9 Hawks in Michigan

There are 8 species of true hawks found in the Great Lakes State, but while the Osprey is not a true hawk, they are part of the broader Accipiter family, so adding them makes 9 Hawks in Michigan.

Hawks are also known as Birds of Prey, a group consisting of hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, condors, and vultures. They are also referred to as Raptors, from the Latin “raptare” – to seize and carry off.

All raptors except owls are diurnal, meaning that they hunt during the day. Owls are primarily nocturnal and hunt mostly at night.

Many of the hawks seen in Michigan are seasonal visitors.

Something to note: when identifying raptors, keep in mind that females are much larger than males.

This can make determining what you’re viewing problematic with some species, like the Coopers and Sharp-shinned. While Cooper’s Hawks are larger overall than the Sharp-shinned Hawks, male Cooper’s Hawks can be the same size as a Sharp-shinned female.

For more birdwatching in Michigan see our articles Backyard Birds in Michigan, Owls in Michigan, and Woodpeckers in Michigan.

Types of Hawks in Michigan

The hawks found in Michigan are broken down into three separate families: Accipiters, Buteos, and Pandionidae.

Accipiters are fast-moving birds with short, broad, rounded wings and long tails that make it easy for them to maneuver during flight.

While Falcons are also accipiters, they are not hawks and will be covered in another one of our articles.

Buteos are large raptors with short, wide tails, broad wings, and heavy, solid bodies. While Buteos are called “hawks” here in the US and Canada, they are known as “buzzards” throughout the rest of the world.

While most raptors have a specific color to their feathers, Buteo hawks can have variations in that overall plumage. This color difference is called a “morph”. Morphs are typically lighter or darker versions of the normal feather hue.

A dark morph Rough-legged hawk looks just like the field guide bird but is darker overall. Light morphs are paler than “normal” birds. While they will appear in another of our articles, a good example of morphs is the Eastern Screech Owl, which comes in three morphs – brown, grey, and red.

Pandionidae has only one member – the fish-eating Osprey. While it’s not considered a true hawk, this raptor’s presence in Michigan puts it on this list, and which we’re going to tackle first.

Pandionidae Hawks

1. Osprey

  • Scientific Name Pandion haliaetus
  • Size 1.5 to 2 feet
  • Wingspan 5 feet

The Osprey is a seasonal visitor to Michigan, found all along the Atlantic Coast from Cape May to Sandy Hook, Michigan Bay, the Michigan River, and other locations with good water sources, both fresh and salt.

Also known as Fish Hawk, Sea Hawk, and River Hawk, Ospreys migrate up from South America and begin their return trip in Fall. Tagged Osprey has been found as far away as Venezuela, Colombia, and the Amazon River Basin.

A white head with a bold, brown stripe that starts behind the eye, a large brown body, and a dark tail mark this bird.

Ospreys eat fish, and they are excellent anglers. They scan the open waters below and once the food is spotted, hover over the prey, then dive feet-first to grab the fish. They are not deep divers (about 3 feet or less) so the waters of choice are usually shallow, but they will take fish that are close to the surface when they find them. And they do hit that water hard, sending big splashes up around them.

Their toes are unique in that one can reverse to grip prey with two toes front and back. Barbs on the pads of their feet allow a strong grip on slippery fish. After they get their fish, Osprey always lines it up to be head first before flying away with their dinner (a head-first fish offers less wind resistance).

How To Tell The Difference Between A Bald Eagle And Osprey

That white head often makes people think “Bald Eagle”, but there are many differences between Ospreys and Bald Eagles. Ospreys are much smaller, they have dark, banded tails (not white), and their flight profile is different from our national symbol. Where Eagles fly flat, Osprey’s wings are usually bent when in flight.

A flying Osprey has long, triangular wings, giving them a silhouette that’s more streamlined than a Buteo hawk. Look for a white underwing, white belly, banded tail, and bold, striped flight feathers.

Other good field marks are their brown “wrists” and “fingertips”. The latter are splayed wide apart, showing the individual “fingers”. Their wingbeats are stiff with a rowing motion.

Their nests are built on anything tall: telephone poles, chimneys, specially-built Osprey platforms, or any place they think they can build one. Nests consist of twigs, sticks, grass, rope, and anything else that strikes the bird’s eye. Osprey will often weave colorful items like plastic bags or old clothes into their nests.

