Types of Hawks in Illinois — With Pictures!

Written by Megan Martin
Updated: September 10, 2023
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Known as the Prairie State, Illinois is home to a variety of beautiful landscapes – and an equally diverse cast of wildlife. When it comes to the skies, there are nine different types of hawks in Illinois. Many of these can be found elsewhere in the country, but some may only be common here.

Ready to learn more about the different types of hawks in Illinois? Let’s dive in!

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Scientific NameAccipiter striatus
Weight2.9 – 7.7 ounces
Length9 to 15 inches
Wingspan17 to 26 inches

Male sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest hawks in both the United States and Canada. With adults reaching weights as little as 2.9 ounces when fully grown, they can weigh less than three empty envelopes! Females are larger than males. This is common among many of the types of hawks in Illinois, but other types of birds are usually the opposite.

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The size difference between males and females comes in handy for feeding their offspring, as younger hatchlings can eat the smaller prey off the father before growing to eat the larger prey from the mother. Once their young are fully grown, sharp-shinned hawk parents will teach them to catch food in the air.

Sharp-shinned hawks can be found nearly everywhere in the Western Hemisphere. In some areas, they can be spotted year-round. This includes Illinois. However, similar to other types of hawks in Illinois, the sharp-shinned hawk migrates depending on the season. When breeding, sharp-shinned hawks will move north, the northern areas of Canada. At other times, they can be found in the southern United States and Mexico.

Despite being a top aerial predator, sharp-shinned hawks have short wings with long legs and tails. This helps them to better navigate their forested habitat. They hunt mice and smaller songbirds. As a result, they’re a common sight around birdfeeders in suburban areas. 

Like many types of predatory birds, the sharp-shinned hawk was a victim of DDT, a toxic chemical used in agriculture during the mid-20th century. However, since DDT has been banned, the population has thrived. Now, the sharp-shinned hawk is considered to be a species of the least concern.

Young sharp-shinned hawk standing on freshly killed bobwhite quail

Sharp-shinned hawks impale their prey with their elongated toes with sharp talons.

©Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com

Northern Harrier Hawk

Scientific NameCircus hudsonius
Weight0.6 to 1.6 pounds
Length16 to 20 inches
Wingspan38 to 48 inches

The northern harrier is also known as the ring-tailed hawk. This is because of the dark bands across their grey tail. While this is one of the key identifying factors of the northern harrier, it’s not the only one.

They also have flat faces similar to that of an owl. This helps them to better hear their small prey of rodents and similar animals. Where other birds tend to hold their wings straight out beside their bodies when flying, the northern harrier elevates their wings to create a slight “V” shape. While there are some differences between male and female northern harriers, all have a white patch on their rump that can be seen while flying. When they are younger, northern harriers have less distinct colors, although they do have a notable cinnamon hue. 

Despite being able to reach impressive heights when flying like other types of hawks in Illinois, the northern harrier actually prefers to be closer to the ground. They’ll hunt by flying low over their preferred areas, such as grasslands and marshes. They eat on the ground, and they prefer to perch low in trees. 

Northern harriers are most common in the United States and Canada, although there is a population throughout Mexico and into Colombia. They can be found year-round in Illinois, though breeding occurs in Canada, and non-breeding months may also be spent further south. They prefer to migrate between breeding and non-breeding zones during the day, and rather than make a single, focused route, they’ll hunt as they travel. 

Northern harrier hawk, also known as the ring-tailed hawk

Northern harrier hawk has distinctive dark bands across their tail.

©Peter Schwarz/Shutterstock.com

Red-Tailed Hawk

Scientific NameButeo jamaicensis
Weight2.4 pounds
Length18 – 26 inches
Wingspan40.8 – 57.6 inches

The red-tailed hawk is found year-round in almost every state in the United States,  as well as much of Mexico. They visit Canada for the breeding season, and they can often travel further down into Central America at other times of the year. Red-tailed hawks are one of the most common types of hawks in Illinois and one of the most common in the United States. 

Have you ever heard an eagle cry in a television show or a movie? Well, if you have, you haven’t! You see, eagles actually have a fairly unique screech that almost sounds like a type of high-pitched clucking. As a result, it’s more common than not that red-tailed hawks act like voice actors in order to achieve iconic bald eagle screech.

