A hawk is a type of bird of prey that generally has broad, rounded wings and a long tail. They normally prefer to take prey by surprise and take part in short chases, but don’t have the endurance to chase over long distances. There are thought to be between 17 and 25 species of hawks that have a range in North America, but in this article we’ll be discussing the species of hawks in Utah.
Below we’ll look at 9 species of hawks that one might come across in the state of Utah as well one other raptor that isn’t technically classified as a hawk, but still fits in the scope of this article.
Let’s have a look!
The 9 species of hawks of Utah
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
The Broad-winged Hawk is a very rare sight in Utah, as it has a small migratory population along the northernmost part of the border of Utah and Nevada. They’ve been spotted as far west as California, but they’re primarily found on the eastern side of North America. This makes this hawk a welcome sight for all bird watchers, and their migrations can cause droves of people to come and see the beautiful, swirling flock of hawks on their way to South America. If looking for one during the summer, listen for their piercing whistles, often given while circling the forest canopy.
These amazing hawks will migrate an average of 4,350 miles to northern South America, traveling nearly 69 miles each day. Once they’ve reached their wintering grounds though, like those in Utah, they don’t move around much, preferring to stay within a one square mile area. They don’t react well to human presence, which has led to them being driven out of more built-up areas. Their most frequent prey items are frogs, toads, and small rodents, but have a broad opportunistic diet when those foods aren’t available.
2. Swainson’s Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
Length: 18.9-22.1 in
Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz
Wingspan: 48 in
The Swainson’s Hawk is a common species to see soaring on narrow wings across the open country of the Great Plains and the West, including throughout all of Utah during the summer. They have one of the longest migrations of any American raptor, and will form flocks that contain more than ten thousand individual birds. They’ll travel down to winter grounds in Argentina in the fall, not travelling along ridges or lakeshores nearly as much as other hawks, preferring to soar over open country.
This hawk will actually change its diet depending on if they’re breeding or not. They’ll feed their chicks the typical “buteo” diet of rodents, rabbits, and reptiles, but when they aren’t currently breeding they’ll switch to a diet made up almost exclusively of insects. Grasshoppers and dragonflies are their preferred protein, and will even run after them when on the ground. When catching larger prey like rodents, they’ll chase them down in flight with their wings held in a shallow V formation for maximum speed.
3. 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 common throughout the entire state of Utah. The best way to find one of these birds is to simply go for a drive and keep your eyes peeled along fenceposts and in the sky. They’re uniquely adapted to this environment, as they perform well when hunting small mammals such as rabbits in large open areas on soaring wings. They have a very distinctive scream as well, hence why the shrill cry of any on-screen hawk or eagle is heard, it’s almost always a Red-Tailed Hawk.
This hawk is well known for its elaborate and dangerous courtship ritual. They’ll soar in wide circles at an extreme height before the male dives steeply, and then shoots up again at an angle nearly as steep. Once this has been done a couple of times, he’ll approach the female from above, extend his legs, and briefly touch her. The most extreme portion comes when the pair lock talons and plummet in spirals toward the ground before pulling away at the last moment. It’s believed this helps build trust in one another, as couples have often been seen hunting as a pair and guarding opposite sides of the same tree to catch tree squirrels.
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 is found throughout the entire state of Utah, with the majority being year-round residents and a small population of nonbreeding harriers in the southwestern corner. This bird is considered to be a leapfrog migrant, as those individuals from the more northern breeding populations in Northern Canada winter further south in Central America than individuals from more southern breeding populations. They usually migrate alone and during daytime, hunting as they go.
This bird is unique in that their nests are concealed on the ground in grasses or wetland vegetation rather than in the trees. They mostly hunt small mammals and small birds, but are certainly capable of taking larger prey such as rabbits and ducks. They’ve also been known to subdue larger animals by drowning them. They’re the most “owl-like” of hawks, as they rely on hearing as well as vision to capture prey.
5. 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 smaller raptor that’s common throughout the year state-wide in Utah. It breeds throughout both North and South America in forest and woodland habitats, often preferring to nest in coniferous forests. These nests are located anywhere from ten to sixty feet above the ground, and are often nests that were previously used by hawks, other birds, or even squirrels.
