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).


CooperA 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:


  • Anne

    Thanks for the id tips. I hope to practise them the next time I spot a raptor.

  • Vicki Chung

    thank you so much for the comparisons on cooper vs sharp shinned Hawks

  • Linda whynma

    audubon Mexico is compiling our new small guide book for thesan Miguel area. What is the policy for use of these photos?

  • Shira Levin

    Today, Jan.21, 2015 I saw three Red Tailed Hawks. The first one was a
    female with a snow white breast and no markings. The two others were males. They all were perched on freeway lights.

  • AWESOME info for those like myself that are eager to learn about the world of raptors…:)JP

  • Fay Henderson

    We are lucky that more than one red shoulder hawk lives in our neighbor. With the beginning of spring we will be entertained with their calls. By the middue of May, the swallow tale kites will be back to call and raise the next generation.

  • Kathy

    We travel big highways between Orillia, ON and Niagara Peninsula. We count the Hawks along the highway, mostly red tails and a few kestrels. Last week, in a 2 1/2 hour drive we saw 49 hawks, 2 were kestrels, rest likely red tails.

  • Howard Berger

    I live in New Tampa, FL, and I can certainly attest to the large number of Red-Shouldered hawks in our area. We live close by Lettuce Lake Park and the first sound I hear at sunrise is the call of these fine birds.

  • Rhonda Floyd

    A gorgeous red shouldered hawk flew right in front of our car last week. I looked right into his eye! We are close to the woods and river so see red tailed and red shouldered hawks occasionally – even on our fence. But never this close!! And in motion too! I’ll never forget how beautiful he was!! Always love your information!

  • Alan

    i was fortunate enough to have a mating pair of Red Shouldered Hawks spend last summer and fall near my Northern Minnesota homestead. I saw them on a daily basis and watched them and their two young ones until they left for warmer climates. I have lived here (right on the extreme edge of their summer range) and have never seen them here before. I hope they return next summer and allow me to become better acquainted.


    I’m seeing red-tails, sharp-shinned and, I believe, goshawks [a pair]! who look a lot like sharp-shinned, but larger.

  • george miller

    I see red shoulder hawks almost every day in my yard and perched on poles and swing sets. Rocky mount North Carolina.

  • Bill Steinbrunner

    I have noticed red shouldered hawks hunting together on several occasions. Once three hawks had a squirrel surrounded on the ground, another time, as one hawk flew off with a baby robin and the the parent close behind, a second hawk took the parent robin out of the air from behind. I’ve not heard of hawks hunting cooperatively. Is this common?

  • Neil Arthur

    Thanks for these comparisons. We have had Coopers in our mature canopy for the last few years. Even got a good photo of a fledgling a couple year’s ago, now framed on the wall.

    We THINK we have a young pair scoping a nesting site…or just two ‘buds’ lurking around our feeders. We love the hawks and would like to encourage them to stick around…even at the expense of a squirrel (or two!)

    Is there anything we can do to encourage hawk nesting? Will they go after squirrel?

  • ed warga

    I’m in Nashville, TN. We have a red shouldered hawk in the neighborhood. Hangs out in our backyard which is near the edge of the woods.

  • Nancy Fletcher

    Another identifier is stripes on the bottom of the red-shouldered hawk’s tail.

  • Lynne Hammill

    I have missed our Red Shouldered Hawk. She came to our yard and sat on the fence or top the brush pile every day during the winter. She would stay there for one to several hours, preening and gloating. Sometimes she would hunt in the brush pile but not that often. I swear she took naps there too. It was a sheltered spot between groomed yard with several bird feeding stations and woods behind her. (She just had a feminine look to her so I referred to her as ‘her’ but I’ve seen larger birds than her so I’m probably wrong. lol). This went on for at least 4 maybe 5 years. We have not had one here for several years, probably 6 or 7 now. I missed her antics.

    I caught a large hawk sitting on a fence post in my pasture last month. Just sitting and preening. Binoculars showed that beautiful soft checkered belly. What a joy to watch him just hang out for about an hour. Nice to know they are coming back again.

  • victoria

    You may also be seeing a pair of Cooper’s Hawk, they look a lot like large Sharp-shinned Hawks. Take a look at our Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk page to learn more.

  • victoria

    Thanks for writing! It is hard to encourage most species of hawks to nest—most don’t like to nest to close to human habitation. You’re best bet is to have tall trees in a patch of woods that is not frequented by humans, though some species like Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk seem to be adapting to more urban and suburban environments. Many hawks will go after squirrel and other small prey like chipmunks, so if you have them around, they are sure to be an added bonus for a hawk looking for a nesting place.

  • victoria

    Thanks for writing with your interesting observations! Red-shouldered Hawks rarely catch a bird while flying, but it is possible. These hawk’s hunting habits are not well studied; they have not been observed to hunt cooperatively, but birds are certainly capable of learning all sorts of new behaviors. Please feel free to let is know if you see this cooperative behavior happening regularly. You can email at cornellbirds@cornell.edu.

  • MCP

    Wonderful information and beautiful pictures! Especially the hawks raiding the backyard feeders. So now I ask myself – keep the feeders for the birds or remove the feeders to save the birds from the hawks?

  • Cindy S.

    I saw a hawk sitting on a post with his back to me. There was blue on his wings. It was such a bright blue and I thought it was a fake bird. When I turned around and pulled over he got skittish so I wasn’t able to take a picture since he flew off. Looked like a rust colored tail. Can you tell me what kind it was?

  • Hugh

    Hi Cindy – It’s always helpful to know where you were when identifying birds, but this certainly sounds like an American Kestrel (assuming you’re in North America!). Learn more about them and check the ID here: http://allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_kestrel/id

  • TRK

    Hawks gotta eat too.

  • Joe Brett

    Here in Philadelphia PA I see Cooper’s and Sharpshinned hawks in my yard every day in the winter. The Cooper’s come for the Mourning Doves, and the Sharpies work the azaleas for sparrows and snowbirds. I do see the occasional Redtail (the yard is a squirrel paradise), but they represent maybe 5% of my hawk visitors.

  • Alkivista

    To give your song bird friends a fighting chance against their worst nightmare hawk enemies, try planting flight obstructions around your hanging feeder so a hawk can’t make an easy “swoop thru and snatch” pass but must land at the very least or not attack at all. They DO, after all, have many other “natural” feeding venues. Your feeder is just the easiest pickings. Make the hawks work more for their food, like hitting the English Sparrows, or the Starling or Pigeon flocks a few more times, depending on their size.

  • Robert Jacobson

    I am in southern Indiana about 4 miles from the Ohio River. Have had a pair of Coopers hawks nesting near the house close to the pond and pine trees. They are very territorial fiercely defending their nest site from vultures and racoons! They are year round residents and are not fearful of us humans. They may take a blue jay or a woodpecker once in awhile but are not harmful to my bird feeding action at all. Wonderful to obsrve them overhead or in the woods.