8 Different Types of Hawks in Virginia

types of hawks in virginia
Photo by Bob Brewer

Have you ever seen a hawk flying overhead in Virginia? We may be familiar with their distinctive call and trademark silhouette, but do we know the many types of hawks in Virginia that call the state home?

The Commonwealth of Virginia is home to various beautiful wildlife, including eighteen species of hawks and other raptors. 

Their bright plumage adds vibrancy to Virginia’s diverse landscape, from the majestic Red-Tailed Hawk to the wily Broad Winged Hawk and beyond.

Whether you are an avid birder or have just started exploring nature photography, it’s important to know the different types of hawks in Virginia.

This article will provide an overview of the types found in the area surrounding our nation’s capital region.

1. Rough-Legged Hawk

The Rough-legged Hawk is the starter of this list of the different types of hawks in Virginia, and is a large bird of prey that can be found across North America, Europe and Asia. It is most commonly identified by its heavily feathered legs, which are grayish or dark brown. This species of hawk also has a pale back and white tail with black bands and stripes. They usually have barred chests and spotted bellies. 

The Rough-legged Hawk typically hunts small rodents such as voles and mice, but they feed on rabbits, grouse, shorebirds and even fish when available. The nesting grounds of the Rough-legged Hawk are usually flat, treeless areas such as tundra or grassland meadows with sparse ground cover. During the winter, they move south to lower latitudes where food is more plentiful.

The Rough-legged Hawk is an important member of the raptor community as it helps to keep population levels healthy for the small animals upon which it preys. This species also acts as an important indicator for conservation efforts since trends in population health can signal the overall health of ecosystems within their range.

Protected areas that provide habitat for this species can also help ensure other avian diversity. As climate change continues, protecting this magnificent species is becoming increasingly important if we want to maintain healthy ecosystems in the future!

2. Broad-Winged Hawk

The Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) is a species of medium-sized hawk found across most of the United States, Mexico, Central America and parts of South America. The smallest hawk found in the US, broad-winged hawks are easily recognizable by their signature rufous tails and black and white barred wings with “fingered” tips. Like other raptors, broad-winged have powerful talons that capture prey, mainly small mammals like rodents, amphibians and invertebrates. However, they will also adjust to eating small birds if needed. 

Broad-winged hawks, the second on our list of the types of hawks in Virginia, breed in the eastern parts of North America and migrate south during winter. During this migration, these hawks gather in large groups known as “kettles” before making phenomenal 300-mile-long flights over the Gulf of Mexico. They do this to reach their wintering grounds in south Florida or further south into Central America, where they will spend time until they begin their northward trek back home again in April or May.

Broad-winged hawks are an important part of the ecosystem and play an important role as a top predator, which helps maintain balance within their environment. Sadly though, research indicates that population numbers for this species seem to be declining due to loss of suitable habitat and other human-related factors such as collisions with automobiles during migration periods. However, conservation efforts are being made to ensure that broad-winged hawks remain a part of our world for years.

3. Osprey

Coming in third on this list of the different types of hawks in Virginia is the osprey, an incredible bird of prey that can be found worldwide, from North America to Europe, Africa, and Asia. An osprey’s wingspan typically reaches up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide, and they have a distinctive white “V” shaped marking on the top of their heads. 

Ospreys are skillful predators who hunt for fish by diving into the water, swimming underwater with their wings closed, and using their strong talons to grab onto unsuspecting prey. These types of hawks in Virginia are also sometimes called “fish hawks” due to their distinct dietary preferences. 

Ospreys generally mate for life, building a large nest on tall trees or cliffs near the edge of water after courtships involving aerial displays such as dives, loops, and other acrobatics. They will then raise a clutch of eggs until they are ready to migrate south in winter to enjoy milder temperatures. Ospreys will often build new nests close to arenas where there is an abundant supply of food. 

Ospreys have made a remarkable comeback in recent years due mainly to conservation efforts and better protection from human disturbance such as hunting and direct persecution from farmers trying to protect their stock from these birds of prey. By providing appropriate nesting places for these magnificent birds, such as artificial nesting platforms, many populations have grown exponentially, helping make them one of the most successful birds in North America today!

4. Red-Shouldered Hawks

Red-shouldered Hawks are medium-sized birds of prey native to North and Central America. They can be recognized by their signature red shoulders, with dark brown above and barred light and dark below. The Red-shouldered Hawk has the longest tail of any hawk in the United States, allowing them to turn very abruptly when in flight which is an important advantage when hunting.

These birds typically inhabit woodlands and forests, hunting small animals like reptiles, amphibians, rodents, and insects. Unlike some raptor species that prefer open habitats such as prairies or grasslands, the Red-shouldered Hawk prefers more densely vegetated areas. This is because it enables them to make high speed dives through canopy coverage when hunting their prey. 

They are also types of hawks in Virginia that utilize trees for roosting and nesting sites. Nest sites are usually found within tree cavities close to the trunk of pine or oak trees. In addition to wildlife predators such as Owls or other hawks, red-shouldered hawks face several challenges from humans, including habitat loss or fragmentation due to deforestation or urbanization. 

Other issues include persecution from farmers protecting livestock from being taken by them and electrocution from power lines which can be fatal for these birds if they collide with them during flight. Therefore conservation efforts have been initiated for this species throughout its range to help protect the population, which continues to decline steadily due to human expansion and development in many parts of their range.

5. Northern Goshawk

The Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) is a medium-sized raptor native to northern regions of the world. These birds on our list of the types of hawks in Virginia commonly inhabit coniferous and mixed forests, as well as scrubland and semi-desert habitats. They are characterized by their large size, broad wings, and boldly patterned plumage. 

