Chicken Hawk: Bird Information, Facts & Pictures

Chicken hawk perched on the fence while snowing

Chicken hawks, often misunderstood due to their name, are a group of birds of prey found across North America. They play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance, preying on various species in their habitats.

Although some people think they exclusively hunt chickens, these prime predators actually have a much wider range of food preferences and intriguing habits.

Several fascinating facts about these amazing birds are explored in this article, including their diets, flight speeds, and the threats that they encounter. Keep reading to find out more about them!

Chicken Hawk Quick Facts

Common Types:Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk
Size:10–24 inches
Weight:0.2–3.5 pounds
Lifespan:3–20 years
Colors:Varied colors depending on the species, including shades of brown, gray, and white
Personality:Solitary, territorial, vigilant, observant
Diet:Primarily carnivorous, preying on small mammals, birds, and reptiles
Habitat:Woodlands, deserts, grasslands, forests, parks

What Is a Chicken Hawk?

A chicken hawk is not a specific bird species but rather an informal term used primarily in the United States.

It collectively refers to three distinct types of North American hawks known for their tendency to prey on chickens and other small animals.

These birds of prey belong to the family Accipitridae and play a significant role in controlling the population of small creatures in their ecosystems.

Cooper’s Hawk

Coopers hawk

Scientifically known as Accipiter cooperii, the Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized hawk indigenous to North America, often referred to as a quail hawk.

Renowned for their agility and speed, these carnivorous birds primarily prey on small animals such as birds, rodents, snakes, and frogs.

Cooper’s Hawks are formidable hunters, skillfully navigating through their environment to catch their prey.

When hunting, they typically move stealthily between perches under thick cover, listening and observing before closing on their prey with a sudden burst of speed.

These birds breed from southern Canada to northern Mexico, with some individuals migrating to central and southern Mexico for the winter.

Their preferred habitats include mature forests, open woodlands, and areas with tall trees and openings.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp shinned hawk

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest of the three North American chicken hawks. Despite its small stature, it is just as skilled when it comes to hunting as the others.

Specializing in hunting small birds, these hawks utilize their sharp talons and beaks to catch and consume their prey efficiently.

Sharp-shinned Hawks primarily hunt by hiding in foliage or sneaking through dense cover, then suddenly dashing out to catch small birds in flight. They can also hunt by swiftly maneuvering among trees or near the ground, surprising their prey.

These species can be found throughout the forested regions of North America, extending into Central America, Argentina, and Brazil.

They prefer nesting in dense forests, usually towards the top of tall trees, under the canopy.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red tailed hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk, belonging to the Buteo species, is larger and more robust compared to the Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. They are the most common and recognizable big hawks in North America.

These hawks are easily identifiable by their characteristic reddish-brown tail and are versatile predators. They feed on a diverse range of small animals, including rodents, birds, and reptiles.

Moreover, Red-tailed Hawks are known to hunt near interstate highways and are sometimes referred to as roadside hawks. As one of the birds that feed on dead animals, they can be seen feeding on carrion, including those that have been hit by cars.

Their breeding range extends from central Alaska through Canada and across the entire United States, south through Mexico, and into Central America.

They occupy a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, forests, agricultural fields, and urban areas.

Chicken Hawk Origin and Natural Habitat

All types of chicken hawks are native to North America. Cooper’s Hawks can be found from southern Canada down to Mexico.

They’re quite adaptable and can make homes in deciduous, mixed, and coniferous forests, as well as open woodlands.

Sharp-shinned Hawks, on the other hand, are widespread throughout North America, even stretching into Central America, Argentina, and Brazil. They particularly prefer nesting in dense forests.

As for Red-tailed Hawks, they have an extensive range. From Central Alaska and Canada, these birds can be seen all the way across the United States and into Central America.

They’re incredibly versatile, adapting to all sorts of environments, from deserts and grasslands to forests and even urban areas.

What Does a Chicken Hawk Look Like

Chicken hawk perched on a broken branch

Chicken hawks exhibit distinct features but also share common characteristics.

All three species have hooked bills, long tails, and sharp talons, which are essential for hunting and gripping prey. Though sometimes mistaken for falcons, chicken hawks are usually larger and bulkier.