For the most part, red-tailed hawks look the same, even across subspecies. While there is some variation, it is often subtle. However, there is one subspecies that looks like an entirely different bird altogether! Harlan’s hawk, or Harlan’s red-tailed hawk, is a unique subspecies of a red-tailed hawk with a dark color. It’s found in Alaska and the northern areas of Canada. 

If you’ve ever been on a long road trip, you’ve probably seen a red-tailed hawk off on the side of the road. They like to sit along signs, light posts, and trees to wait for their prey, which consists of small mammals and rodents, amphibians, snakes, and other reptiles. While they’re usually alone, you may find a mating pair hunting together. 

Animals That Molt - Red Tailed Hawk

The red-tailed hawk’s distinct tail feathers are a result of the molting process.

©Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock.com

Cooper’s Hawk

Scientific NameAccipiter cooperii
Weight1.2 pounds
Length14 – 20 inches
Wingspan29 – 37 inches

The Cooper’s hawk lives a dangerous lifestyle. While many birds spend their days flying quickly through the forests in which they live, the Cooper’s hawk seems to take the brunt of it. One study showed that around 23 percent of studied Cooper’s hawks had healed fractures. These are suspected to be the result of collisions while flying. 

Cooper’s hawk is a medium-sized hawk with a large head and broad wings. They use their sharp talons to catch food and kill it, unlike other types of birds of prey that may bite their prey. Cooper’s hawks have even been known to drown their prey! They’re common in urban and suburban environments. One reason for this is that their preferred prey includes pigeons and mourning doves.

The oldest Cooper’s hawk on record grew to be over twenty years old. A male, he was first captured and banded in California in 1986 before being released again. He was later found in Washington in 2006.

Cooper’s hawk is common throughout most of North America. They are found year-round in most of the continental United States. Like many other types of hawks in Illinois, they may also spend breeding months in Canada or cooler months in Mexico and Central America. 

As of now, Cooper’s hawk is considered a low-concern species. While they are still at risk of being affected by pollution and loss of habitat, they are currently thriving. Different studies rank the current population of Cooper’s hawk to be nearing one million individuals, though this number may vary. 

Cooper's Hawk flying at Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Cooper’s hawks are medium-sized with broad wings.


Broad-Winged Hawk

Scientific NameButeo playpterus
WeightAround 1 pound
LengthAround 34 inches
WingspanAround 16 inches

Broad-winged hawks are a small, stout type of hawk in Illinois. They have two different color variations: a light morph and a dark morph. Dark morphs are much rarer. Their tail is short, and instead of tapering like many other types of hawks’, it has a rather square shape. You can also identify them by the white band on their tail.

Although broad-winged hawks aren’t rare, spotting them in your daily life can be more difficult. This is because they prefer to stay within the forests where they live, hunting small prey like rodents and amphibians. However, they will occasionally be spotted in clearings, such as roads cutting through forested lands. They will also eat a variety of other prey, depending on what is available. This includes insects. In areas where they migrate, they can also be seen near the coast while moving north or south.

There are very few year-round populations of broad-winged hawks, and they are only found in Cuba and the surrounding areas. Much of the eastern United States acts as a breeding area for these hawks, which is why they can be seen alongside other types of hawks in Illinois. However, during the winter, they’re more common in South America.

As they migrate, thousands of broad-winged hawks can often be seen together. During migration, broad-winged hawks can travel thousands of miles, nearly a hundred miles being covered daily. However, once they settle in their location, they rarely travel around for anything other than hunting.

broad-winged hawk in flight

In Illinois, broad-winged hawks spend most of their time in forests.


Red-Shouldered Hawk

Scientific NameButeo lineatus
Weight1.3 pounds
Length15 –19 inches
Wingspan37– 42 inches

The red-shouldered hawk is one of the first hawks on this list that cannot be found in the majority of the United States. Red-shouldered hawks are signs of high trees and a prevalent water source. As a result, they’re the most common in the swampy eastern United States. A year-round population can also be found along the western coast, though it doesn’t stray far into land. Often, these are different subspecies of the red-shouldered hawk when it comes to widely separate populations. 

At first, it may be easy to confuse the red-shouldered hawk with other types in Illinois, such as the red-tailed hawk. However, the red-shouldered hawk is smaller than the red-tailed hawk. They also have distinct markings, with dark bands and checkered wings. 

