The “chicken hawk” of colonial America, this medium-sized accipiter is a common sight at home bird feeders across the country, swooping in to nab an unwary dove or jay. Females are larger and bulkier than males, juveniles differ from adults. Monotypic. Length 14–20"; wingspan 29–37".
The long tail is rounded at the tip, also the relatively short wings and flat-topped head are good field marks. Eye is close to the beak. Crown merges with forehead and bill in a smooth line. Adult: blue-gray upperparts, the crown is darker and contrasts with the lighter nape and buffy cheeks, giving the look of wearing a “beret.” Eye color is orange to red. Undersides with rufous barring, undertail is white. Juvenile: brown above, with rufous edges and white spots on upperwing coverts. Tail long, with straight bands and wide, white tip that wears down by spring. Head usually buffy, eyes pale yellow. Undersides are white with thin brown streaks, white undertail. Flight: wings typically held straight out from body, head, and neck projecting forward. This along with tail length make a “flying cross” appearance. Shallow, quick wingbeats alternate with short glides.
Western populations hunting more open country are smaller, with longer wings, shorter legs than eastern birds. Plumages are alike.
Northern goshawk is usually larger, heavier appearing, and has relatively shorter tail and longer wings. Sharp-shinned hawk is smaller and has a square tail.
A low keh-keh-keh uttered around nest, occasionally mimicked by jays.
Status and Distribution
Widespread through United States and southern Canada, more commonly seen in suburbs, probably due to reforestation in the East. Breeding: nests in a variety of forest types, preying on small- to medium-size birds and small mammals, hunting from perches under the canopy. Migration: increasing numbers at eastern hawk-watches probably due to better identification skills. Winter: juveniles winter farther north than adults; eastern birds move to the southern states, western birds to Mexico.
Common and stable in the West, increasing in the East.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006