A blog of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

The Changing Guard

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Almost as soon as the fair weather hawks fade into summer’s memories, a new set of hawks are landing in our state. Four species of hawks regularly join Oklahoma’s three year-round residents by mid-fall to make the most of our state’s relatively mild winters and abundant food sources.

Improve your winter hawk-watching with the following identification tips:

Red-tailed Hawk (Year-round Resident)

Perhaps the most common of hawks, red-tails are found in Oklahoma year-round. These familiar birds have broad wings and adults often show the namesake red tail. But the unrelenting variation of light and dark subspecies, or races, can cause a lot of confusion for hawk-watchers. Look for a dark bar on the underside of the wing, seen in flight near the bird’s “shoulder” to confirm identification.

While red-tails are year-round residents, Oklahoma’s numbers balloon as birds from more northern states drift south to enjoy our more temperate winters.

Can’t get enough of red-tails? Check out “Winter’s Hawk:  Red-tails on the Southern Plains” by Jim Lish.

Red-shouldered Hawk (Year-round Resident)

With a shock of rust-colored breast feathers and a shorter, banded tail, red-shouldered hawks are reasonably easy to distinguish from the larger red-tailed hawks. Red-shoulders are frequently spotted maneuvering through trees and can be found near creeks and rivers in eastern Oklahoma’s wooded habitats.

These vocal birds can be easily heard calling throughout the forest and are regularly imitated by blue jays.

Cooper’s Hawk (Year-round Resident) vs. Sharp-shinned Hawk (September-May)

Though differences in size, tail shape and head coloration separate Cooper’s hawks from sharp-shinned hawks, it is a challenge for many bird watchers to tease out these subtle distinctions.

The larger Cooper’s hawk has a larger head in proportion to its body, a dark crown or cap, and a more rounded tail than the smaller sharp-shinned hawk.

Both Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks share rounded wings and long, banded tails. Adults have red barring on the breast and intense red eyes. Both are efficient predators of songbirds and can be readily spotted in neighborhoods and treed backyards.

Northern Harrier – August-May

Harriers seem to float over Oklahoma’s prairies and shrublands as they hunt for birds and small rodents, providing a ready clue for identification. Outside of these sweeping flights, several characteristics define harriers. These birds have an “owlish” face, long wings, a long tail and a distinct white patch on the “rump” or upper side of the tail.

While the gender of most hawk species is often determined by size, not coloration, it is easy to differentiate male harriers from females. Males are gray above with a white belly and wings; wings are tipped with black. Females are dark brown above and buff-colored below.

Ferruginous Hawk – October-March

A large hawk of the high plains, ferruginous hawks pack into prairie dog towns during the winter. Ferruginous refers to the iron-red coloration of the feathers.

Two morphs, or color variations, occur in ferruginous hawks, though most in Oklahoma are of the lighter variety. These birds have a rusty back and rusty leggings (feathers extend down the legs to the feet) and a white underside speckled with rust. When viewed from above, large crescents mark the rufous wings.

Ferruginous hawks will breed in Oklahoma’s Panhandle, but are a winter visitor to the body of the state.

Rough-legged Hawk – October-March

Similar in size to red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks tend to be darker in color, have feathered legs and a white tail banded with a dark belt toward the bottom of the tail. Light morph birds have a dark center and dark wing tips.

These birds often face into the wind while hunting for mice and other rodents.

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