Hawks are quite impressive predators. Everything from their keen hearing and eye sight to their sharp beak and talons comes together to make them expert birds of prey. Throughout history humans, using training and falconry, have benefitted from hawks hunting prowess. There are approximately 16 species of hawks living across the United States. But in this article, we’re going to discuss the 8 species of hawks in West Virginia.
Hawks in West Virginia
The 8 species of hawks that can be found in West Virginia are the broad-winged hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, rough-legged hawk, and sharp-shinned hawk.
Let’s take a look at each one.
1. Broad-winged hawk
Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
Length: 13.4-17.3 in
Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz
Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in
Broad-winged hawks are migratory, and only travel north into West Virginia during the spring-summer breeding season. These smaller hawks have a brown head and chest, barred underparts and black and white bands on their tail. In flight you can note their short tail and broad wings with pointed tips.
These hawks like to be in a secluded area during breeding season. They will nest in forests and along bodies of water far from humans. Their diet is a variety of small mammals, insects, and amphibians such as frogs and toads.
If you are hoping to see the broad-winged hawk, your best bet is during fall migration on their way back South America. Flocks called “kettles”, that can contain thousands of birds, circle in the sky. If you are not in their migration line, you can catch sight of them in forests. Just listen for their piercing whistles.
2. Cooper’s Hawk
Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
Length: 14.6 – 17.7 in
Weight: 7.8 – 24.0 oz
Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in
Cooper’s hawks can be found across most of North America, including West Virginia where they are year-round residents. Adults have a bluish-gray back, heavy orange barring on the chest, a red eye, and squared-off head with black cap. Immature birds have a yellow eye, brown back and head, and white underparts with heavy brown streaks.
Their habitat is forests and woodlands, but they also seem fairly at home in the suburbs. Their main food source is small birds, which they deftly hunt in the tree canopy. Many people encounter the Cooper’s hawk in their backyard, where they have been known to go after birds at a bird feeder, especially starlings, doves and pigeons.
Crashing through trees and foliage on a high speed chase after birds does take its toll, and studies of Cooper’s hawk skeletons reveal that many of them had at one point broken bones in their chest.
3. Northern Goshawk
Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
Length: 20.9-25.2 in
Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
Goshawks have a gray back, gray barring on the chest that extends all the way down the belly, and a thick what stripe over each eye. They are considered larger and fiercer relatives of the sharp-shinned and cooper’s hawk. But unlike those hawks that are common in backyards, goshawks are quite secretive and tend to remain in the forest, avoiding human populated areas.
Northern goshawks are pretty scarce in West Virginia, but a population of them can be found year-round along the eastern border. You likely won’t have an easy time finding one, since they prefer to nest in old-growth forest with dense canopy.
They have been known to attack humans who get too close to their nests. So when searching for these raptors during the breeding season, be careful.
The northern goshawk has a varied diet of smaller hawks, birds, mammals, reptiles and even insects and carrion. They are considered uncommon, and their population is hard to estimate due to their secretive nature.
4. Northern Harrier
Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
Length: 18.1-19.7 in
Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz
Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in
The northern harrier has an elegant, almost owl-like face. This disc-shaped face functions similarly to an owls, directing sound into their ears to help them hunt by sound as well as sight. Two helpful identifying features are their long tail, and white patch above the tail. They have a signature flying style, holding their wings in the shape of a “V”. Majestic is an excellent word to describe these birds.
You can find this hawk in West Virginia mainly in the winter. They are most often found in the northeast corner and around the states border. You’re likely to see them over marshes, fields, and other wide-open areas.
Unlike many hawks that nest in trees, this hawk builds a platform on the ground in dense vegetation like reeds, willows, sedges and cattails. Males can have two (sometimes more) mates at once, and they will provide food for the female and offspring.
5. Red-tailed Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
Length: 17.7 – 25.6 in
Weight: 24.3oz – 51.5 oz
Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in
Red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk found on the North American continent, living year-round in almost every state, including West Virginia. Their population increases even more during the winter, when birds that have spent their summer in Canada come down to join the others in the U.S.
Red-tailed hawks are most active during the day or early morning and are commonly seen soaring looking for prey with their amazing vision or perched along the roadside on telephone poles. Their diet is mainly small to medium sized mammals like mice, rats, rabbits and squirrels. They may also eat birds and snakes.
Adults have a brick-red tail that is easy to identify, however while still juveniles their tail is brown and white striped. In general these hawks are pale below and dark brown above. They have brown streaking on their breast, often with a band of darker brown streaks going across their belly area that can be another good identifying factor. Because these hawks are so widespread, there are many color variations across the country.
The red-tailed hawk gives out a long screech that has become a representation for all raptors. In movies and TV, their screech is almost always used as the sound for any hawk or eagle shown on screen.
6. Rough-legged Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
Length: 18.5-20.5 in
Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in
Rough-legged hawks can be seen in West Virginia during the fall and winter months, but are less common than most other species. Look for them in the northeast corner, or in the west along the Kanawha River. When it’s time to move to their breeding grounds, they travel all the way to the northern Arctic! There, they will nest on cliffs and rocky outcroppings.
In the winter, you’ll find them in the states in wide-open spaces, perching on poles and fence posts. Here they hunt for mice, voles and shrews. Rough-legged hawks are known to turn into the wind and flap their wings to achieve a hover-in-place vantage point they can use to scan the ground below them for their prey.
Rough-legged hawks get their names from the feathers on their legs. Very few American raptors have feathers that run all the way down their legs. Most have heavily mottled dark brown and white, sometimes with a thick black belly patch. In flight, you’ll see a dark patch as the “wrist” against a pale background. There is also a dark-morph that appears almost black, and looks two-toned from below.
7. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
Length: 9.4-13.4 in
Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz
Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in
Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest hawk in the United States, and they remain in West Virginia year-round. These hawks prey on small birds and rodents they chase through the forest.
While nesting, they are hard to find as they stick to forests with dense canopies. They do sometimes visit backyards to hunt birds at feeders. The best time to spot them though is during fall migration. They travel south into the U.S. from their summer range in Canada, and are seen in large numbers at hawk watch sites.
Sharp-shinned hawks have a blue-gray back with reddish-orange barring on their cream colored chests and dark banding on their tails. They look very similar to the cooper’s hawk, but with a more rounded head and squared-off tail.
Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
Length: 16.9-24.0 in
Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
Red-shouldered hawks are common in their range, which is the eastern U.S. and the western coast of California. In West Virginia, they remain year-round.
A good identifying feature is the heavy red coloring on the breast that extends all the way down their belly with red barring. They have dark, nearly black feathers down their back and wings. At the top of their back and “shoulders” this will be mixed with reddish feathers (hence their name). From the mid-back down there will be a lot of white barring mixed in with the dark feathers, ending in a strongly banded tail.
You may hear this hawk before you spot it. They give a loud “kee-aah” call that is usually repeated several times in a row. Some people think it sounds a bit like a seagull. They will loudly call to mark territory or when alarmed.
These hawks live and hunt in the forest, and especially like flooded areas and wetlands. They can also be found in suburban areas where woods are mixed in with buildings. Sometimes mistaken for red-tailed hawks, once you know the differences to look for they aren’t so hard to tell apart.