan: 35 to 50 inches 

A Northern goshawk has gray, broad, and short wings. The breast and belly, on the other hand, are paler. It also has a dark-colored head and deep red eyes, making it unmistakable. 

Northern goshawks are opportunistic. It has a carnivorous diet. This hawk will hunt birds, ground squirrels, wood pigeons, and rabbits. 

Most northern goshawks live in coniferous and mixed forests. This is where they stay on high perches to catch and eat medium-sized birds. 

They are also known for being very territorial birds. Northern goshawks will aggressively guard and defend their nesting areas. 

While these are secretive birds, they will turn hostile once a threat confronts them. 

With their declining population, the northern goshawk is a part of the birds of special concern in the state. They are not as rampant as other hawks. 

The best time to see a northern goshawk in New Jersey is in the winter. Nonetheless, manage your expectations as these are rare hawk species in the state. 

6. Rough-Legged Hawk 

Rough-Legged Hawk 

  • Scientific Name: Buteo lagopus 
  • Length: 18 to 24 inches  
  • Wingspan: 47 to 60 inches 

A rough-legged hawk has a dark-brown body. They are available in both light and dark morphs. Meanwhile, its wings are broad and long. 

The name of the rough-legged hawk is a reference to the feather in its legs. These will keep them warm when they are in the Arctic tundra. 

Bring out the bird enthusiast in you and see rough-legged hawks on open fields and marshes in the state. Although, their sightings are very rare since they are in NJ only in the winter, which is outside their breeding season. 

A rough-legged hawk will eat mostly small rodents, especially lemmings. The number of available lemmings in an area will greatly influence the number of rough-legged hawks present. It can also eat other small mammals.

Males are known for being acrobatic, especially during the mating season. It will circle and soar to attract a mate. Before forming a pair, however, it will be alone during the migration before settling with a mate. 

7. Red-Shouldered Hawk 

Red-Shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Buteo lineatus 
  • Length: 15 to 24 inches 
  • Wingspan: 35 to 50 inches

As the name implies, the red-shouldered hawk has a reddish barring on its shoulders, which extends to its chest. Also, the hawk has dark and white checkered wings and strongly banded tail feathers. 

Red-shouldered hawks can be spotted in New Jersey year-round. They are permanent residents and most abundant in the state’s eastern half. 

Most red-tailed hawks are forest dwellers. These medium-sized hawks like staying in an open upper canopy, which allows it bigger space for more efficient hunting. 

A red-shouldered hawk is very territorial. It is known for attacking great horned owls. They are aggressive when other birds are around. They are also hostile to humans who come near their nests.  

The diet of a red-shouldered hawk will be mostly small mammals. If available, it can also eat amphibians and reptiles. 

8. Northern Harrier 

Northern Harrier

  • Scientific Name: Circus hudsonius 
  • Length: 21 to 25 inches  
  • Wingspan: 41 to 46 inches 

While it has a slender body, the northern harrier has broad wings. It has a white stripe in the eyebrow, which is what separates the upper and lower parts of its yellow face. 

Its body is almost the same size as a Coopers hawk, but the main difference is that the northern harrier has a shorter tail and longer wings. The color is gray in most parts with brown wings and a white-barred tail. 

The northern harrier is a bird of prey you can spot in New Jersey year-round. When planning a bird-watching trip to see these raptors, check out marshes and grasslands. You can find these hawks gliding low in such areas. 

As for its diet, northern harriers will eat small birds and mammals. They will also eat large insects, especially grasshoppers. 

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Frequently Asked Questions 

What types of hawks live in NJ? 

From year-round residents to migratory species, you will find many types of hawks in New Jersey, including sharp-shinned hawks, cooper’s hawks, broad-winged hawks, red-tailed hawks, northern goshawks, rough-legged hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and northern harriers. 

Where can I see hawks in New Jersey? 

You have plenty of options for the best birding spots in New Jersey. If you are interested in seeing hawks in their natural habitats, either soaring gracefully in the sky or resting in a tree, then some of the best places to check out are Cape May, Chimney Rock, Racoon Ridge, Kittatinny Mountain, Scott’s Mountain, and State Line Hawk Watch. 

What hawk in New Jersey is the easiest to train? 

Amongst the hawks in the state, the easiest to train is the red-tailed hawk. They have a good temperament and are gentler than other species. Before you can train one, however, you will need a falconry license. 


Do not be confused when you see NJ hawks next time! We hope that this guide has enlightened you on the different characteristics of these birds of prey. From their physical appearance to feeding habits, they differ in more ways than one. 

Have you spotted any other hawk in NJ that we forgot to include on this list? Leave a comment below! 

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