Birds of prey are often constantly in competition. This is because resources such as nesting locations and food are scarce. However, few animals have a rivalry, like crows and red-shouldered hawks. These two will often chase each other and fight. However, they also have a mutual enemy: great horned owls. If an owl were to enter a nearby territory, crows and red-shouldered hawks would team up to drive them out.

Red-shouldered hawks are monogamous. This means that they will often keep the same mate year after year. They will also live in the same area, even returning to the same nest when possible. In one area in southern California, a red-shouldered hawk returned to the same spot for at least 16 years in a row.

red shouldered hawk vs cooper's hawk

Adult red-shouldered hawks have a very rich, red coloration on their “shoulders” and chest.

©MTKhaled mahmud/Shutterstock.com

Rough-Legged Hawk

Scientific NameButeo lagopus
Weight2.2 pounds
Length18 – 23 inches
WingspanAround 52 inches

The rough-legged hawk is a rare and unique hawk, especially when compared to the other types of hawks in Illinois. First, there is no year-round population of rough-legged hawks. They spend their breeding season in the very tip of North America, in the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas. They pass through Canada on migration and spend their winters in the northern areas of the United States.

The rough-legged hawk is also one of only a few predatory birds with feathered legs. The other two types are the ferruginous hawk, which isn’t found in Illinois, as well as the golden eagle. Their feathered legs, along with their large size, help them to survive in some of the harshest terrain in the western hemisphere. 

Rough-legged hawks have a unique nest as well. When you typically think of a bird’s nest, whether its a songbird or a hawk, you may think of sticks, leaves, and shed fur. However, while some of this is true for the rough-legged hawk, they also add a unique nesting ingredient: bones. That’s right, some of these hawks’ nests have been found to be lined with the usual materials as well as bones from caribou

Living in the Arctic during the summer, rough-legged hawks get to experience the midnight sun. However, while there is no moon for them to sleep under, they do take rests at what would be nighttime. They may still be active occasionally during these hours, but activity is reduced significantly.  

Rough-legged Hawk

The rough-legged hawk has distinctive feathered legs.

©Eivor Kuchta/Shutterstock.com

Swainson’s Hawk

Scientific NameButeo swainsoni
Weight1.8 – 2.5 pounds
Length18 – 22 inches
WingspanAround 49 inches

Swainson’s hawk is also known as the grasshopper hawk or the locust hawk. This is because this type of hawk in Illinois has a preference for these small insects. Even if other, larger prey are around, Swainson’s hawk will often still choose to hunt grasshoppers.

This type of hawk is slim. They will often fly with their wings in a “V” shape. However, it’s usually shallower compared to other types of hawks who fly in this formation. As for their coloration, it can vary. However, most individuals are typically a fark reddish-brown color. 

Swainson’s hawk is one of the rarest types of hawks in Illinois. This is because they are only found in a very small area of Illinois during the summer, which is their breeding season. They’re found in a small area in southern South America during the winter. Their migratory path, however, allows for them to be seen in Mexico, Central America, and countries like Colombia and Brazil. 

Swainson Hawk

Swainson’s hawks are long-distance migrants, and almost the entire population moves from North America to South America during August and September.

©Rob McKay/Shutterstock.com

Northern Goshawk

Scientific NameAccipiter gentilis
Weight1.5 – 3.25 pounds
Length18 – 27 inches
Wingspan40 – 47 inches

One of the most noticeable parts of the northern goshawk is their red eye. They have a lighter morph compared to other types of hawks, with a grey coloration. Their bellies and chest are white, with black stripes. This can help to identify these hawks during birdwatching.

The northern goshawk is typically only found in the most northern parts of North America, including Canada. However, during the non-breeding months of winter, they can be found in the northern United States, including Illinois. 

Northern goshawk perched in the forest

The northern goshawk is the largest of the true hawks.

©iStock.com/Henk Bogaard

The photo featured at the top of this post is © michaelschober/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Megan is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is birds, felines, and sharks. She has been researching and writing about animals for four years, and she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in biology and professional and technical writing from Wingate University, which she earned in 2022. A resident of North Carolina, Megan is an avid birdwatcher that enjoys spending time with her cats and exploring local zoological parks with her husband.

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