One of the most magnificent birds of prey, hawks have become a symbol of freedom and fierceness all over the world.
But where is the best place to spot a hawk? And what species of hawks are there where you live?
Below, we’ll look at 10 species of hawks you can find in Minnesota. We’ll help you identify them by describing their markings, where you can find them in their natural habitat, and discuss their diets, migratory habits, and more.
From the much-loved (and ubiquitous) Red-Tailed Hawk to the lesser-known Swainson’s Hawk, they’re all here for you to discover and learn more about.
It’s pretty easy to spot a Red-Tailed Hawk in Minnesota as they are the most common species in the State.
They are most abundant in summer and winter when they are either hunting food for their broods or for themselves to help get them through the colder months.
Their markings make them relatively easy to identify as well.
These large birds measure an average of 22 inches in length, and they have an average wingspan of 50 inches, making them quite a spectacle as they hover and soar through the air.
As you may have guessed from their names, Red-Tailed Hawks have a short, wide, and fan-shaped, blush-red tail.
They also have broad, large, rounded wings, brown upperparts, and pale-white underparts freckled with black dots.
They build their nests up high on cliff ledges and tall trees, although they have also been known to nest in tall towers and buildings in urban areas.
This is another reason why they’re so easy to spot, and most people have noticed them circling high above open fields as they seek out their prey.
Unlike many birds of prey, the Red-Tailed Hawk prefers to catch its prey alive rather than rely on carrion.
They aren’t particularly fussy eaters either and will happily feed on reptiles, small mammals, and other birds.
The Ferruginous Hawk is one of Minnesota’s rarest hawk species.
They are so rare that one hasn’t been officially recorded since 2017, when it was spotted circling high above the ground in Lac Qui Parle.
Native to North America, the Ferruginous Hawk is the largest species of hawk that you’ll find in Minnesota, measuring up to 27 inches in length and with a wingspan of up to 55 inches.
Despite this size, they are pretty tricky to identify as they have light and dark markings that vary from bird to bird.
Unique markings aside, Ferruginous Hawks have white underparts, belly, and head, while their upper parts and legs are a rust-brown color.
This color comes with age, and juvenile Ferruginous Hawks have white underparts with brown spottings extending down to the legs.
You can increase your chances of a Ferruginous Hawk sighting by visiting shrublands and grasslands in Minnesota’s low country, where a few remain resident all year round.
Others migrate to Mexico and the Southern US States during winter but never cross The Rockies.
However, they always return to Minnesota to breed, building huge nests that can measure up to 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep.
The Ferruginous Hawk will lay up to 8 eggs in this nest and raise their hatched brood until they are ready to fledge.
Their diet mainly consists of jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and other small mammals.
These expert hunters use their incredible eyesight and lightning speed to swoop down on their prey, grasping them in their sharp talons and killing them instantly.
After the Red-Tailed Hawk, the Rough-Legged Hawk is Minnesota’s second most common species of hawk.
Many can be spotted high in the sky, and they are particularly abundant during the winter, with most sightings being recorded from November through March.
Their name doesn’t come from the fact that the skin on their legs is particularly rough; instead, the feathers that cover them give them their namesake rough appearance.
These rough-looking feathers serve a fundamental purpose as well, as they help to keep the bird well-insulated and protected throughout the winter.
Their feathered legs aren’t their only identifying feature, though. The Rough-Legged Hawk has white underparts, dark brown upperparts, and patches of dark brown on the tail, wings, and across their belly.
They are also medium-sized hawks, measuring around 19 inches on average and with an average wingspan of 52 inches.
The most common sighting spots for Rough-Legged Hawks are open fields and marshes, although they can often be found perching atop a telephone pole.
This gives them the perfect vantage point to seek out their prey, mainly lemmings. They eat ground squirrels, voles, mice, and other small mammals.
Unlike the Rough-Legged Hawk, the Northern Harrier is most frequently spotted during the summer months from March through November.
This is because they set up home in Minnesota during the breeding season, where they build ground nests in dense vegetation. This includes brushtails, reeds, and willows.
A slender hawk, the Northern Harrier measures an average of 18 inches in length and has a wingspan of around 44 inches.
Like many birds, there are apparent differences between males and females.
Male Northern Harriers have gray upperparts with underparts and a white patch on the tail.
