“Hawk” is a general term used to describe the entire group of diurnal (active by day) predatory birds. Worldwide there are approximately 270 species of carnivorous birds that comprise the order Falconiformes – the scientific name for hawks. All are classified as birds of prey, or raptors.
Sixteen species that regularly occur in New Jersey are described on this website. Although all hawks have certain basic similarities such as keen eyesight, hooked beaks and taloned feet, a wide diversity of forms and sizes exists among them. For instance, an American Kestrel weighs only 4 ounces, while a Bald Eagle can weigh 13 pounds – 52 times as much. Hawks are efficient predators. They catch, kill, and eat a wide variety of other animals in order to survive. This predation is not mean or cruel. It has been going on for millions of years and is, in fact, a necessary function which helps to maintain nature’s balance.
Hawks are strong, powerful birds. Their feet are equipped with sharp, curved talons for capturing prey, and their strong beaks are hooked for biting and tearing flesh. Swift fliers, some hawks can attain speeds of over 150 mph when diving. Some species undertake long migrational journeys, traveling thousands of miles each year – a testimony to their strength and stamina. Their sense of hearing is excellent, and their eyesight the best in the entire animal world. Not only can hawks see greater distances than humans, but their visual acuity (the ability to see clearly) is eight times that of ours.
Hawks also see in color. In many animal species the males are larger and stronger, but in hawks the difference in size between the sexes is reversed, and females are larger. This sexual size difference is often appreciable. In some species, such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, females can weigh twice as much as males. Here in the northeast, hawks typically breed in the late spring or early summer. Most hawks pair for life, but if one partner dies, the other will quickly find a new mate. Some pairs remain together year round; others may separate after the breeding season. The allegiance to the breeding site is strong, however, and even those that migrate or disperse will usually return to the same nesting territory and the same mate each year.
Large hawks lay only one or two eggs each year, small hawks from three to five. Incubation takes three to six weeks, depending on the species. After hatching, the young hawks “grow up” very quickly. Small hawks, like Kestrels and Sharp-shinned, grow to full size in one month; large species, like eagles, are full grown in only 11 weeks. The young leave the nest (fledge) at this time, but often remain with their parents for several more weeks before attaining total independence.
All hawks are protected by state and federal laws. It is illegal to capture or kill a hawk, or to possess a hawk, alive or dead, without the proper permits from both the State of New Jersey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because they are predators, hawks have historically been regarded by many people as vermin. In the past, they were seen as wanton killers – cruel and harmful creatures. Fortunately, with our increased ecological knowledge we now realize that hawks are neither harmful nor cruel. They are, like all living things, important parts of a diverse and intricate natural world. The protection of that natural world is of paramount importance to their well-being, and to ours.
Accipiters are hawks that inhabit deeply wooded areas. They have short rounded wings and long rudder-like tails which allow them to maneuver among the trees. Their recognizable flight pattern consists of several rapid flaps and then a glide. As a group accipiters are secretive and are observed less frequently than most other hawks.
Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus)
Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest of the three North American accipiters. They measure 10 to 14 inches long and have wingspans of about 2 feet, yet weigh only 2 to 7 ounces.
Young Sharp-shins are brown backed and have brown streaks on their white breasts. As they mature, the colors change: their backs become slate-gray, and their breasts become barred with reddish-brown. Even their eye color changes with age – from yellow to deep red.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk gets its common name from the “shins” of its legs which are not round, but oval and rather sharp. The small head is round, and the long, square-tipped tail has narrow black and gray bands.
They are swift, agile hawks well adapted to flying in heavily forested areas. Their prey, predominantly small birds, is captured in dashing, headlong pursuits. Few “Sharpies” nest in New Jersey, but great numbers do migrate through the state in spring and autumn.
Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
The Cooper’s Hawk is a larger version of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, and the two are very much alike in color and markings. The Cooper’s is crow-sized, 15 to 20 inches long, and has a wing-span of 27 to 36 inches.
The Cooper’s Hawk is chiefly a bird-eating hawk, and almost any bird up to the size of a pheasant qualifies as prey. In addition to birds, it also captures mammals, including squirrels and rabbits, and occasionally takes lizards and amphibians.
