Hawks In Nebraska: Can You Spot All 10 Species?

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In the middle of our busy lives, sometimes we forget there are so many beautiful things around us if we’ll only remember to look up. For example, Nebraska has 465 species of birds; imagine how many of those you could have seen if only you looked up!

You can always visit the birding sights of Nebraska. You’ll not only be amazed by the birds’ vibrant colors and soothing chirping, but the scenery itself will take your breath away, too. One particular species of birds you’re sure to enjoy observing in nature are hawks, and luckily, 10 species of hawks can be found in the Cornhusker State.

Hawks are a symbol of wisdom, observation, and a deeper perspective. Since that’s a huge part of birdwatching, they just might arouse the birdwatcher in you!

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni

  • Length: 18-22 inches

  • Weight: 1.8-2.5 pounds

  • Wingspan: 47-57 inches

Members of the Swainson’s hawk species can best be identified by their spectacularly long white wings that start grading in gray until they end in black at their outline. Although these birds’ necks are white, there’s a small brown circle around it that gives way to a white speckled belly with a few flecks of brown.

You’re more likely to spot the Swainson’s hawk during fall when these migratory birds head to South America for warmer weather. Nonetheless, you could still catch it during its residence in the summer in the open country.

When it’s time to eat, a bird of this species will set out in pursuit of small mammals and reptiles, especially during the summer months, and large insects at other times of the year.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis

  • Length: 18-25 inches

  • Weight: 2-4 pounds

  • Wingspan: 45-52 inches

The red-tailed hawk is the most commonly spotted species of hawks found in North America, and you can easily identify it by its namesake cinnamon-red tail. Its head and the thin upper line of its wings are reddish-brown, while the rest of its belly and wings are light with black bars. The red-tailed bird’s wingtips, however, are black.

Much like Swainson’s hawks, the red-tailed species doesn’t have to be sought out. You’ll find this bird easily, perched somewhere in the open country, scouting out small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Sometimes, they’ll also eat bats, frogs, toads, and insects.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii

  • Length: 14.6-17.7 inches

  • Weight: 1.16 pounds

  • Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 inches

Birds of the Cooper’s hawk species are most known for their distinct red eyes. These woodland birds are about the size of a crow and have ash-gray upperparts. If you see the bird soaring above your head, you’ll see its brown neck and brown-barred body. Their wings vary in color, ranging from light to dark brown as you get closer to the tips.

These accipiters are bird-eaters, which is why you’ll often find them chasing after songbirds in the deep forest or at your backyard bird feeders. If you want to protect the dainty birds that often visit your yard from the predatory hawk, take your feeder down for a few weeks or until Cooper’s bird is gone.

It’s most common to find this species eating small to medium-sized birds, but they eat chipmunks, squirrels, and bats, too.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter striatus

  • Length:10-14 inches

  • Weight: 0.5 pounds

  • Wingspan: 20-28 inches

The sharp-shinned hawk species is nearly identical to Cooper’s hawk, however, the sharp-shinned birds have a more normal-sized head compared to the bigger, more awkward-looking Cooper’s hawk head. Cooper’s species also has a bigger body than the sharp-shinned hawk, and sharpies have legs that are thinner and taller than the larger bird.

Sharp-shinned hawks are typically found in forests, usually with mixed or coniferous trees, and they typically avoid open country spaces. Find the sharpies hunting for small birds and mammals along forest edges.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis

  • Length: 18-27 inches

  • Weight: 1.1-4.85 pounds

  • Wingspan: 37-50 inches

This species has a quite strange name — goshawk — and it comes from the Old English word for “goose hawk.” The name is a reference to these grayish birds’ affinity for hunting birds. Our feathered friends aren’t the only things on the menu for the northern goshawk, though; they’ll also feed on squirrels, rodents, snakes, and insects.

