Hawks are a subcategory of birds of prey, characterized by broad, rounded wings and a long tail to increase agility and speed when hunting for birds, small mammals, amphibians, and insects. Their preferred method of taking prey is from above and by surprise, so they can often be seen taking part in short chases. There are 10 species of hawks in Nebraska that range across the state that take advantage of its location for migratory purposes, abundant prey, and a wide range of habitats for them to flourish in.
Hawks in Nebraska
The 10 species of hawks in Nebraska are the Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and the Ferruginous Hawk.
Let’s look at each of these species a little bit closer, shall we?
1. 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 is a common spring and fall migrant within Nebraska. It’s also a rare breeder within the Central and Western parts of the state, as indicated by sightings in May. They typically migrate in March, and this event is usually over by late April.
They’ll nest anywhere in the state where wet meadows occur, with most reports during the breeding season coming from the Panhandle and Sandhill regions. This particular species prefers to migrate alone and during the daytime, hunting along the way and relying on hearing as much as vision when searching for prey.
2. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
Length: 9.4-13.4 in
Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz
The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is a regular spring and fall statewide migrant, but has been observed as a casual breeder up north as well. This breeding primarily occurs within the Pine Ridge region. Migratory birds have become most noticeable in early September, and are found throughout the entire state during winter.
Many have been spotted frequenting urban neighborhoods while preying on passerines that are attracted to bird feeders. They will also filter into areas where larger raptors have left behind their nests for the Sharp-Shinned Hawk to then move into.
3. 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
The Coopers Hawk is a fairly common bird in Nebraska, and is a fairly consistent breeder statewide. They summer in the woodlands close to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, but have been slowly encroaching on human environments, especially near Omaha and Lincoln. They prefer to live in woodland areas and riparian zones, so are most commonly spotted near streams and rivers.
Spring is their primary breeding season, where they’re more active during the day when the males go out hunting and are responsible for bringing food back to their mate and their fledglings. These young can fly at about one month of age, but they’ll be dependent on their parents until they’re about two months of age, leading to this species staying in the state until their young are capable of migrating alongside them.
4. Red-tailed Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
Length: 17.7-25.6 in
Weight: 24.3-51.5 oz
Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in
The Red-Tailed Hawk is a fairly common regular resident throughout Nebraska. They winter statewide, but are very unevenly distributed, with 5 times as many of them in the east than on the west. It’s considered uncommon to rare in the northwest and the western Sandhills, but it’s the most common hawk along the lower reaches of the North Platte River. They can also be spotted soaring alongside highways, as they’re uniquely adapted to hunting in these large open areas.
Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
Length: 20.9-25.2 in
Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
The Northern Goshawk is a relatively rare regular migrant, rare summer visitor, and rare winter visitor as well. The majority of those seen in the spring and fall are the juveniles, as the adults tend to overwinter in their summer territories for as long as food is available. Wintering birds are mostly restricted to northern and northwestern Nebraska and tend to stay within their own territory.
It prefers mature mountain forests and riparian zone habitats, and will often re-visit nests from previous years. This species is especially agile for a hawk, possessing a rudder-like tail that gives it superior agility and allows it to flourish in these more dense forests.
6. Red-shouldered Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
Length: 17-24 inches
Weight: 20.6 ounces
Wingspan: 35-50 inches
The Red-Shouldered Hawk is relatively rare throughout the state, but can be spotted year round. It’s believed there are year-round residents in the Missouri River Valley, which makes it difficult to tell if the bird you’re spotting is a resident or a migratory bird. It’s also believed that there are a few breeding populations along the Missouri River bluffs and southeaster Nebraska.
Their most consistent breeding activity is within Fontenelle Forest, where the species has nested regularly throughout the 20th century. Reports of Red-Shouldered Hawks wintering in southeast Nebraska have been increasing, and this corroborates the theory that these birds are actually year-round residents.
7. 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
The Broad-Winged hawk is a fairly common regular fall migrant in the eastern and central regions of Nebraska. Sightings of it have been increasing within the state, with it expanding its range northwestward in major river valleys, most recently breeding in North Platte, and with increased reports in the Panhandle in the winter and the fall. It’s assumed this species is a regular breeder at least in the lower Missouri River Valley of Nebraska.
8. Swainson’s Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
Length: 18.9-22.1 in
Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz
Wingspan: 48 in
Swainson’s Hawks are common spring migrants throughout the state of Nebraska, as well as locally abundant within the fall. The Spring migratory groups are much smaller than those in the fall, and they’ve primarily been observed around working farm ground.
Throughout the state, peak migration happens in October, and is marked by large flocks that number into the thousands, tending to be observed in central Nebraska. They have one of the longest migrations of any American raptor, and unlike most other migratory hawks, prefers to soar over open country.
9. 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
The Rough-Legged Hawk is fairly common throughout Nebraska during the Spring and Fall migrations, and has been known to winter statewide as well. Their spring migration is gradual, with some younger birds lingering in the state as late as May.
Their migration in the fall is dependent on the availability of prey, where if it’s a poor prey year they may leave their breeding range near Buffalo as early as August, but more depart in September. They will occasionally winter in open areas and on extensive grasslands, but their presence is somewhat irregular.
10. Ferruginous Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo regalis
Length: 22.1-27.2 in
Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz
Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in
The Ferruginous Hawk is relatively uncommon within Nebraska, primarily residing in the western portion of the state. Their spring migration usually occurs in March, but some younger juveniles have been found sticking around as late as June. There are year-round residents, but it’s believed that the majority of them are short-distance migrants.
During the breeding season, they’re most densely packed in the western Panhandle and around the North Platte River. There have been reports of wintering birds, but there’s been a drastic decline in their numbers. The majority of those spotted in the winter are wandering juveniles, typically found near prairie dog towns.