Cooper’s Hawks stand out with their square-shaped heads, giving the impression of wearing a cap or a dark gray crown above a slightly paler nape.

They have long, thick legs and claws, with bodies that are smaller in proportion to their wedge-shaped tails. These features allow them to swiftly navigate over different terrains while hunting.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest among the three. Their long tails and slender bodies come in handy when they are hunting and weaving through dense forests.

They are smaller than crows but larger than many songbirds, making them easily distinguishable.

Meanwhile, Red-tailed Hawks are notably larger and exhibit a range of captivating color variations. They are recognizable by their rich chocolate-brown bodies and distinctive red tails.

Some variations feature reddish-brown chests and darker lower bodies, adding to their diverse and striking appearance.

How Big Do Chicken Hawks Get?

The size of a chicken hawk can vary greatly from one species to another, with females generally being larger than males.

These differences allow each species to thrive in their respective habitats and effectively play their roles in the ecosystem.

Here’s a closer look at the varying sizes among different types of chicken hawks:

  • Cooper’s Hawk: Typically, Cooper’s Hawks measure around 14 to 20 inches in length, have a wingspan ranging from 29 to 37 inches, and weigh approximately 0.8 to 1.5 pounds. These medium-sized hawks are about the size of a crow.
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk: Being the smallest, Sharp-shinned Hawks exhibit a length of 9 to 14 inches, a wingspan between 17 and 23 inches, and a weight of approximately 0.2 to 0.5 pounds. Being small and light helps them move swiftly, which is useful while navigating the maze-like paths of a forest.
  • Red-tailed Hawk: Red-tailed Hawks are larger, with an average length of 18 to 25 inches, a wingspan spanning 43 to 53 inches, and a weight ranging from 1.5 to 3.5 pounds. Their impressive size and wide wingspan contribute to their strength and hunting prowess, allowing them to thrive in various environments.

Chicken hawks are a diverse group of birds of prey, and the size differences among them highlight their adaptability and specialized roles in their habitats.

Chicken Hawk Temperament and Behavior

Chicken hawk stretching its wings

Chicken hawks are characterized by their distinctive temperament and behavior, which are essential for their survival in the wild.

These birds of prey are known for their ferocious and aggressive nature, especially when hunting. They are very territorial and will use forceful tactics to defend their nests and hunting areas.

This includes extending their talons, making sharp calls, and performing steep dives to ward off intruders.

Moreover, chicken hawks are often solitary, preferring to stay alone, which highlights their independent nature. They only seek companionship during the mating season, where they engage in co-parenting their chicks.

One of my friends who worked in a facility tending to the conservation of chicken hawks has mentioned that these birds are also highly observant of human behavior. It took quite a while for them to be familiar with her.

Most of the time, they also tend to maintain a distance, preferring not to be disturbed.

Chicken Hawk Lifespan and Health Issues

Chicken hawks have a high mortality rate during the first two years of their lives, making their early years particularly vulnerable.

However, once they get past that critical period, they tend to live long and healthy lives, often reaching ages well beyond a decade.

On average, they have a lifespan of around 3 to 8 years in the wild, but they can sometimes live over 20 years. In captivity, these birds’ lifespans can extend even further due to controlled environments and medical care.

Notably, the oldest known wild Red-tailed Hawk was found in Michigan in 2011 and was at least 30 years old.

Factors such as climate, food availability, and encounters with predators or human activities are just a few of the many variables that affect how long these birds live.

Regardless of their environment, chicken hawks can be susceptible to health issues such as feather mites, respiratory infections, and nutritional deficiencies.

Injuries, often resulting from collisions with vehicles or structures, can also pose significant threats to their well-being.

What Do Chicken Hawks Eat?

Chicken hawk while eating in the snow

Contrary to popular belief, chicken hawks don’t actually eat a lot of chickens, as most of them are too heavy for the birds to carry off.

That said, Red-tailed Hawks, in particular, have been known to occasionally hunt and eat chickens, especially smaller hens and chicks.

Chicken hawks have a diverse diet, primarily consisting of small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Rodents, lizards, snakes, rabbits, squirrels, and moles are among their common prey.