Bird Notes

Ospreys return to the same nest year after year, which they constantly adjust, by adding to the structure, building them higher and wider. Over time, the nests can become more than 10 feet deep and over 6 feet wide.

While there may seem to be an abundance of Osprey in Michigan during the summer months, back in the 1960s and 1970s the species all but disappeared from the Eastern Seaboard. Pesticides used at the time built up in fresh and salt waters, affecting the Osprey’s food supply.

DDT caused the birds to lay eggs with thin shells, so fewer eggs survived to hatch. Populations crashed. Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons were seriously affected.

Banning DDT allowed a natural cleansing cycle to begin. As their food source became pesticide-free, the shells of Osprey and other bird eggs affected became thicker and now there are Osprey everywhere on the East Coast again.

Accipiter Hawks

2. Sharp-shinned Hawk

  • Scientific Name Accipiter striatus
  • Size 11 inches
  • Wingspan 23 inches

Male Sharpies are the smallest hawks in the US and Canada. Long wings and very long tails, along with short wings, make these raptors highly maneuverable among the trees.

The fast-moving Sharp-shinned Hawk is a keen hunter, weaving through the trees to take Robin-sized or smaller songbirds and small rodents from the forest.

Sharpies are the stealth hunters of the raptor class, using their speed to chase their prey or pouncing from the canopy to grab them from the ground. They are built for zipping around trees and forest shrubs, weaving in and out in hot pursuit.

Adult birds are blue-gray with narrow reddish-brown banding on the breast. Their eyes are large while their heads appear small for their size. The tail is squared off and banded.

Immature birds are brown above with brown streaking below. Another field mark for the young Sharp-shinned hawk is a yellow eye.

Their flight profile shows the wings appear pushed forward and their cadence is a flap-flap-glide pattern. Sharp-shinned Hawk light silhouette is more of a capital “T” with the head just peeking out ahead of the wings.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk prefers firs or other conifers for their nest sites.

Bird Notes

Sharpies love to cruise local bird feeders, using them like an avian buffet. If one becomes a constant visitor to your backyard, remove the feeders for about two weeks. The Sharpie will move off to better pickings and you can set up the feeders again.

3. Cooper’s Hawk

  • Scientific Name Accipiter Cooperii
  • Size 16.5 inches
  • Wingspan 31 inches

The quintessential Accipiter, the Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized stealth missile honed in on its songbird prey, weaving and swerving through dense forests propelled on strong rounded wings and very long tails.

Adult Cooper’s Hawks are gray with reddish barring on the chest, long gray tails with black banding ide, and a white tail edge (terminal band). The face features pale cheeks, a black cap, red eyes, and a strongly hooked bill.

Immature birds are brown upper parts and white underparts that are streaked with brown. Oh, and yellow eyes.

Cooper’s Hawks show a flight profile where the wings appear pushed forward and their cadence is flap-flap-glide. Their light silhouette is more of a lower-case “T” with the head out in front of the wings. The tails of Cooper’s Hawks appear rounded in flight.

Bird Notes

How to tell a Cooper’s from a Sharpie? Size may not work here, since there’s a major overlap between the two species, with the female Sharpie being similar in size to the male Cooper’s.

Cooper’s Hawks are more the size of a Crow while Sharp-shinned is more the size of a Blue Jay, but again, you’ll have to use more than that to make the positive ID.

Cooper’s Hawks sit more upright on a branch. The tail is rounded, kind of like a sideways “C” for Cooper’s, while the Sharpie’s tail has a flat edge.

Cooper’s hawk heads are blocky and appear large while the head of a Sharp-shinned seems small for its body size. In addition to this, the Cooper looks like it’s wearing a cap while the Sharpie wears a hood.

Last one – the Cooper’s Hawk’s body is thick and somewhat tubular and has a low center of gravity while the Sharpie is broad in the chest and slimmer in the hips, so it has a higher center of gravity.

Still confused? So am I. That’s why there’s a box to check for “Accipiter species” on birding checklists.

4. Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific Name Accipiter gentilis
  • Size 21 inches
  • Wingspan 41 inches

Northern Goshawks are one of the largest hawks seen in Michigan and are found in coniferous and mixed old-growth forests, mostly in the northern parts of the state. They are also among the most secretive, choosing to inhabit forests all through their range. This is where you will most likely encounter them in winter in Michigan.

