Whether you’re a bird enthusiast, resident to the state, or just simply curious, you may be wondering what types of hawks live in Washington State. In this article we’ll answer that very question and show you the 8 different hawks in Washington State, as well as learn a little bit about each species!
Let’s take a look at these amazing birds of prey!
8 species of hawks in Washington State
The 8 species of hawks found in Washington State are the Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and the Ferruginous Hawk.
1. Northern Goshawk
- Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
- Length: 20.9-25.2 in
- Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
- Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
Northern Goshawks can be found throughout all of Washington State, at various times of the year. Like Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Goshawks are also accipiters, and have rounded wings and long tails. However, Northern Goshawks are much bigger than these other accipiters, and are in fact the largest accipiters in North America.
Northern Goshawks are secretive birds. Though they are the most widespread accipiter in the world, they live in large, dense forests and tend to remain out of sight, so finding them is not easy. Northern Goshawks have mostly gray plumage, with bright red eyes and bold white stripes that give them the appearance of having eyebrows. They are often considered to be symbols of strength, and even Attila the Hun had the image of one adorned on his helmet.
Northern Goshawks have been popular to use in hunting by falconers for over 2000 years. They were once known as “cooks hawks” because of their excellent ability to bring in meat to cook.
2. 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 have a non-breeding range throughout all of Washington State. For most of the year they’re found in the open Arctic tundra, where they also breed. However, during the fall they migrate south to spend the winter in the much of the United States and southern Canada.
It’s during the winter they’re found in Washington State, though they tend to be harder to spot than other species. Their populations are pretty variable from year to year and often depend on how abundant lemmings, a major food source, are in the Arctic.
Rough-legged Hawks get their name from their feathered legs that help them stay warm in the frigid north. Along with Golden Eagles, these hawks are the only raptors in America that feature feathers along their legs and all the way down to their talons. Rough-legged Hawks are large buteo hawks, with stocky bodies and long, broad wings. Their tails are longer than most buteos, though, and their feet and beaks are small.
When in flight they hold their wings in a “V” shape, and their tails fan out. In North America there are many color variations in plumage, including light and dark morphs. Adult light-morph males feature white underparts and gray-brown uppers, while dark-morphs are typically dark brown all over with the exception of their underwings.
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
Cooper’s Hawks are very similar to the Sharp-shinned Hawks in looks with a steely blue back and wings and reddish barring on the belly, but Cooper’s are larger overall. It’s not uncommon for there to be discrepancies between large female sharpies and small male Cooper’s, since female hawks are larger than males. Cooper’s Hawks have a flatter head and rounded tail, which can help distinguish the two.
Cooper’s hawks are some of the most able and skilled fliers in the bird world. Their power, paired with agility and stealth, make them formidable predators and they can shoot through the treetops, chasing prey at super speeds.
Don’t be surprised if a Cooper’s hawk swoops down onto your backyard feeders. Little birds out in the open, focused on stuffing their bills? The hawks are practically being fed on a silver platter! Although they aren’t opposed to eating smaller birds, their favorites are larger species, such as doves, starlings, robins, jays, grouse, quail, and chickens.
Cooper’s Hawks can be found throughout much of Washington State year-round, though in the northern parts of the state they are only around to breed in the warmer months.
These hawks can be ruthless. As with most hawks, they kill their prey by squeezing it, but Cooper’s have been seen taking it a step farther and even drowning their prey.
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
Red-tailed Hawks are the most common hawks in North America and can be found in most parts of the country. These large hawks live in all of Washington State throughout the entire year. They can easily be recognized by their large size, red tails and shrill screams. Red-tailed Hawks are commonly seen perched high up on telephone wires or in treetops waiting for their next meal to appear.
They feed mostly on small to medium-sized mammals and aren’t regularly seen stalking bird feeders like a cooper’s or sharpie. A truly magnificent raptor and even though they are very common, they’re still a treat to spot.
Red-tailed Hawks have that classic, raspy cry that people associate with raptors. In fact, it’s usually the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk that’s used in movies to portray the fierce birds of prey. I bet you can even hear it in your head now as you read this!
5. 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 the only harrier variety of hawks indigenous to North America. Its breeding grounds range as far north as Canada, but it winters in more southern climates. The Northern Harrier can be found throughout Washington State, though portions of Central and Western Washington may contain non-breeding populations of this species.
Like owls, Northern Harriers rely on their hearing as well as their vision to hunt, and they sometimes subdue their larger prey by drowning them. Males can have up to five female partners at once, although it’s more common for them to have just one or two. These hawks like living and hunting in fields and marshes, so if you’re trying to spot one look in places like this!
Northern Harriers are the most owl-like hawks in Washington State and North America. They rely heavily on their acute hearing as well as their excellent vision to hunt for prey.
6. 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, and all the way north into most of Washington State 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 traveling along ridges or lake shores 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.
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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
The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest of hawks in Washington State, as well as Canada and the rest of the United States. Though in some parts of Washington State, Swainson’s Hawks migrate to warmer climates in the winter. These little hawks are very widespread and can be found throughout North America. You can see their range map here to see what I mean.
They have copper barring on their white underparts and blue grey feathering on their backs, nape, and crown, giving it a hooded look. Their eyes are distinctly red. Sharpies are known for stalking backyard feeders. If you see one consider taking down your feeders for a week or two and allowing the hawk to move on.
Songbirds make up roughly 90% of the Sharpie’s diet. This allows them to serve the important function of keeping wild bird populations healthy and manageable.
8. 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 in Central and Southeast Washington State, and only during the breeding season. It’s found flying over prairies, deserts, and the open range of the West, and is the largest of hawks in Washington and 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.