When given the opportunity, these birds of prey will also feed on smaller birds, as well as frogs, bats, fish, and insects.

Being opportunistic hunters, these birds adapt their diet based on what is available and suitable for their size and hunting capabilities. They will eat everything they can get their mouths on, including carrion and roadkill.

If you want to see a chicken hawk in action, here’s a video of a Red-tailed Hawk showcasing its hunting skills against a snake:

Red-Tailed Hawk vs. Rattler | National Geographic

Predators of Chicken Hawk Birds

While chicken hawks are fierce predators, they are not exempt from facing threats from other animals. Hatchlings, in particular, are extremely vulnerable to many different types of predators.

Owls are natural adversaries to chicken hawks, and confrontations between the two species are not uncommon. Because of their superior size and strength, eagles are also a serious threat to these hawks.

Moreover, known for their intelligence and opportunistic nature, crows can target chicken hawk nests.

On the ground, raccoons, foxes, and snakes can prey on eggs and young chicks. Humans can also be considered a threat, as habitat destruction, vehicle collisions, and illegal shootings contribute to their mortality.

During my time volunteering at a wildlife rescue center, I was responsible for nursing a red-tailed hawk that had been shot.

Through this experience, I was able to witness firsthand the terrible consequences of injuries brought on by human activity.

After seeing the hawk gradually recover, I felt a renewed sense of commitment to advocating for conservation and responsible interaction with birds, ensuring their protection for future generations.

Chicken Hawk Breeding and Reproduction

Chicken hawk perched in a branch

While they may be solitary for most of the year, chicken hawks come together during the mating season. This occurs annually, typically from late February through May, varying by location.

During this period, they engage in captivating courtship displays involving soaring flights and free falls to strengthen pair bonds. They are monogamous and often mate for life, showing loyalty to their partners.

Interestingly, the mating ritual between a male and female hawk is brief, lasting just about ten seconds.

Following this, both hawks collaborate in searching for a secure location to construct their nest, ensuring it’s well-protected from potential threats.

Typically, hens will lay around 1 to 5 eggs in a clutch, and the incubation period lasts anywhere from 28 to 35 days.

The female is mainly responsible for feeding the young, but both parents contribute significantly throughout this time by providing food and care.

The chicks spend up to six months with their parents after hatching, during which time they are taught how to hunt, fly, and avoid predators.

Frequently Asked Questions

Chicken hawk looking for food in the river

How Fast Do Chicken Hawks Fly?

Chicken hawks are known for their impressive flying speeds. These birds can fly at varying speeds, ranging from 54 to 118 mph, depending on the species.

Among them, the Red-tailed Hawk stands out as the fastest, capable of reaching impressive speeds up to 118 mph.

Is a Chicken Hawk a Vulture?

No, a chicken hawk is not a vulture. While both are birds of prey, they differ in many aspects. Chicken hawks belong to the family Accipitridae and are known for hunting live prey.

In contrast, vultures, specifically those found in the Americas, belong to the family Cathartidae and are scavengers, primarily feeding on carrion.

Further, hawks are generally smaller and have slender bodies, while vultures are larger and have distinct features like bald heads.

Do Chicken Hawks Eat Squirrels?

Yes, chicken hawks do eat squirrels. In fact, chicken hawks are among the top predators of squirrels, with Red-tailed Hawks being the species that consumes them the most.

Squirrels are a common food source for hawks since they are easy prey and readily available.

Are Chicken Hawks Aggressive?

Chicken hawks are indeed known for their aggressive nature, especially when hunting or protecting their territory. They are fierce predators and are considered tyrants in the animal world.

While they are not typically aggressive toward people, they can become defensive if they feel threatened, particularly when defending their young.

What Are Chicken Hawks Afraid Of?

While being ferocious birds themselves, chicken hawks also have their own set of fears. They tend to be cautious of larger birds of prey like eagles and owls because of the potential threat they pose.

Moreover, bright flashes and sudden loud noises can effectively frighten hawks, making them fear for their safety and fly away.

Do you have any additional facts about chicken hawks? Feel free to share them in the comment section below! You may also ask any questions you have about these amazing birds.

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