West Virginia is home to incredible flora and fauna. With many areas still in their natural state or rural land used for farming, many animals that would have been pushed out by rapid development have stayed in their natural habitats. Some of the species that still have a large presence are birds of prey, including hawks in West Virginia.
7 hawks in West Virginia
There are 7 species of hawks that maintain a presence in West Virginia. These hawks either live there year-round or migrate during the winter or breeding season. These species are Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-Shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Roug-legged Hawk. Hopefully, these descriptions and the facts below will help you identify any hawks you may spot if you pass through West Virginia.
1. Cooper’s Hawk
Length: Male- 14.6-15.3 inches, Female- 16.5-17.7 inches
Weight: Male- 7.8-14.5 oz, Female- 16.5-17.7 oz
Wingspan: Male- 24.5-35.4 inches, Female- 29.5-35.4 inches
Cooper’s Hawks are a steely blue raptor that is built for tearing through wooded areas and tree canopies to take down prey. It is a year-round resident of West Virginia and is easily mistaken for the Sharp-shinned Hawk, which is smaller but similar in color.
The male Cooper’s Hawk is quite a bit smaller than the female. The males are submissive, coincidentally the females make meals of other birds about the size of the male Cooper’s Hawk. The female has a special call to let the male know it is safe to approach her. Males are responsible for building the nest and feeding the female and hatchlings for the 90 days it takes the chicks to fledge.
Cooper’s Hawks will take advantage of a backyard birdfeeder. When the small songbirds gather, the Cooper’s Hawk will swoop in and help itself to a feathery snack. They do not make this their main food source, but removing the feeder for a few weeks will keep them from making pit stops in your yard.
2. Red-tailed Hawk
Length: Male- 17.7-22.1 inches, Female- 19.7-25.6 inches
Weight: Male- 24.3-45.9 oz, Female- 31.8-51.5 oz
Wingspan: Male- 44.9-52.4 inches, Female- 44.9-52.4 inches
The Red-tailed Hawk, with its namesake red tail and distinctive shriek, is a year-round resident of the majority of the United States, including West Virginia. These hawks are a common sight. They will perch on telephone poles waiting for prey, or slowly circle over fields.
Although research suggests that Red-tailed Hawks live 10-15 years in the wild, this may not be entirely accurate. The oldest recorded Red-tailed Hawk was 30 years old. It was banded in Michigan in 1981 and was seen in Michigan again in 2011.
Red-tailed Hawks put on an aerial display when courting. It includes swoops and deep dives, and the male and female will occasionally grasp talons and appear to plummet to the ground, pulling away before actually striking the ground.
3. Northern Goshawk
Length: 20.9-25.2 inches
Weight: 22.3 -48.1 oz
Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 inches
The Northern Goshawk is a large slate grey bird. It is scarce in West Virginia but is occasionally seen during the winter. They roost and hunt in the forest and are extremely good at remaining hidden. Its name “Goshawk” comes from the Old English term “Goose Hawk” which was a reference to the fact that the Goshawk frequently eats other birds. When falconry was a common hunting method it was also called “cooks hawk” due to its hunting prowess.
The Goshawk will attack anything that ventures too near its nest. This may partially explain why Attila the Hun wore an image of the Northern Goshawk on his helmet. Goshawks are vocal while in their nests, which should be taken as a warning to stay away.
Unlike Cooper’s Hawks, the Goshawk steers clear of populated areas. You are not likely to see a Goshawk causing a ruckus with the songbirds at your feeder.
4. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Length: 9.4-13.4 inches
Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz
Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 inches
The Sharp-shinned Hawk can vary easily be mistaken for the Cooper’s Hawk. It has very similar coloring but is much smaller in size. It is a year-round resident of West Virginia and usually makes it home in the deep woods. Like its larger cousin, however, it has been known to take advantage of a backyard birdfeeder, and the songbirds it attracts, for a quick bite.
The smaller father is initially the parent that provides food to it’s young and their mother. The male removes and eats the head of his kill before presenting it to his mate and chicks. As the chicks grow older, the mother begins to feed them, since she is capable of bringing in larger prey.
In the Fall and Winter, areas with Sharp-shinned Hawks in permanent residence may see an increase in the number of hawks present. Sharp-shinned Hawks from Canada migrate south for the winter. Fall migration is the most likely time to actually spot a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
5. Red-shouldered Hawk
Length: 16.9-24.0 inches
Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 inches
The colorful Red-shouldered Hawk is a year-round resident of West Virginia, with the exception of the northern part of the state where they go only for the nesting season. These hawks build their nests of sticks in trees, preferring wooded areas near rivers and swamps.
Red-shouldered Hawks are often victims of Great Horned Owls stealing their hatchlings from the nest. The hawks have also been seen acting in tandem, with one hawk chasing the owl, while the other hawk ate one of the owl’s chicks.
There are 5 subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawk. Most of these have contact with each other. The western-most hawk, however, is the outcast with 1000 miles separating it from the rest. Each subspecies has slight color variations based on its region.
6. Broad-winged Hawk
Length: 13.4-17.3 inches
Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz
Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 oz
Broad-winged Hawks come up to West-Virginia during their mating season. They spend most of their time under the canopy of the forest where they roost and hunt. Broad-winged Hawks can be tested by their sharp one pitched whistle.
They migrate south to South America for the winter, forming extremely large flocks, which are a highly desired event for bird watchers this is one of the few times you will see Broad-winged Hawks in the open.
The large number of Broad-winged Hawks migrating together causes an effect that some people describe as “a river of raptors” as the hawks condense themselves to navigate narrower areas.
7. Rough-Legged Hawk
Length: 18.5-20.5 inches
Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
This hawk, one of the only North American raptors to have feathers all the way down its leg, spends its winters in West Virginia. The hunt by facing the wind and hovering while they look for prey, or perching and swooping. They prefer open fields and deserts to forested areas.
These hawks eat a massive quarter-pound of food a day when they are not breeding. Nestlings are able to feed themselves when they reach 16 days old and can swallow a lemming whole. 2 nestlings will eat about 26 pounds of food in the 40 days it takes them to reach fledgling status.
They can be spotted in winter either flying or perching on a utility pole. Rough-legged Hawks can be identified when hovering or flying by the black patches on their bellies. They can also be identified by the heavier build they have compared to birds who exhibit similar “hovering” behavior.