A red-eyed, large, robust Accipiter with a slaty-gray cap and white eyebrow. Their backs are slate gray while their breast, chest, and underparts are white with fine gray barring.

Juvenile birds are brownish with streaked bellies and speckled backs. The crowns of their heads are brown, with that same white eyebrow as the adult birds.

Goshawks present a flight profile very similar to buteos, but their long, thin rounded tails mark them as accipiters. They appear light-colored with dark bands on their outer wings, a white tail edge, and a white underbelly.

These large raptors hunt both the interior and edges of forests, or along the edges of both. They wait perched on branches until a potential meal is spotted, then they dive down with incredible speed to pick off their prey.

Their food sources of choice are rabbits (cottontails in Michigan), snowshoe hares, and tree and ground squirrels and birds. They will also take reptiles and small mammals, with an occasional foray into insects and even carrion dependent on the conditions.

This powerful hawk is aggressive when there are eggs or young in their nests. It will kill other raptors, including owls, and will also attack humans if they get too close.

Bird Notes

Goshawk means “Goose Hawk” in Old English, as birds are a main food source.

These large accipiters have been kept and used in falconry for over least 2,000 years.

Buteo Hawks

5. Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawking flying
  • Scientific Name Buteo jamaicensis
  • Size 18 to 26 inches
  • Wingspan 3.5 to 4.5 feet

The most common hawks in North America (and Michigan too). Red-tailed Hawks come in 14 subspecies, all with different plumages. You’ll find the eastern version of the Red-tailed Hawk, known as “Red-tailed Hawk” all over Michigan, as most of the subspecies are found west of the Mississippi River.

Seen from below, this is a pale bird with a dark “belly band”, dark fingers (wingtips), and edges of their flight feathers. Adults are brown above, with that unique red tail. That red tail is so prominent that even if you’re looking up at the bird, the reddish tail can still be visible in most light.

While their red tails are the best field mark for this bird, the tails of juvenile or immature hawks are brown, making the ID more difficult. That’s where that belly band nails it. No belly band – look at the other Buteos on this list.

Red-tails are often seen circling on the thermals in search of small mammals and snakes, with game birds such as pheasants and quail also included in their diet. Sometimes they will hunt in pairs, coasting in tight circles opposite each other.

Look for Red-tailed nests high up in the trees, where they have a commanding view over their territory. These are tall (up to 6 feet) structures constructed from dry sticks. They are quite robust, which is why Great Horned Owls will often take them over once the Red-tailed chicks have fledged and left.

Red-tailed Hawks are very aggressive when it comes to defending their nests and their territories. And since this species can be found nesting in tall trees or even suburban areas, If you get too close, there’s a good chance that you’ll be dive-bombed. These birds have huge, long talons – so keep your distance, please.

Bird Notes

Watching a movie and an eagle comes screaming from a mountaintop? That’s not an eagle. Hollywood doesn’t think that Bald Eagles sound “eagle-y” enough, so the ordinary Red-tailed Hawk call is the substitute of choice for the more regal eagle a majority of the time.

A Red-tail won’t hit the birds at your feeders, but it might take off with your little yappy Yorkie or Chihuahua (they can carry up to about 5 pounds).

While Red-tailed Hawks are called “Chickenhawks” (with Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned hawks), Red-tails don’t hunt or eat chickens.

6. Red-shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific Name Buteo lineatus
  • Size 15 to 19 inches
  • Wingspan 37 to 42 inches

Distinctively marked Buteo with a characteristic whistle call found in wetland forests all across the state.

Red-shouldered Hawks show rufous-peach barred underparts, a mottled black-and-white back, and rufous “shoulders”. Both the tail and flight feathers are banded, and the wingtips appear squarish as opposed to the splayed fingers of other Buteos.

Juvenile and immature birds don’t have the reddish coloration of their parents, nor do they have the black-and-white checkerboard back pattern. They may look like juvenile Red-tailed Hawks, but they don’t have the Red-tail’s belly band. They are also smaller.

Regardless of their age, all Red-shouldered Hawks show translucent white crescents on their wingtips when in flight.

