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Raptors of Winter

Hawk with open wings lands on a tree stump in the snow.

With the leaves off the trees and a barren landscape, winter is a time when raptors become more conspicuous. Plus, there are fewer daylight hours and lower prey abundance, so hawks and falcons are out hunting more intensively. Where you see a raptor—in a tree, atop a pole—gives you a good first clue to its identity. And don’t forget to broaden your selection set of possible species to include those raptors that have shifted their ranges south for the winter.

Rough-legged Hawk: Visitor from the High Arctic

Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) are raptors that migrate down from the Arctic. Because they come from a largely treeless place, these hawks look for similar surroundings to spend the winter, typically open habitats such as farm fields and airports. Light morph rough-legs have two large, dark patches on the underside of their wings, a good clue if you see them soaring. They also have feathered legs all the way to the toes, and are one of the few raptors that hover in place as they hunt (kestrels would be another, but rough-legs are much larger).

White and dark-brown/black hawk from below, in flight against blue sky.
Rough-legged Hawk by Brad Imhoff/Macaulay Library.

Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks: Raiders of the Backyard Bird Feeder

Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) and Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) are built for speed and maneuverability, with short wings and long tails for slaloming among trees at top speed. But sometimes they zero in on the flocks of little birds that congregate at bird feeders. If a Cooper’s or a sharpie visits your feeder, you may only see a sudden gray streak and songbirds scattering for cover. But if they perch nearby, either to consume their meal or wait for the birds to return, you may get a chance for a good look. (Here’s what to do if a hawk starts hunting birds at your feeder regularly.) Differentiating between the two can be confusing, but sharpies tend to be smaller overall with a smaller round head and thinner legs. Cooper’s Hawks are about the size of a crow with a flatter head and thick legs. Take a look at our Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk ID page on the Project FeederWatch website.

A Cooper’s Hawk catches a White-crowned Sparrow. Photo by Stephen J. Pollard.

American Kestrel: The Littlest Falcon

If you see a small raptor perched on a wire, you’ve got an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). The southern United States gets an influx of kestrels in winter—North America’s littlest falcon—as migrants from the northern states join the year-round residents in the South. If you see multiple kestrels, try and identify whether you’ve got males (slate blue wings) or females (reddish wings). You might notice that the kestrel sexes don’t mingle much in winter—females use the typical open habitat, and males use areas with more trees. This situation appears to be the result of the females migrating south first and establishing winter territories, leaving males to the more wooded areas.

A male American Kestrel shows off its slate blue wings. Photo by Corey Hayes via Birdshare.

Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks: Two Red Buteos for Winter in the Southeas

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are common in most areas year-round, and they’re certainly not shy—often staking out a hunting spot in the wide open, such as the top of a fence pole. But in the southeastern U.S. that brownish-red hawk you see may be a Red-shouldered Hawk, not a Red-tailed. In winter, Red-shouldered Hawks from the Northeast come down to join year-round residents in the Southeast. To tell the two hawks apart, look at the pattern of feathers on their wings: Red-shouldered Hawks have a checkerboard pattern, whereas red-tails are more mottled. Habitat is another clue: Red-tailed Hawks like to hunt in open areas, and Red-shouldered Hawks stick closer to the woods. Or, just take note of the size: Red-tailed Hawks are big and stocky, while Red-shouldered Hawks are noticeably smaller, slight enough to perch on an electrical wire (red-tails rarely do this). Both species also live year-round in California and Oregon.

Red-tailed Hawk (left) have a more mottled pattern of feathers on their wings; Red-shouldered Hawk (right) have a checkerboard pattern. Photo of Red-tailed Hawk by hawk person via Birdshare, Red-shouldered Hawk by Brian Sullivan.

For more on IDing raptors:

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library