11 Hawks in Nebraska

There are 10 species of true hawks found in the Cornhusker State, but while the Osprey is not a true hawk, they are part of the broader Accipiter family, so adding them makes 11 types of hawks in Nebraska.

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.

Some of the hawks seen in Nebraska are seasonal visitors. 

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

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 Cooper’s 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 Nebraska see our articles on backyard birds, ducks, owls, and woodpeckers.

Types of Hawks in Nebraska

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 hues. 

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 not considered a true hawk, this raptor’s presence in Nebraska puts it on this list.

Pandionidae Hawks

1. Osprey

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

The Osprey is a seasonal visitor to Nebraska, found in locations with good water sources. 

Also known as Fish Hawk, Sea Hawk, and River Hawk, Ospreys migrate up from South America and make their return trip in the Fall. Tagged Ospreys have been found as far away as the Amazon 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. Other field marks are brown “wrists” and “fingertips” showing individual “fingers”. Their wingbeats are stiff with a rowing motion.

Ospreys are excellent anglers. They hover over open waters, then dive feet-first to grab a fish, hitting the water hard, with a big splash. They are not deep divers so those waters tend to be shallow, so they take fish that are close to the surface. 

Their toes are unique – one can reverse, allowing for two toes front and back. Barbs on the pads of their feet grip slippery fish. Once caught, Ospreys always align fish to be head-first before flying away with their dinner (a head-first fish offers less wind resistance). 

Nests are built on anything: telephone poles, chimneys, specially-built Osprey platforms, any place they think will work. Nests consist of sticks, grass, rope, and whatever strikes the bird’s eye. Ospreys often add colorful bags or old clothes into their nests. 

Watching a pair of Osprey in the breeding season is a treat. From their intricate courtship rituals to the careful renovation of the nest, to raising their young, they are fun to observe.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Ospreys return to the same nest every year. Home improvement is done by adding to the structure. Over time, nests can become 10 feet deep and 6 feet wide.

Where Did All These Osprey Come From? They Weren’t Here When I Was Young!

If you were a kid back in the 1960s and 70s, there’s nothing wrong with your memory.

While there may seem to be an abundance of Osprey now, back then the species all but disappeared from the Eastern Seaboard, along with Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons.

Pesticides used at the time ran off into fresh and salt waters, affecting the fish in those waters, which were the bird’s main food supply. The biggest culprit was a pesticide known as DDT.

DDT caused the birds to lay eggs with thin shells. Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon populations crashed. 

Banning DDT allowed a slow, natural cleansing cycle to begin. As their food source became pesticide-free, the bird populations began to recover, and now there are Ospreys everywhere on the East and Gulf Coasts again. 


Tip – How to Tell an Osprey from a Bald Eagle 

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.

Accipiter Hawks

2. Sharp-shinned Hawk

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

Male Sharpies are the smallest hawks in the United States 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. 

The Sharpie is the bird of prey version of a stealth fighter, 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.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Sharpies love to cruise local bird feeders, using them like an avian buffet. Remove the feeders for about two weeks if one becomes a constant visitor to your backyard. The Sharpie will move off to better pickings and you can set up the backyard 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 densely wooded areas 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 have brown upperparts 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.

Interesting Facts & Notes

These raptors are fast flyers (in the 50-mph range). Weaving around trees at high speed is not without peril – many Cooper’s Hawk skeletons show old, healed fractures from making contact with trees.


How to Tell a Cooper’s Hawk from a Sharp-shinned Hawk

How do you 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 a Sharp-shinned head 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. American Goshawk*

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

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

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. 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, snowshoe hares, tree and ground squirrels and birds. They will also take reptiles and small mammals.

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

Taxonomies are reviewed every year by the ornithological powers that be, and a change was made in 2023 to split the “Northern Goshawk” into two separate species, the European Goshawk and the American Goshawk.  So, after calling them “Northern Goshawks” for years, the birds I’ve seen here in the US are now “American Goshawks”.

Interesting Facts & 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 2,000 years.


Buteo Hawks

5. Red-tailed Hawk 

  • Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis                
  • Size: 18 to 26 inches          
  • Wingspan: 3.5 to 4.5 feet

The most common hawks in North America. Red-tailed Hawks have 14 subspecies, most of which are found west of the Mississippi River. The Red-tailed Hawk (“Red-tailed Hawk”) is all over Nebraska. 

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 tail is so prominent that even if you’re looking up at the bird, the red can still be visible in most light.

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

Red-tails can be seen circling on thermals in search of small mammals, snakes, and birds such as pheasants or quail also included in their diet. Sometimes they hunt in pairs, coasting in tight circles opposite each other. 

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

These buteos are very aggressive when it comes to defending their nests. Since this species also lives in suburban areas, if you get too close, you might be dive-bombed. These birds have huge, long talons – so keep your distance, please.

Interesting Facts & Notes

An eagle comes screaming across your TV screen. Chances are that’s not an eagle calling but a Red-tailed Hawk. Hollywood doesn’t think Bald Eagles sound “eagle-y” enough, so the Red-tailed call is the substitute for the more regal eagle most of the time.