From below, the reddish-brown body and “arms” are easy to recognize. Their long tails give them a sleeker flight silhouette than other Buteos.

While they still have the broad-winged look of a Buteo, Red-shouldered Hawks can also appear very Accipiter-like by flapping their wings followed by a glide.

The Red-shouldered Hawk’s diet runs from small mammals to lizards, snakes, and amphibians. On occasion, they will take birds from feeders, but other avians are not a prime food source.

Nests are often close to a water source, usually in the crook of a tree, somewhat closer to the top than the floor. They will reuse the same nest year after year, refurbishing it with twigs, grass, leaves, and conifer sprigs.

Bird Notes

The courtship of Red-shouldered Hawks features the male and female flying together and rolling over on their backs to fly upside down in unison.

7. Broad-winged Hawk

  • Scientific Name Buteo platypterus
  • Size 13 inches
  • Wingspan 28 to 39 inches

A sturdy, small crow-sized Buteo with a black-and-white banded tail found in the interior forests of Michigan. They can be seen at hawk watches during the spring and fall migrations.

The characteristic field mark for the Broad-winged Hawk is the white banding on their short tails. In either light or dark morph, they will always show those white bands.

Smaller than other Buteos, with tapered wings that come to a sort-of tip, they can turn in tighter circles when soaring on thermals than their larger cousins.

The dark morph Broad-winged Hawk is the rarer of the color variations. These birds are uniformly dark brown, with a white band on their tails. Light morph Broad-winged Hawks have brown heads and chests, barred underparts, and dark tails (with a broad white band on the tail).

Broad-winged Hawks feed mostly on mammals, amphibians, and insects. They hunt their prey from trees, poles, or any place allowing them to dive down from above.

Their nests are lower in the canopy than other raptors, staying away from the tops of trees. Two feet wide is about the maximum width of the nest, which is constructed from sticks and bark and lined with feathers, moss, lichens, and pine needles.

Bird Notes

During migration, Broad-winged Hawks travel to Central and South America in large flocks called kettles. You can see them circling and flying overhead at a local hawk watch.

8. Rough-legged Hawk

  • Scientific Name Buteo lagopus
  • Size 18 to 23 inches
  • Wingspan 48-56 inches

Large, narrow-winged, long-tailed Buteo that favors open country. A winter visitor to Michigan and the Northeast, they can be found perched on trees and posts near open areas or hovering above fields searching for prey.

The name “Rough-legged” comes from the covering of feathers on their legs and feet.

In either dark or light morphs, the characteristic field marks of the Rough-legged Hawk are the dark wrists and black belly band, banded tail and flight feathers, and feathered legs and toes. Males tend to have darker heads and sparser belly bands. Female Rough-leg heads are lighter, while their belly bands are broader and darker than the male.

Juveniles have white panels in their primary feathers (close to the wingtips).

Dark morph birds have paler flight feathers, giving them a two-toned underwing. Their tails show white bands. Their backs and bellies are mottled and their underparts may vary from brown to dark chocolate brown.

Male light morph birds are more mottled on the back and wings than the females. The female’s belly band is more noticeable.

Hunting grounds of Rough-legged Hawks can be open fields, farmland, grasslands, coastal prairies, or marshes. They can often be seen hovering over a field in search of small rodents.

Rough-legged Hawks prowl the Arctic tundra in search of voles and lemmings, but when on their southern Winter range, rodents, small mammals, and other birds make up their diet. If winters are harsh, these raptors will eat carrion.

Remember, “south” depends on where you start your journey, and for Arctic-based birds, Michigan is “south”. Whether or not you will see a Rough-legged Hawk depends more on conditions in the Arctic than in Michigan.

If their food source (mostly lemmings) is abundant, there is no need to travel farther south than the US / Canadian border. If scarce, you’ll see them all along the northern parts of the US too.

Bird Notes

Rough-legged Hawks are the largest hawks in Michigan.

Rough-legged Hawks apparently can “see” vole urine, which is visible in ultraviolet light, and hunt in areas where the rodent pee is more concentrated and prey is abundant. This is something they have in common with the American Kestrel, a small falcon that also hunts by hovering over open fields scanning for prey.

