There are five species of hawks commonly found across Virginia, and each depends on a slightly different habitat for its existence. As top predators in the food chain, these raptors, or birds of prey, collectively eat almost any available reptile, amphibian, bird, mammal or insect. It is important to understand that management for hawks is basically just management for hawk food. In some cases there may be a conflict if the two subjects are both management priorities, as in the case of large hawks and many small game species, such as rabbits or quail.
Although all of our birds of prey are migratory to some extent, we still have representatives present in Virginia year round. Some of the species in Virginia are not doing as well as others because certain types of land uses tend to favor some raptor species over others. Following is a breakdown of the different species and their life history attributes that should be considered when managing field and forest.
Probably our most easily recognized raptor is the red-tailed hawk locally known as chicken hawk. It is the large hawk commonly seen along roadsides. The red-tail has increased in number in the past decade largely due to the increase in open land, whether by clearcutting, agriculture, or road and powerline construction. It forages primarily on small mammals, but will take snakes and other reptiles as well as birds. Young rabbits are occasionally taken, but quail are seldom taken by red-tails. Most of its hunting is done from a perch overlooking areas of short vegetation. As a result it benefits from perch trees left along roadsides, open fields, or cleared areas. They nest in large hardwood or pine trees typically in upland forests or woodlots, and almost always in a very secluded area.
The red-shouldered hawk, slightly smaller and considerably darker than the red-tail, is more at home in low-lying areas. It too, forages primarily on small mammals such as voles and mice, but also takes many reptiles, amphibians, and even insects. Birds are only occasionally taken. The red-shouldered hawk hunts about equally from stationary perches as well as on the wing, dropping down to pounce on unsuspecting prey. It tends to favor floodplain forests, swamps, and other low-lying areas both for hunting and nesting. The red-shouldered benefits from large bottomland forest tracts with occasional open areas. It typically nests in the crotch of large hardwoods, and tends to be quite tolerant of nearby human activity. Conservation of bottomland forest habitats will ensure the future of this species.
The Cooper's Hawk is a different type of hawk than the above raptors. It is called an accipiter, identified by its short, rounded wings and long tail. These features allow it to be extremely quick and agile in flight. As a result, it hunts frequently on the wing, and the majority of its prey items are birds taken in flight. Only occasionally does it take mammals. Particularly in the spring and fall, during migration, Cooper's hawks can be dangerous for quail or even young grouse. They inhabit deciduous and mixed forests, woodlots, and forest patches associated with openings. They tend to nest in more mature forests with a developed understory, but usually prefer to be near edges or openings. This species is declining in Virginia.
Like a miniature Cooper's Hawk, the sharp-shinned hawk is also an accipiter, only smaller. So it too, feeds primarily on birds, just those of a smaller variety many of which are songbirds. It favors more open areas, hedgerows, and wooded strips for hunting where it takes birds by surprise as they move from cover to feed. Unlike the Cooper's hawk, sharp-shins prefer more coniferous forests for nesting, and are more commonly found nesting in the mountains and upper piedmont, often associated with water. This species benefits from strip plantings, clearcuts, hedgerows, and other practices that generate a diversity of cover heights where it can take small birds by surprise.
- It should be noted that hungry Cooper's hawks, and sharp-shinned hawks have a habit of adopting neighborhood bird feeders as a dependable food source in winter.
The sparrow hawk, also known as kestrel, is the small, mourning dove-sized hawk seen sitting on telephone and power lines along roadsides across the state, especially in winter. Due to its small size, this raptor dines primarily on small mammals and insects. It will also take snakes, lizards, and small birds. Kestrels readily make use of manmade perches such as power lines from which they scan for food. They also frequently hover in place to scrutinize movements on the ground below. Kestrels depend on open grassy or pasture type habitats to locate food. The decrease in these habitats has forced this species to increasingly hunt road shoulders and medians. Unlike the other hawks, kestrels nest in cavities. They will respond to nest boxes if placed near adequate foraging sites. Managing for sparrow hawks would involve maintaining pastureland or low vegetation areas with suitable perches and available cavities for nest sites.