Hawks are medium- to large-sized birds with a hooked bill and a long, sharp, curved claw (talon) on the tip of each toe. They are birds of prey with extremely good vision and exceptional flying skills. They are active during the day. Hawks are included in a group of birds known as raptors. Falcons and owls are considered to be raptors, too.
Talons are made of keratin. The downward-curving shape, sharpness and length of the talons make it hard for hawks to walk. Strong leg muscles and toes along with talons provide the weaponry needed to capture food.
Raptors have ear openings on each side of the head behind and beneath the eyes. The ears are usually covered with feathers.
Raptors have the best vision in the animal kingdom. The location of their eyes in the front of the head gives them a wide field of view and binocular vision.
The beak is made of bone and covered with keratin. The sides of the beak are very sharp, and the tip is hooked. The hooked tip is used to tear meat into pieces that are easily swallowed.
Sixteen species of hawks are generally considered to be found living in or passing through Illinois. Three of these species occur so infrequently, though, that we will not discuss them in this account. They are the swallow-tailed kite Elanoides forficatus, white-tailed kite Elanus leucurus and ferruginous hawk Buteo regalis. Other species of hawks may visit the state on a rare or accidental basis.
osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
The osprey is threatened in Illinois. It is found around large rivers and lakes and does nest in the state. It eats mainly fishes and is the only raptor to plunge from the air and go completely under water to catch them. It may be identified by the distinct bend in its wings in flight.
Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis)
This species is threatened in Illinois. It is an uncommon migrant and summer resident that lives in woodlands and open fields along the Mississippi River and its associated swamps. It can be seen hunting over open fields for insects, frogs and reptiles.
bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
The bald eagle lives along rivers or near lakes with large trees. It feeds mainly on fishes but also eats small birds, dead animals, turtles, cottontails and wounded waterfowl. The adult has brown body feathers with white feathers on the head, neck and tail. Juvenile bald eagles have dark feathers all over.
northern harrier (Circus cyaneus)
The northern harrier is endangered in Illinois. It is a common migrant through the state but a rare resident. It lives in marshes and open fields. The white patch on the upper base of the tail and dark tip on the underside of each wing are characteristic field marks for the bird. In flight, the harrier's wings form a shallow "v" as it flies low to the ground hunting for mice, amphibians, birds, insects and reptiles.
sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus)
The sharp-shinned hawk is a common migrant and summer resident and an uncommon winter resident statewide. It lives in woodlands and thickets. It feeds on other birds and small mammals. This species usually nests in conifer forests of the northern United States and Canada, but nests have been found in northern Illinois.
Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
The Cooper's hawk is a rare summer resident and an uncommon migrant and winter resident in the state. Found in woodlands and urban areas, this hawk is often seen hunting from perches for small mammals, birds, reptiles and large insects.
northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
The northern goshawk is an occasional migrant and winter resident in northern Illinois. It may be seen in forests, open areas and city parks. It prefers to roost in conifer trees. It eats cottontails, waterfowl and other birds. It tends to fly at treetop-level.
red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus)
The red-shouldered hawk is a resident of lowland woods near rivers. It is a migrant and summer resident in northern and central Illinois and a permanent resident in southern Illinois. Preferred foods are amphibians, birds, reptiles and rodents which it hunts in agricultural fields, grasslands, wetlands and along forest edges.
broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus)
The broad-winged hawk is a common migrant statewide between September 15-25 but an uncommon summer resident. It lives in wooded areas but not those where red-tailed hawks or red-shouldered hawks live. Birds, frogs, insects, snakes and small mammals make up its diet.
Swainson's hawk (Buteo swainsoni)
Swainson's hawk is endangered in Illinois. It is a rare migrant through the state and a local summer resident in northern Illinois. It lives in open grasslands where it feeds on small mammals and insects.
red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
The red-tailed hawk is a common migrant and summer resident throughout Illinois woodlands and open areas. Small mammals are its primary food, but it will also eat lizards, birds, insects and snakes. When flying, it beats its wings three to five times and then glides with the wings in a "v" position.
rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus)
The rough-legged hawk is a common migrant and winter resident statewide, although it is seen more often in northern Illinois. It lives near marshes, fields and open areas. It feeds on rodents, cottontails, small birds, reptiles and road kills. It nests in the Arctic.
golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
The golden eagle is a rare migrant and winter resident in Illinois. Fall migrants begin arriving in October. Spring migration begins in March. This species feeds on small mammals and wounded waterfowl. It glides with its wings held nearly flat. The wingspan is about seven feet.