About Birds of Prey
On any long drive in Massachusetts, you’re likely to see a bird of prey, perhaps perched on a post by the roadside or soaring over an open field. The term “hawk” has been applied to many birds of prey, including some that aren’t closely related to each other.
These include the slender, round-winged accipiters, the stocky buteos, the speedy falcons, and many others. Here are the species you’re likely to see in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts hosts three Accipiter species: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and northern goshawk. These bird-eating hawks are long-tailed and have relatively short, rounded wings and are often very similar in appearance, making them tricky to identify.
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
The smallest accipiter, the sharp-shin is an uncommon breeder in Massachusetts, although it can be seen in good numbers in migration. Experienced hawk watchers can differentiate it from the larger Cooper’s hawk by the smaller head and less rounded tail.
Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Over the past 30 years the increase in Cooper’s hawk has been dramatic. Once rarer even than sharp-shin, it has bounced back and can now be seen throughout the state. Although most at home in wooded areas in recent years it has become more common in suburban areas.
Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
In adult plumage the northern goshawk is unmistakable, but the immatures are often confused with the smaller Cooper’s hawk. It is very uncommon and is most often seen in larger forests. On its breeding territory, it is notoriously aggressive and will attack passers-by.
Buteos are stockier in build than the Accipiters. Their preferred food is often comprised of small mammal, but they will also feed on birds, reptiles, and even insects. Buteos include the rough-legged hawk, red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, and red-shouldered hawk.
Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
The buteo of the forests, the red-shouldered hawk can be identified in flight by the pale crescent on the tips of the wings or by its insistent “keer” call. It breeds most commonly in Plymouth and Bristol counties, but is uncommon on Cape Cod.
Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)
During the fall hawkwatchers congregate to witness the migration of the broad-winged hawk. With the right weather, thousands can be seen flying over a site on a single day. The migration is precisely timed, so it is extremely rare to see a broad-wing in winter. Despite its abundance during migration, it is not a common breeder in Massachusetts and is declining in many parts of the state.
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Our most common hawk, the red-tail is seen in cities, suburbia, and the country. It feeds primarily on squirrels and other small mammals, and rarely presents any threat to humans or pets. Only adults sport a red tail; young birds (who are the same size as adults) keep their brown tails for the year following birth. Young birds continue to rely on their parents for food for a month or more following fledging and in late summer can often be heard screeching for food.
Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)
Rough-legged hawks are arctic breeders but often move south to Massachusetts in the winter. Look for rough-legs in large open fields which is their preferred habitat. They are the only buteo that regularly hunts by “kiting,” or hovering in place.
Scientists used to classify falcons among the hawks, but it has more recently been determined they are actually more closely related to woodpeckers.
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
The robin-sized American kestrel is a bird of the open field and the lucky observer might see it hovering in place as it searches for grasshoppers or small rodents. It is a cavity nester and will adapt readily to human-provided nest boxes. Sadly, this colorful little falcon is in serious decline in Massachusetts, probably because of the loss of grasslands and suburban sprawl.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
The merlin is only slightly larger than the kestrel, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in attitude. It feeds mostly on small birds which it can capture in midair. The merlin only recently nested for the first time in Massachusetts and is still rarely seen in summer, but is regularly seen during the rest of the year, particularly in fall migration. Adult males are gray, and females and juveniles are brown.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
The fastest bird on Earth, the peregrine falcon was extirpated from Massachusetts in the 1950s when the pesticide DDT caused its eggshells to crack and break before the young were ready to hatch. It has recovered well and current numbers exceed historical highs. Only a handful of peregrines now use nest sites on cliffs as they did in the past, and most exploiting tall buildings or bridges in cities where local rock pigeons provide a steady food supply.
There are several other birds of prey often lumped in with hawks, but are not all as closely related to the other species mentioned, at least from a scientific perspective.
Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
The black vulture is similar to the more common turkey vulture, but is quickly identified by its white wingtips. Although it is still uncommon in most of the state, there are areas in western Massachusetts where it is routinely seen and may well be breeding.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
The profile of the turkey vulture is distinctive as it soars overhead: it soars with a pronounced dihedral (it lifts its wings above the body) and rocks back and forth in the air currents. It is one of the earliest migrants to Massachusetts, often showing up in late February.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Also known as “fish hawk”, the osprey is now a relatively common breeder along the coast. It feeds almost exclusively on fish, and can be seen hovering over the water then spectacularly diving to capture its prey. With its dramatic black-and-white plumage and long wings, it is unmistakable.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
The bald eagle was once extirpated from Massachusetts, but in 1982 a hacking program was initiated at Quabbin Reservoir and in 1989 two pairs of eagles were the first to nest in the state in over 75 years. Adults show the iconic white head and tail, but young birds do not reach adulthood until their fourth year and are overall dark with varying patches of white.
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)
The northern harrier is most often seen in flight as it flies low over open country. Its owl-like face and white rump patch are the best field marks.