While its body is white with heavy gray strokes that somewhat resemble an old beard, the northern goshawk’s head is black, and it sports white feathers on its face that look a bit like an eyebrow. It has dark barred primaries and white fluffy secondaries, and it exists mainly in forests — coniferous ones, to be exact.

These birds settle in the largest trees they can find, which is no surprise, considering they’re pretty large themselves.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lineatus

  • Length: 17-24 inches

  • Weight: 1-1.7 pounds

  • Wingspan: 37-43.7 inches

As clearly indicated from its name, hawks of this species have reddish-brown shoulders and bodies. Their tails and the rest of their wings are white, disrupted only by black horizontal bands.

The red-shouldered hawk is considerably large, falling somewhere between a crow and a goose, and they live in water areas in forests; seek them near a swamp or a river. If you find one of these birds’ nests, know you’ll be seeing a lot of them since they return to them year after year.

Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-Legged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lagopus

  • Length: 18.5-20.5 inches

  • Weight: 2 pounds

  • Wingspan: 52-54 inches

Birds of the rough-legged hawk species are known for their Cleopatra-lined eyes, but that’s not this bird’s only claim to fame; their legs are also covered in feathers that run all the way to their feet. Those leg feathers give the bird its name and keep it warm during cold weather conditions.

These large accipiters are snow-colored with brown freckles and patches all over their chest and wings. The ends of their white and black-tipped wings and tails fan out. You can easily spot them in western and central Nebraska in open grassland areas, likely looking for medium-sized birds to eat.

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo regalis

  • Length: 20-26 inches

  • Weight: 3.3 pounds

  • Wingspan: 53-60 inches 

The ferruginous hawk is the whitest of hawk species in Nebraska, with a pure white chest and tail. Its legs and parts of its wings, however, are barred with light brown for a nice contrast. Its broad wings have feathery gray tips that take on a darker demeanor at their very end.

They are bred in the panhandles and sandhills of western and northwestern Nebraska where they can be found year-round and like to flutter about in grasslands, prairies, and woodland edges.

While their diet mostly includes small to medium-sized mammals, the ferruginous hawk species will eat almost anything that’s available, from squirrels to large insects.

Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk 

  • Scientific name: Buteo platypterus

  • Length: 13.4-17.3 inches

  • Weight: 1 pound

  • Wingspan: 32-39.4 inches

You can recognize the broad-winged hawk species by its small size and namesake broad wings. Its chest is barred with chestnut and honey-colored feathers while its thickly-feathered tail and the borders of the wings are barred with dark brown.

If you’re trying to spot the broad-winged bird, head to the forest and look closely underneath the canopies. You’ll no doubt find it there, prowling for its next victim.

This species is migratory, and almost all of them head out of North America during the fall to spend the winter in the warmer temperatures. While migrating, you can see the broad-winged bird flocking over the mountains and the waterside.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

  • Scientific name: Circus cyaneus

  • Length: 18-19.7 inches

  • Weight: 0.6-1.6 pounds

  • Wingspan: 40-46.5 inches

It’s not hard to mistake this hawk species for an owl, but take a closer look and you’ll find it’s a completely different bird. The northern harrier’s face looks a lot like that of an owl, and its nature is similar in many ways as well.

This hawk’s back is graded in shades of gray and black. Its front, on the other hand, resembles that of a ferruginous hawk, only without the freckles.

Typically, the key to a successful birdwatching expedition is remembering to look up, but when it comes to finding this species, you’ll need to look down. Northern harriers nest on the ground and live in marshes and use their keen senses of hearing to catch their prey.

Wrap Up

Hawks are predatory birds, known for using their speed and fierce eyesight to capture their victims. Their ability to catch not only ground prey but also airborne prey is mystifying. This is part of what makes watching them truly entertaining.

Hawks’ feathers might not be as colorful as woodpeckers, but their graded, speckled, and barred colors make them no less spectacular. You can find them nesting in the ground, trees, deserts, near waterways, and in deciduous and coniferous forests. They can be anywhere, so don’t miss out!

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