The adult males have slate grey backs, while their bellies are white with gray streaking along the sides. At the same time, females are usually browner on their upper parts and have more heavily streaked underparts. Regarding food preferences, Northern Goshawks eat primarily small mammals, including rabbits, squirrels, and grouse.

Additionally, if necessary, these types of hawks in Virginia may feed on smaller birds, such as starlings or pigeons. Furthermore, these birds will often hunt at the edge of clearing or fields during the breeding season but shift to dense cover when migrating south or when winter arrives. Moreover, due to their large hunting range, they can fly long distances in search of prey in different territories, making them quite effective predators.

Finally, although Northern Goshawks are mostly solitary hunters, they sometimes form pairs during the breeding season, where they share a territory while both parents help with incubating eggs and raising young chicks until they can fend for themselves. Then when migration season approaches, each bird returns to its dedicated hunting area until further notice. 

This species, on this list of the different types of hawks in Virginia, has adapted quite well over time due to its impressive abilities. Northern Goshawks can still occupy parts of Europe, Asia, North America, South America, and even Australia today!

6. Red-Tailed Hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey throughout North and South America. It is the most common hawk in North America and can be identified by the reddish-brown feathers on its tail. This hawk species is unique in that they have adapted extremely well to the changing landscapes of the continent, having been observed nesting in urbanized and rural areas. It has a reputation for being bold and aggressive; they will often mob other birds that come too close to their nest, defending their eggs at all costs.

Aside from being one of the interesting types of hawks in Virginia, Red-tailed Hawks have an impressive wingspan reaching up to four feet! They are known to soar incredibly high in search of small mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, and other creatures, great or small, which serve as their primary food source. They also frequently hunt for snakes and large insects such as grasshoppers or dragonflies. 

Unlike other types of hawks in Virginia, their preferred hunting style involves surprise attacks from above rather than diving directly above their quarry. The lifespan of Red-tailed Hawks is quite long– between ten and fourteen years, depending on how well it can adapt to its environment over time. Also, it depends on whether it faces any serious predators or inclement weather patterns in its habitat range. 

Some migrant varieties may not even live over two full years, making this type of hawk particularly prevalent across parts of the continent with more hospitable conditions that favor their survival rates overall. The red-tail Hawk remains one of nature’s most beloved birds in all shapes by both dedicated naturalists and casual viewers alike who admire its power, beauty and fortitude against so many environmental odds.

7. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

The Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) is a small bird of prey that inhabits North and Central America. The size of the adult Sharp-shinned hawk is between 29–41 cm in length with a wingspan between 63–80 cm. It has a slate-gray back, wings, and tail and a white underside with yellow legs. 

The head of this insect on the list of various types of hawks in Virginia is somewhat rounded with a dark cap, and the bill is black. Its eyes are reddish to orange colored. It’s similar to its close relative, the Cooper’s Hawk; however, it can be distinguished by its smaller size and its more slender body shape. 

The Sharp-shinned Hawk prefers coniferous and deciduous woodlands for nesting but also inhabits various cultivated areas. These include farmlands or residential landscapes particularly where dense vegetation provides adequate cover. Its diet consists mostly of small birds such as doves, finches, jays, thrushes, or warblers which it hunts by taking surprise attacks on its prey, often catching them at feeders or other exposed spots in gardens or parks. 

During migration periods, they will hunt larger animals, including small mammals like rabbits or squirrels. Due to populations being affected heavily by hunting of both their habitats and them, specifically during their migratory periods, they were listed in 2005 as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 

However, recent efforts to protect their habitats by creating reserves have helped improve population numbers in some areas throughout North America. This has created hope for this species, of the types of hawks in Virginia, and being able to finally recover from near extirpations in some parts of its range.

8. Cooper’s Hawk

One of the many types of hawks in Virginia, Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter Cooperii), is a bird of prey found throughout most of the United States. They are medium-sized hawks with long wings and tail, often compared to a pigeon in size. Cooper’s Hawks have dark brown feathers on their heads and upper parts, while their undersides are more light colored. 

These birds can be identified by their red eyes, white stripes on the back of their head, and blackish-brown mottled barring patterns on their chest. Cooper’s Hawks are primarily woodland habitat dwellers, but they can also be found near residential areas with plenty of trees and shrubs to hunt from. Like other types of hawks in Virginia, these birds typically use perching spots such as tree tops during the daytime when searching for food or shelter. 

Cooper’s Hawks feed mainly on small mammals such as squirrels and mice but will also catch some smaller birds like doves and jays. During the winter, they may scavenge carrion or visit backyard bird feeders in search of an easy meal. Cooper’s Hawks mate for life and generally establish permanent territories with distinctly marked boundaries that they vigorously defend against rivals during the breeding season in the springtime. 

Breeding pairs will build their nest either high up in a forest canopy or near the ground near large trees. The female will lay up to five eggs which she will incubate for around 33 days until they hatch. Both parents will then care for young chicks until they’re old enough to leave the nest after about six weeks. 

While not endangered, Cooper’s Hawk populations have been declining due to human development activities such as urban sprawl that has reduced available nesting sites. However, due to conservation efforts like limiting hunting seasons or preserving favored habitats, these birds have been able to make a comeback over recent years. Some states even list these particular types of hawks in Virginia as species of special concern given their importance within food web dynamics1.


In conclusion, Virginia is home to various hawk species, including Red-tailed Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and Swainson’s Hawks.

Each type of hawk has distinctive features that help differentiate it from other hawks in Virginia.

Understanding the differences between these types of hawks in Virginia can help birders identify them in the wild and appreciate their beauty. 

Although each species has its preferred habitat, they can be found throughout most regions in Virginia.

By learning more about the different types of hawks in Virginia, birders can have an even greater appreciation for the wildlife in their area.

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