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Spotlight on Hawks

Two types of hawks live in the Pacific Northwest. There are the “true hawks,” like the red-tailed hawk, which are built with broad wings for soaring on thermals. Then there are the smaller Accipiters, like the sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk, which dart and zip through the trees at high speeds.
Most of us only get to see hawks as they soar over our heads or possibly take a break on a post or wire. Unlike the smaller birds that visit our bird feeders, hawks are shy of people. They’re also very tricky to identify. Hawk-watchers have to pay attention to such minute details as tail shape, wing position, and behavior. Below you’ll find a list of the most common hawks in our area and a few notes about their appearance and habits.

red-tailed hawkRed-tailed Hawk
This is the most common hawk in North America. This large hawk can be 18 – 26 inches tall and draws its name from its red (or rusty) tail. Young birds have tails that aren’t fully red (they turn completely red at about 2 years of age) and yellow irises that turn dark brown by the time they reach maturity at 3 – 4 years. Red-tailed hawks usually mate at about age 3, and pairs stay together until one mate dies. They typically nest in the crowns of tall trees or on high window ledges. Their prey includes mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, birds, reptiles, and sometimes fish.

Pictured at left: a
A red-tailed hawk that was a Shelter paitent and has been released. This year, our raptor patients have been able to strengthen their wings in the C. Keith Birkenfeld Flight Cage before returning to the wild.


Read about Yukon, our red-tailed hawk educational ambassador. Yukon gives educational presentations to classrooms, kids groups, and groups of adults at special events.

sharp shinned hawkSharp-shinned Hawk
These small hawks are widespread throughout North America. Their “sharp–shinned” legs are yellow and they’re usually between 9.5 and 12 inches tall. Sharp-shinned hawks prefer to live in forests where they dart between the trees, capturing their prey in dense vegetation. These hawks like to eat small birds, especially songbirds like sparrows and robins. They build well-hidden nests in the forest, so they can keep their young safe from predators like Cooper’s hawks and Northern Goshawks.

Cooper’s Hawk
This medium-sized hawk is native to North America. As with most hawk species, the female is larger than the male. These hawks, which are rare in the Northwest, hunt by bursting out of the trees to pounce on their prey, relying primarily on the element of surprise. Because they like to eat mid-sized birds like robins and jays, they can sometimes be seen hanging around bird feeders. Cooper’s hawks mate for live.

Some other types of hawks will sometimes visit this area during certain times of year. The Northern Goshawk and Rough-legged hawk are both winter visitors to this area. If you visit Eastern Washington, you might spot a Ferruginous hawk, Red-shouldered hawk, or Swainson’s hawk.

red-tailed hawk



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