9. Northern Harrier

  • Scientific Name Circus hudsonius
  • Size 18 inches
  • Wingspan 43 inches

You’re driving along an open field and you spot a low-flying raptor almost eye-level, gliding over the field, its wings held in a V, long-tailed and effortlessly floating, slowly searching and drifting over the barren ground in search of food.

You’ve just encountered a Northern Harrier, one of the beautiful hawks found in Michigan

If you look closer, you’ll notice the dish-shaped owlish face, wide white rump patch that’s always visible in flight, and a very long tail.

Adult male Harriers have light gray heads, darker gray backs, and white breasts, giving them a ghostly appearance and the moniker “Grey Ghost.

Females are dark brown on top with the same light underparts and white rump patches.

Light underparts, black wingtips, and black secondary feathers are other field marks, but it’s that owl face and white rump patch that sets the Harrier apart.

Harriers have a way of moving low over the ground in slow, drifting patterns searching for prey.

Bird Notes

Male Northern Harriers are known as “Grey Ghosts” for their coloration and the spectral way they float over open ground. There is no way to explain the sight of this beautiful raptor gliding over a marsh or field.

Northern Harriers were also called “Marsh Hawks” due to their fondness for hunting over marshes and wetlands.

Short-eared Owls like the same habitats as Northern Harriers, but hunt more at dawn or dusk. So visiting an area known for Northern Harrier activity in the early morning or later in the afternoon may get you a Short-eared Owl or two.

Other hawks and hawk-like birds that may be found in Michigan

While rare, Swainson’s Hawk has been seen in Michigan. There has been a sighting or two of Ferruginous Hawks and Short-tailed Hawks in the past

There are Bald Eagles, three falcon species (American Kestrels, Merlin, Peregrine), and both Black and Turkey Vultures being seen in Michigan. If you’re lucky, you may even find a Swallow-tailed Kite flyover (rare, but spring reports are not unlikely) or find Golden Eagles soaring above during spring and fall migrations.

Where to find Hawks in Michigan

Hawks can be found anywhere throughout Michigan, so keep an eye out for them.

Be observant. I’ve done a lot of double-takes when walking trails, going back a few steps to find a hawk sitting on a branch. I’ve also looked up and seen their silhouette against the open (or urban) sky, or found them sitting on large branches along highways.

In Northern states, Red-tailed Hawks are the main roadside hawks seen; in the Southern States, it’s the Red-shouldered hawks.
The best places to see Osprey in Michigan are anywhere where you find water. Look for their nests on platforms, poles, and anywhere that they think is a great place to build a nest.

Hawk Watches are great places to find migrating raptors of various species, especially Broad-winged Hawks. Michigan has five official watches. Here’s the breakdown of when to go and what to see:
Detroit River Hawk Watch @ Lake Erie Metropark Boat Launch, Detroit MI – Spring and Fall Migration – Broad-winged Hawk
Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, Paradise MI – Spring Migration – Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk
Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch, Mackinaw City MI – Spring and Fall Migration – Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Turkey Vulture, Peregrine Falcon.
Brockway Mountain Hawk Watch, UP MI – Spring Migration – All nine hawks in Michigan
Port Crescent Hawk Watch – Port Crescent State Park – Spring Migration

The predominant Buteo to see during fall migration is the Broad-winged Hawk. Large kettles of these raptors glide over the mountain ridges on their long journey to South America.

When visiting a Hawk Watch, please ask one of the enumerators about what you’re seeing – they are very knowledgeable and always seem to have good tips on raptor ID.

While many of the hawks in Michigan can be found year-round, some migrate in spring and fall. Ospreys arrive in March and are usually gone by October. Swainson’s Hawks come to Michigan for summer and leave in the fall. Broad-winged Hawks also migrate in fall.

Rough-legged Hawks are winter visitors (look for them hovering over open fields). Another, more rare winter visitor is the elusive Northern Goshawk.


To learn about hawks, raptors, and other birds in Michigan, as always, the Michigan Audubon has information on birding in the state.

Seeing a hawk in their natural habitat or flight up close is a breathtaking sight, but you have to get out there to see them.

This was just a brief foray into the nine hawks found in Michigan. We hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and will check out some of our other pieces on birds in the 50 States.

Remember, all you need to get started is a decent pair of binoculars and a good location. Get out there and see all the hawks and other amazing birds found throughout Michigan.

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