During this century the Cooper’s Hawk has decreased in numbers over much of its range. The reasons for its decline are not positively known, but habitat loss, nesting failures from the effects of pesticides, and direct persecution by man could be contributing factors. It is presently classified as a species of special concern in New Jersey.
Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
The Goshawk is a powerful raptor and the largest of the North American accipiters. It is 20 to 26 inches long with a wingspan of 2 to 4 feet. The immature is brown above with brown streaking on its white underside, and closely resembles an immature Cooper’s Hawk. The adult Goshawk is bluish-gray above, and its underside is white with a fine black herringbone pattern. All have a white streak above the eye.
Their prey consists largely of birds, from songbirds to ducks and grouse. They also capture numbers of mammals, ranging from mice and chipmunks to rabbits and woodchucks. Hunting from perches or on the wing, Goshawks are aggressive and persistent in pursuit of food and have been known to chase prey on foot.
The Goshawk is a northern bird, but some do breed in the mountains of northwestern New Jersey. They are secretive by nature and prefer to live in dense wooded areas, hence they are seldom observed. Goshawks are currently considered an endangered (breeding)species in NJ.
Buteos are robust hawks with long, broad, rounded wings and short broad tails. Because they are easily observed soaring in wide, lazy circles or perched in a conspicuous place, they are among the best known hawks. They hunt mainly from perches, dropping to the ground to capture their prey.
Broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus)
The Broad-winged Hawk is one of the smallest buteos, about the size of a crow. It is 14 to 19 inches long, with a wingspan of about 3 feet. Its relatively short wings and tail give the bird a chunky appearance in flight.
The adult is grayish-brown on the back, and its underparts are white, heavily barred with reddish-brown. Its tail is dark, with two or three equally wide white bands. The immature is brown-backed, and its underparts are whitish with vertical brown streaks. The barring in the tail of the young bird is not as prominent as in the adult. Broad-winged Hawks breed throughout eastern North America, from Canada to Florida. Many nest in New Jersey in areas where proper habitat still exists, primarily deep deciduous forests. In early autumn they begin a spectacular migration southward, some going as far as South America. During this time huge concentrations of these hawks can be seen along the mountain and coastal flyways of our state.
Their diet consists of a wide variety of prey animals including small mammals, snakes, frogs and toads, grasshoppers and caterpillars.
Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus)
Red-shouldered Hawks are medium-sized slender buteos, larger than Broad-wings but smaller than Red-tails. They have body lengths of 18 to 24 inches and wingspans of 3 1/2 to 4 feet. Their backs are brown, flecked with white, and their shoulders are rufous. Immature birds have brown teardrop-shaped streaks on their white breasts; adults have pale robin-red underparts.
Red-shouldered Hawks inhabit low, wet, open woodlands usually near a river, stream or swamp. They prey upon the wide variety of animal life found there: small mammals, frogs, snakes, lizards, insects and birds.
Some Red-shoulders remain resident in New Jersey year round, but most migrate southward as winter approaches. They were once common here, but loss of their preferred habitat and other factors not yet clearly identified have reduced their numbers. At present they are considered endangered in the state.
Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
New Jersey’s most common large hawk, the Red-tail, is named for the rufous color of the adult’s tail. These buteos are often seen soaring in wide circles or perched conspicuously in trees along roadsides. Vocal hawks, their distinctive call – a high, shrill “kree-e-e” – is usually uttered in flight.
Red-tails stand about 2 feet tall and have wingspans of 4 1/2 to 5 feet. They are dark brown above, white to cinnamon below, and usually have a band of dark streaks across the belly. Immature birds are similar to adults in plumage except for their tails – the young have brown tails for their first year. When they molt, these brown feathers are replaced by the characteristic red of the species.
Red-tailed Hawks are found throughout North America and many live in New Jersey year round. They prefer a habitat of fields and pastures mixed with open woodlands. Their large stick nests are usually built in the tallest available tree. From one to three young are raised each year.
Their diet consists mainly of mammals and includes mice, voles, squirrels and rabbits.
Rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus)
The Rough-legged Hawk breeds in the far north and occurs in New Jersey only as a rare winter visitor. Like many northern species, it is protected from the cold by feathers that cover even its legs and toes. Its common and scientific names both refer to the furry appearance of its legs; the Greek word lagopus means “hare-footed.”