Females have brown upperparts and lack a white patch.
Both sexes fly in the same way, one of their telltale identifiers, soaring through the air in a V-shape with their wings higher than their bodies.
Like many hawks, the Northern Harrier isn’t a particularly fussy eater and will happily hunt and feed on small mammals and smaller birds.
Essentially, anything that’s smaller than they are appears on their menu!
The Northern Goshawk is another of Minnesota’s rarer species.
They can be identified by their gray upperparts, white and gray-streaked underparts, and short, broad wings.
They also have a white stripe across their face which contrasts beautifully with their bright yellow eyes.
They are medium-sized hawks, too, measuring around 23 inches in length and with a wing span of 43 inches on average.
This species of hawk is non-migratory and resides in Minnesota all year round, and it can also be found in Alaska, Southern Canada, and most of the mountainous west.
You may wonder why it’s so rare when seemingly so widespread. The main reason for this is their habitat.
Northern Goshawks set up their home in coniferous or mixed forests, most of which are inaccessible to humans.
They rarely venture from these areas as they have everything they need here, including their small birds and mammals’ diet.
One interesting fact about Northern Goshawks is that, unlike most other birds, they’ll construct several large nests before settling on which they think is the best.
Sometimes as many as eight nests can be built by a pair of birds before they choose the right one to call home, after which the female will lay 2-4 bluish-white eggs.
There are no prizes for guessing the identifying features of this hawk species!
Named for its broad wings, the Broad-Winged Hawk is a stocky little hawk that measures around 15 inches on average and has an average wingspan of 34 inches.
It also has a red-brown head, a short, banded tail, and a barred breast.
They are a common sight in Minnesota. However, you will only ever spot a Broad-Winged Hawk in the warmer months of April to October.
This is because they nest in Minnesota, raise their brood, and then head South to Central and South America for winter.
Their migration is quite a spectacle, as large numbers group together in a swirling flock known as a “kettle.”
During the breeding season, the Broad-Winged Hawk will often reuse an existing nest rather than create a new one.
This could be an old crow or squirrel nest, which will be large enough for them to rest in and raise their brood.
Once settled, the female Broad-winged Hawk lays 2-3 white eggs, incubates, and raises them until they are ready to fledge in late summer.
You’ll most likely spot a Broad-Winged Hawk perched up high in a tree or a pole near a water source or open woodland.
This gives them the ideal vantage point to seek out their prey: frogs, small mammals, snakes, and baby turtles.
The best time to spot a Red-Shouldered Hawk in Minnesota is from March to May, although they aren’t very common.
They can be identified by the red barring that runs across their breast, as well as their dark brown and white checkered wings. And, of course, they also have their namesake red coloring across each shoulder.
The Red-Shouldered Hawk’s preferred habitat is forests that flank a source of water such as a lake, pond, river, or stream.
Here, they set up a nest in a broad-leaved tree close to the water, and, once constructed, the female will lay between 2-5 bluish-white eggs during the breeding season.
They also hunt where they live, scouring the edges of the forests from high above or gliding across the water’s surface in search of frogs, snakes, and small mammals.
They also have a pretty distinctive call which is another identifier for them, which sounds like a long series of “cack-cack-cack.”
This call isn’t dissimilar to a Sea Gull’s call, although they are very different birds!
The Cooper’s Hawk is the third most common species of Hawk in Minnesota and is most abundant during the summer months.
They can be seen in winter, although sightings are much rarer as most migrate South to Honduras and Mexico to avoid the harsh, Northern weather.
About the same size as a crow, the Cooper’s Hawk measures an average of 15 inches and has a wingspan of around 28 inches.
This size is one of their most apparent identifiers as they look remarkably similar to the Sharp-Shinned Hawk.
They have the same blue-gray back, red-orange breast, and dark-banded tail. Unlike their doppelganger, however, they have a much larger head that juts out beyond their wings.
The Cooper’s Hawk is most commonly found at the edges of forests where its prey is most abundant.
This includes small mammals and small-medium-sized birds. They have also been spotted near garden bird feeders looking to catch an easy meal.
This species of hawk sets up its home in old, abandoned nests or a large clump of mistletoe.
In the breeding season, the female will lay 2-6 pale blue eggs, and the male and female will raise them together until they are fledged.
