Raptors of Winter

January 12, 2015
Red-shouldered Hawk by Corey Hayes via Birdshare.

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.

A Rough-legged Hawk in flight shows off the characteristic dark patches on the underside of its wings. Photo by Brian Sullivan.

Rough-legged Hawk
Buteo lagopus

Visitor from the High Arctic

Rough-legged Hawks 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 roughlegs 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 roughlegs are much larger).


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

Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii

Raiders of the Backyard Bird Feeder

These two accipiters are built for speed and maneuver-ability, 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. 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 male American Kestrel shows off its slate blue colored wings. Photo by Corey Hayes via Birdshare.

American Kestrel
Falco sparverius

The Littlest Falcon

If you see a small raptor perched on a wire, you’ve got an American Kestrel (North America’s littlest falcon). The southern United States gets an influx of kestrels in winter, 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.


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.

Red-tailed Hawk
Buteo jamaicensis
Red-shouldered Hawk
Buteo lineatus

Two Red Buteos for Winter in the Southeast

Redtails 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, 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 redtails 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 along an electrical wire (redtails rarely do this). Both species also live year-round in California and Oregon.

For more on IDing raptors:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

All About Birds is a free resource

Available for everyone,
funded by donors like you


Need Bird ID Help? Try Merlin