Rough-legged Hawks are large, about 2 feet long with wingspans of 4 1/2 feet. Plumage color varies greatly in this species from light to very dark (melanistic) individuals. All have a conspicuous white rump patch and a wide, dark band at the tip of the tail.
Birds of open country and graceful soarers, Rough-legs can be distinguished from other buteos in flight by their longer wings and tails. They have a habit of hovering in one spot, as Kestrels and Ospreys do.
Rough-legged Hawks are rodent eaters and feed on small animals, primarily meadow voles.
Both North American eagle species, the Bald and the Golden, occur in New Jersey. Both species regularly migrate through the state and Bald Eagles winter and breed here.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Our national emblem, the Bald Eagle is familiar to nearly everyone. The adult bird, with its snowy white head and tail and contrasting dark brown body, is unmistakable. The term “Bald” as used here means white, rather than featherless; and its scientific name leucocephalus means “white head.” The immature Bald Eagle, however, lacks the distinctive white markings of the adult. The young bird is an overall brown color for several years before its head and tail become pure white; for this reason it can be mistaken for a Golden Eagle.
A large bird, measuring approximately three feet high with a wingspan of up to 7 1/2 feet, this eagle is an efficient hunter and also a scavenger. It feeds primarily on fish and waterfowl, which it catches alive, but will readily eat carrion when available.
Although a well-known symbol, the Bald Eagle was once rarely seen in our state. During the mid 20th century, its population across North America drastically declined, primarily due to DDT poisoning and loss of nesting habitat. Since the banning of DDT in 1972 and concerted efforts to protect breeding areas, Bald Eagle populations have steadily increased. New Jersey’s breeding population, although still considered endangered, has increased from one pair in the 1980’s to 22 known pairs in 1999. Today there are almost 70 active nests in the state.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
The Golden Eagle is a huge bird weighing up to thirteen pounds, measuring approximately three feet in length, with a wingspan of 6 to 7 1/2 feet. The entire bird appears dark brown in color, but at closer view a gold wash of feathers on the back of its neck and head can be seen -hence the common name. Young birds can be distinguished from adults by their white-based tail feathers and white patches in their wings.
Golden Eagles range across the entire Northern Hemisphere and in North America they are most common in the west. Their large stick nests are usually constructed on high, inaccessible cliff ledges in remote mountainous areas. The same nest site, or eyrie, may be used year after year.
These large and powerful birds hunt while flying, dropping suddenly on prey which they have surprised in the open. Their diet is varied but consists mainly of rabbits and other small mammals.
Although primarily a western species, some Golden Eagles do breed in eastern Canada, northern New England, and a few in New York state. The birds observed in New Jersey during migrations are from this eastern population.
Falcons are streamlined fast-flying hawks. They have long, narrow, pointed wings and long narrow tails. They feed primarily on other birds and usually capture their prey in mid-air. Birds of open areas, falcons are seldom found in woods. Recently, some have adapted to living in cities and towns, nesting on bridges and buildings, in close proximity to humans.
American kestrel (Falco sparverius)
The American Kestrel, sometimes called the Sparrow Hawk, is North America’s smallest falcon. Once common in New Jersey, their population has diminished considerably in recent years for reasons as yet unclear. Although this bird is easily seen perched on roadside wires throughout the state, it is often not recognized as a hawk because of its resemblance to a songbird. Perched, it looks similar to a dove or robin. From head to tail, the Kestrel measures only 10 to 12 inches, but its wings are long, spanning up to 2 feet. Unlike most other birds of prey, in which the sexes look alike, male and female Kestrels have different color plumages. Females have rufous backs and wings, barred with black, while males have rufous backs and blue-gray wings. Kestrels catch most of their prey on the ground. They are often seen perched on telephone poles and wires, like sentinels of the road, searching the terrain below. They also hunt on the wing, characteristically hovering over grassy areas. Grasshoppers, crickets and other insects are eaten in great numbers when available; but mice, voles, snakes and songbirds are also taken. Kestrels are unique among our falcons in that they are hole-nesters, using natural cavities in trees and small openings in buildings. They are the only North American hawks that will nest in bird boxes. The kestrel is currently considered a threatened species in New Jersey.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Merlins are small dark falcons just slightly larger than Kestrels. They measure 10 to 12 inches long and have wingspans of 24 to 27 inches. Immature Merlins are brown above, while adults are blue-gray; both young and adult birds have heavy dark brown vertical streaks on their underparts. Their tails are long with prominent dark bands. When flying and perched, a Merlin resembles a dark pigeon. Like other falcons, Merlins are birds of open country and generally avoid wooded areas. They are fast-flying aerial acrobats and hunt primarily on the wing, catching other birds (their main food), some insects and occasionally small mammals. Although they do not breed in New Jersey, large numbers of Merlins can be seen here, primarily along the coast, during their spring and fall migrations.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
This mighty falcon is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. It’s scientific name peregrinus means “wanderer,” a reference to its long-distance migrations. In the mid 20th century Peregrine populations suffered drastic declines, primarily because of DDT poisoning. In 1970, there were only 39 known breeding pairs in the entire lower 48 states. Since the 1972 federal ban on the use of DDT and the initiation of conservation programs on their behalf, Peregrines have been brought back from the brink of extinction. New Jersey’s small breeding population is considered endangered.