They’ll then go their separate ways, deciding whether to head South for winter or stay in Minnesota.
As we’ve just briefly touched on this species of hawk while discussing the Cooper’s Hawk, now seems like the perfect opportunity to learn more about the Sharp-Shinned Hawk.
These birds of prey can be identified by their blue-gray backs, red-orange breast, and dark, banded tail.
They measure an average of 11 inches and have a wingspan of around 19 inches, but females are larger than males, often measuring up to a third more.
As non-migratory birds, Sharp-Shinned Hawks can be found in Minnesota all year round.
However, you’re more likely to spot one during the summer while they raise their brood and when their prey is more abundant.
Their primary prey is smaller songbirds, which they’ll often catch on the wing before returning to the safety of a tree. Here, they’ll pluck its feathers and eat it.
This can be pretty upsetting for bird enthusiasts, especially as the Sharp-Shinned Hawk has no qualms about swooping down on backyard bird feeders to catch their prey.
If this is something that you’ve been having trouble with recently, remove your feeders for a few weeks.
The hawk will soon learn that there is no prey for them in your garden, and once you reintroduce your feeders, it won’t be long until your feathered friends come back.
The Sharp-Shinned Hawk’s preferred habitat is coniferous forests with lots of dense covers, and they’ll nest and roost high up in the trees.
The nest they construct during the breeding season is quite large, often measuring up to 2 feet in diameter and 6 inches deep.
Once constructed, the female will lay between 3-8 blue-mottled eggs, and the couple will raise their brood together until they are fully fledged.
Potentially the rarest of all Minnesota’s hawk species, Swainson’s Hawk can be found in the State between April and October.
After this, they’ll migrate to South America in large flocks to spend the winter in warmer temperatures.
Most identifiable by their gray, mottled back and white bellies, the Swainson’s Hawk also has a rust-red chest, short tail, and pointed wingtips.
There is also a contrast in color on the edges and tips of their wings, which is most visible when they are in flight. Relatively small hawks measure up to 22 inches in length.
If you want to increase your chances of spotting this rare bird of prey, you’ll need to head into the open country.
Here, you may see a Swainson’s Hawk circling above open fields or perched on a pole or fence in search of prey.
This includes small mammals and smaller birds, and they’ve even been known to feed on lizards, bats, snakes, and little owls.
When their preferred food source is scarce, the Swainson’s Hawk will hunt closer to the ground and can sometimes be seen scurrying around for insects such as crickets and dragonflies.
All in all, they aren’t fussy eaters!
Of course, choosing to hunt and live in the open countryside doesn’t present the Swainson’s Hawk with a lot of nesting options! As such, they use any tree or low bush they can find.
The nest they construct is made of hundreds of twigs and sticks and can measure up to 2 feet across and 1 foot deep. The inside will be lined with softer materials such as grass, wool, or bark.
As you can see, there are quite a few species of hawk for you to spot in Minnesota.
Some, like the Red-Tailed Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk, are much easier to find than others, and, in some instances, you may even spot one as you’re driving along the highway.
Others, such as the Ferruginous hawk and the Swainson’s Hawk, are much more elusive, and you’ll need to make a special effort to find them in their habitat.
It’s worth it, though, if you’d like to see these magnificent birds of prey in all of their glory, especially if you consider yourself a nature enthusiast.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the largest hawk in Minnesota?
The Ferruginous Hawk is the largest species of hawk you’ll find in Minnesota.
They are also one of the rarest hawks in the State, so if you’ve spotted one, you’ve got really lucky!
Not sure if you’ve seen one? They aren’t easy to identify and have white underparts, belly, and head, while their upper parts and legs are rust-brown.
They also have a unique black and white markings that differ from hawk to hawk.
What is the best time of year to see hawks in Minnesota?
Some of Minnesota’s hawk species are non-migratory, which means you’ll be able to see them all year round.
However, like most birds, the majority of hawks in Minnesota are most active during the spring and summer.
This is because they are raising their broods with more prey around. So, if you want to go hawk spotting in Minnesota, spring and summer are the best times of year to do so.
Are hawks protected in Minnesota?
Yes, all species of hawk are protected in Minnesota under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
It is illegal to shoot, trap, hunt, harm, or kill any hawk. They also cannot be kept as pets, and you need a special permit to cage any species of hawk without being prosecuted.