It hunts by flying through the wooded areas in search of prey or by waiting on a perch until a prey animal appears. Their diet is mostly made up of other birds, but it isn’t unheard of for them to consume small mammals, lizards, and insects as well. When pair bonded, the male will bring food to the nest during the incubation period. Their young can fly at about four weeks of age, and they become independent by seven weeks.
6. 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 Cooper’s Hawk is fairly common statewide in Utah, living in woodland areas and riparian zones, which is just another name for the interface between land and a river or stream. Population numbers of this hawk have been on the decline for years, but recently they’ve stabilized and are even increasing in some areas. They primarily eat other birds, such as quail and starlings, but they’ll also consume smaller mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.
Like most birds, their breeding season is in the Spring. They breed in a wide range in the West, ranging from southern Canada to northern Mexico. The male will build the nest for their partner about 18-60 feet above the ground, and once the eggs are laid, will bring food to the female. Their young can fly at about one month of age, but they’ll be dependent on their parents for food until they’re about two months old.
7. Northern Goshawk
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 occurs as a permanent resident of Utah, but isn’t considered common due to deforestation and human encroachment on breeding areas. It’s much more common on the eastern side of the state. It breeds all throughout the Northern Hemisphere, preferring mature mountain forests and riparian zone habitats. Their nests are constructed in trees in mature forests, and are often re-used from previous goshawk owners.
Their main prey foods are rabbits, hares, squirrels, and other smaller birds. They cruise through forests at lower altitudes to hunt, but will also wait on a perch to wait for prey. It’s considered to be an “accipiter”, which is a type of hawk with short, broad wings and a long rudder-like tail that give it superior aerial agility. They’ll commonly crash feet first through brush to grab quarry in crushingly strong talons.
8. 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, also known as the Rough-legged Buzzard, is found in Utah during the winter, as it spends its summer capturing lemmings and breeding on the arctic tundra. When searching for one, the best bet is to look at perches on fence posts and utility posts, as well as on the ground or in the slenderest treetops where other raptors wouldn’t normally chance sitting.
They get their name from their feathered legs, as one of only three American raptors that have legs feathered all the way to the toes. This serves as added insulation when in their breeding grounds when they court under continuous sunlight. They’re adept hunters, and recent studies have pointed to them being able to see vole urine, which is visible in ultraviolet light, in order to find patches of abundant prey.
9. 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 found state-wide in Utah, although it has both breeding and year-round populations. It’s found flying over prairies, deserts, and the open range of the West, and is the largest hawk in North America. It gets its name “ferruginous” for its rusty shoulders and legs that are contrasted with bright white underparts. They have extreme patience, as they’ve been seen standing above prairie dog or ground squirrel burrows while waiting for prey to emerge.
An interesting way for conservationists to try and maintain this bird’s population is by providing artificial nests for the hawk to build up. Naturally, they’ll choose to build on the remains of other pre-existing hawk or crow nests, as the bulky sticks of their nests aren’t easily woven together for tree nesting. These nests would frequently hold bison bones and hair when the animal still roamed the West, potentially indicating it played a role in their diet in the past.
Ospreys of Utah
Ospreys are a family of bird that eats primarily fish, and they have long, narrow wings. They’re found throughout the world. They aren’t technically hawks and are classified in a family of their own, but they are often called “sea hawks” and were once considered to be in the hawk family.
Scientific name: Pandion haliaetus
Length: 21.3-22.8 in
Weight: 49.4-70.5 oz
Wingspan: 59.1-70.9 in
The Osprey has both breeding and migratory populations that appear in Utah, and are a common sight patrolling waterways as their primary source of food is fish. They’re incredibly accurate predators, as they dive with their feet outstretched and their bright yellow eyes sighting straight along their talons. They do well around humans, and their numbers have rebounded after the banning of the chemical DDT.
They can be found just about anywhere there’s an abundant supply of fish. They’re specially adapted to their diet, as they have barbed pads on the soles of their feet that help them grip their slippery prey. When flying, they’ll align the fish head first so as to reduce wind resistance. It’s been found that at least 1 in 4 dives is successful, with some success rates for especially adept birds reaching 70%.