Peregrines are large falcons, 15 to 20 inches long, with a wingspan of 3 feet. They have a distinctive facial pattern with a dark “mustache” mark on the cheeks. Adult Peregrines have slate blue backs.
Their favored nesting sites are generally high, rocky cliff ledges in remote places overlooking a lake, stream, or river, but they are known to nest on the rooftops or ledges of city buildings and in the steelwork of bridges.
Peregrines feed mainly on other birds, catching whatever is available, from small songbirds to large ducks. They dive at incredible speeds, approaching 200 miles an hour, to capture their prey in mid-air.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
This hawk is a highly specialized fish eater, seldom found far from water. The Osprey plunges feet first into the water to capture fish swimming near the surface. The bottoms of an Osprey’s feet have rough sandpaper-like spicules which allow it to get a good grip on slippery prey. It is a large bird, measuring 21 to 24 inches long with a wingspan from 4 1/2 to 6 feet. Soaring in the air the Osprey resembles a gull. Its long, narrow wings are bent in the shape of a stretched out “M.” Seen from below, the hawk is white with a black patch at the bend of each wing. Its head is white with a broad dark stripe through the cheeks, and its upperparts are dark brown. In the mid 20th century Ospreys declined in numbers, due mainly to the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Since 1972, with the banning of DDT and many other harmful chemicals, Osprey numbers have greatly increased. Successful management techniques used by New Jersey’s Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, including providing nesting platforms, have also aided in their comeback here. Although still listed as a threatened species in New Jersey, their large stick nests are once again visible from the major highways along the shore.
Vultures are large, dark-plumaged birds with small bare heads. Although classified as birds of prey, they seldom kill their own food and are primarily scavengers, feeding on dead animals. Their featherless heads and necks allow them to feed neatly on carrion. Vultures serve an important function as part of nature’s clean-up crew.
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
Turkey Vultures, sometimes mistakenly called buzzards, are large, dark birds common throughout most of North America. They are the master soarers of the raptor world, effortlessly gliding on air currents and thermals for long periods of time. Their distinctive flight – veering and tilting with the wings held in a shallow “V” – makes them easy to identify.
Turkey Vultures are approximately two feet tall and have wingspans of up to six feet. The undersides of their wings are two-toned, blackish in front and silver-gray on the rear half. They have small featherless heads which are black when the birds are young and red when they are adults.
These birds eat carrion and will feed on any dead animal, large or small. Vultures are social raptors – roosting, feeding and often flying together. They are probably the most commonly seen bird of prey in the state. They build no nest, but lay their eggs on the ground generally in a cave, rock crevice or in a hollow log. Turkey vultures commonly breed throughout New Jersey.
Black vulture (Coragyps atratus)
Primarily a southern bird, in recent years the Black Vulture has expanded its range northward and has become more common in the state. In 1981, the first known New Jersey nesting of this species was recorded in Hunterdon County. Though its breeding numbers at present are still modest, the Black Vulture now regularly breeds here.
With a wingspan of about five feet, the Black Vulture is slightly smaller than the Turkey Vulture. The bird is dull black in color, including its bare head. Each wingtip has a large, whitish patch visible only when the wing is open. In flight Black Vultures can be identified by these wingpatches and by their short, square tails. They tend to flap more than Turkey Vultures and, when soaring, hold their wings straight out not upward in a “V”.