6. Swainson’s Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Buteo swainsoni
  • Size: 19 to 22 inches            
  • Wingspan: 46 to 54 inches

While this hawk is usually found west of the Mississippi River, Swainson’s Hawks are sometimes found in the east.

This is a distinctive long-winged, large hawk with pointed wingtips. Both morphs show a brown upper breast, giving them a hooded appearance.

Light morph birds show dark flight feathers, giving them a dark leading edge to their wings. Dark morph birds often show rufous underwing and pale under-tail coverts.

Swainson’s Hawks often fly in a dihedral (wings slightly raised and rocking from side to side) like a Turkey Vulture.

This is a raptor of open habitats, where it forages for prey in what is now mostly agricultural settings but once was prairie and grasslands. They perch on fence posts and overhead sprinklers to scan for small mammals and insects (mammals make up their breeding season diet while insects are the non-breeding food of choice).

Swainson’s Hawks employ two interesting techniques for getting food – they go to the ground and hunt in the dirt for prey, or take an aerial page out of the American Kestrel’s book and hover over a field to scout the prey items.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Swainson’s Hawks go a long way during migration. They head down to Argentina in large numbers in kettles along with Broad-winged Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and Swallow-tailed Kites.


7. 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.

Interesting Facts & 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.


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 Nebraska, these hawks can be found perched on trees, posts near open areas, or hovering over fields searching for prey.

The name “Rough-legged” comes from the 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. The heads of female Rough-leggeds 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.

These raptors prowl the Arctic tundra in search of voles and lemmings, but on their southern Winter range, rodents, small mammals, and birds make up their diet. 

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.

Interesting Facts & Notes

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.

Another name for this hawk is the Rough-legged Buzzard.


9. Broad-winged Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Buteo platypterus                 
  • Size:13 to 17 inches                   
  • Wingspan: 28 to 39 inches

A sturdy, medium-sized hawk with a black-and-white banded tail found in the interior forests of Nebraska. 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. They will always show those white bands in either light or dark morph. 

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. 

Interesting Facts & 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. 


10. Ferruginous Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Buteo regalis
  • Size: 22.1 to 27.2 inches
  • Wingspan: 54.2 to 55.9 inches

Long-winged, big Buteo with pointed wingtips and a large head. Ferruginous Hawks are the largest hawk species in North America. 

These buteos are inhabitants of open country – sagebrush country, pinyon-juniper forests, shrublands, and open grasslands.

Light morphs have white bellies and rusty legs that form a V-shape when seen from below. Dark morph birds have chestnut bellies and white legs. The dark morph is the rarer of the two phases in Ferruginous Hawks.

When hunting for prey, Ferruginous Hawks are either seen soaring high above, sometimes kiting over a field, or perched on telephone poles. They also hunt on the ground, lying in wait around prairie dogs and ground squirrel tunnels for the rodents to make an appearance.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Like Turkey Vultures, Ferruginous Hawks soar with their wings in a dihedral V but tend to keep their wingtips flat instead of upturned as the Turkey Vulture does.

Light morph Ferruginous Hawks are extremely pale, especially when seen in flight and from a distance.

Ferruginous Hawks are one of two hawk species with feathers going completely down their legs. The Rough-legged Hawk is the other. 


11. 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 Nebraska.

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 open areas in slow, drifting patterns searching for prey. 

Interesting Facts & 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. 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. 


Rare hawks and hawk-like birds in Nebraska 

There are Bald Eagles in winter (see notes on Osprey / Bald Eagle identification above), four falcon species (American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcons, and Prairie Falcon), and Turkey Vultures, along with an occasional Black Vulture, being seen in Nebraska. Nebraska is also visited by Mississippi, White-tailed, and the beautiful Swallow-tailed Kite (remember to look up, because kites spend lots of time in the air). You might find a Golden Eagle soaring above throughout the year.

Where to find Hawks in Nebraska

Hawks can be found anywhere throughout Nebraska. The state lies on the Central Flyway, which includes the North Platte River Valley Important Bird Area (IBA).

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

In Northern states, Red-tailed Hawks are the main roadside hawks; in the Southern States, it’s the Red-shouldered hawks. Look for Red-shouldered hawks in Eastern and Central Nebraska year-round.

The best places to see Osprey in Nebraska are in and around Scotts Bluff County and anywhere where you find water. Look for nests on platforms, poles, etc.  Their migration is usually between March and October.

The most common hawks seen are Red-tailed, Sharp-shinned, and Cooper’s hawks. The predominant Buteos during fall migration are Northern Harriers and Broad-winged Hawks. 

Hawk Watches are great places to find migrating raptors of various species. The Hitchcock Hawkwatch sits in the Central Flyway, so a visit there should bring hawks and other raptors during Spring and Fall migrations. 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 some of the hawks in Nebraska can be found year-round, many migrate in spring and fall or are winter visitors. Swainson’s Hawks are summer visitors and are also seen during migration. Ferruginous Hawks are more likely to be seen during the cold months but may be found in the western and central portions of the state during both migrations. Like Ferruginous Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks migrate in spring and fall, with fall numbers being higher.


To learn about hawks, raptors, and other birds in Nebraska, as always, the Audubon Great Plains website 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 ten hawks found in Nebraska. 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 Nebraska.

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