hawks in South Dakota, like the Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawk, help maintain ecosystem balance by controlling rodents. Conservation is crucial for their survival. Hawks are predatory birds with excellent vision, strong talons, and curved beaks perfectly adapted for hunting. South Dakota provides a prime habitat for 10 incredible hawk species. They occupy diverse niches across prairies, wetlands, forests, and ridges statewide.
Seeing a hawk overhead elicits excitement. Their mastery of flight, speed, and power connects us to wildness. This guide covers identification, life history, seasonal patterns, and viewing tips for understanding South Dakota’s raptors better.
The Red-tailed Hawk ranks as the most frequently spotted hawk in South Dakota. It occurs on 11% of summer checklists and 13% of winter checklists submitted to eBird.
With its trademark russet tail and varied brown plumage, this common large buteo patrols open country hunting small mammals and birds. Listen for its loud descending scream. Nests are often conspicuously located high up on utility poles, trees, or cliffs.
Key ID Tips
- Broad, rounded wings
- Reddish tail
- Pale underside with dark belly band
- Smaller than eagles
Wingspan: 4.5-5 feet
Length: 19-25 inches
Where to View: Grasslands, ridges, woodland edges
Diet: Rodents, rabbits, snakes, birds
Nest Site: Trees, cliffs, towers
Eggs: 2-3 whitish with brown spots
Also called the Marsh Hawk, the long-winged Northern Harrier is adapted for hunting low over open country. Its owl-like facial disk helps locate small mammal prey. Males are pale gray while females are larger and brown.
Most birds migrate south for winter, but some remain as South Dakota residents year-round in suitable habitat. Peak viewing is during spring and fall migrations.
Key ID Tips:
- Long wings and tail
- White rump patch
- Floating, buoyant flight
Wingspan: 40-46 inches
Length: 18-20 inches
Where to View: Marshes, grasslands, fields
Diet: Small mammals, small birds, reptiles
Nest Site: Ground in dense vegetation
Eggs: 4-5 white or buff
An arctic breeder, the Rough-legged Hawk migrates down into South Dakota for the winter and hunting season. Look for broad wings with dark wrist patches and a dark belly band. Rough feathered legs gave this buteo its name.
Key ID Tips:
- Broad wings, longish tail
- Dark patches at wrist, belly, tail tip
- Hovers frequently while hunting
Wingspan: 52-54 inches
Length: 19-22 inches
Where to View: Open plains, grasslands
Diet: Small mammals like voles
Nest Site: Cliff ledges
Eggs: 3-5 white with brown blotches
Cooper’s Hawks occupy forest and woodland edges statewide. They resemble the Sharp-shinned but have a larger head protruding rounded wings. Bars on the breast and bold stripes on the tail aid ID. Fierce accipiters specialize in hunting birds.
Key ID Tips:
- The rounded head sticks out past wings in flight
- Blue-gray back with reddish underside
- Long banded tail
Wingspan: 28-35 inches
Length: 15-20 inches
Where to View: Forest edges, woodlots
Diet: Birds like doves, woodpeckers
Nest Site: Tall tree crotch
Eggs: 3-6 pale blue
The long-winged Swainson’s Hawk ranks as one of South Dakota’s most abundant summer raptors. It migrates in huge flocks to wintering grounds in South America. Watch for angular wings with contrasting dark flight feathers and pale wing linings.
Key ID Tips:
- Pointed wings at an angle in flight
- Dark leading wing edge
- Light wing lining
- Reddish chest
Wingspan: 50 inches
Length: 18-22 inches
Where to View: Plains, prairies, open country
Diet: Rodents, rabbits, large insects
Nest Site: Trees, bushes, or platforms near fields
Eggs: 2-4 white with brown blotches
Table 1. Comparison of Common South Dakota Hawk Sizes
South Dakota’s smallest hawk, the Sharp-shinned is a little falcon of woodlands. Big eyes and a sharply hooked bill enhance its predatory prowess. The bigger female can take birds up to robin-sized. Mostly a passage migrant, some breed locally.
Key ID Tips:
- Small, with a squared-off tail
- Gray back with rusty bars below
- Accelerates swiftly in flight
- Females are much bigger than male
Wingspan: 21-27 inches
Length: 10-14 inches
Where to View: Forests, woodlots
Diet: Small songbirds
Nest Site: Dense conifers, usually high
Eggs: 3-8 whitish with brown blotches
The Ferruginous Hawk ranks as North America’s largest buteo. Its light morph exhibits a snow-white underside and rusty reddish-brown back and wings. The rarer dark morph is chocolate brown all over with a pale throat.
This open-country hawk uses speed and stealth to ambush mammals. Watch for it perching on hillocks or utility poles out on the prairie.
Key ID Tips:
- Largest North American buteo
- Light morph: Rusty reddish back, white below
- Dark eyes stand out in pale face
Wingspan: 56 inches
Length: 22-27 inches
Where to View: Open grasslands, sagebrush flats
Diet: Rabbits, prairie dogs, ground squirrels
Nest Site: Hillside platforms, sometimes old raptor nests
Eggs: 2-8 creamy white
Table 2. Ferruginous Hawk vs. Red-tailed Hawk Size Comparison
The smallest buteo hawk in eastern North America, the Broad-winged Hawk sports a stout shape with broad, rounded wings. Bold stripes and bars mark its underside. This forest raptor migrates in huge kettles that swirl southward on autumn thermals.
Key ID Tips:
- Small, chunky buteo shape
- Dark belly band and wing edges
- Wide, blunt-tipped wings
- Short, squared tail
Wingspan: 32-39 inches
Length: 13-17 inches
Where to View: Woodland areas and edges
Diet: Small mammals, frogs, snakes, insects
Nest Site: Tree crotches, often near water
Eggs: 2-3 white or bluish
A powerful forest-dwelling relative of the Cooper’s Hawk, the fierce Northern Goshawk preys on other birds as well as small mammals. Look for its distinctive bright white eye stripe on its sleek gray head. Rare in South Dakota but reported occasionally during winter months.
Key ID Tips:
- Gray above with blue-tinged wings
- Bold white eyebrow stripe on adults
- Long tail with dark bands
Wingspan: 40-46 inches
Length: 18-26 inches
Where to View: Mature open woodlands
Diet: Grouse, crows, squirrels,
Nest Site: Treetop nest often in conifers
Eggs: 2-4 blue-white with brown marks
With its striking black and white checkered wings and reddish barring below, the Red-shouldered Hawk ranks as an uncommon species in South Dakota. But sightings occur annually. Its loud cackling call carries through wet woodlands.
Key ID Tips:
- Checkered black-and-white wings
- Reddish shoulders and wing linings
- Nicely banded tail
Wingspan: 37-44 inches
Length: 17-24 inches
Where to View: Forests near rivers, swamps
Diet: Snakes, frogs, crayfish
Nest Site: Tree crotch lined with lichens
Eggs: 2-4 whitish with brown splotches
Black Hawks in South Dakota
While South Dakota doesn’t have a hawk species specifically named “Black Hawk,” some hawks in the region exhibit dark plumage. Examples include the Common Black Hawk, found near water, the Zone-tailed Hawk often mistaken for vultures, and the Harris’s Hawk with dark wing markings and social hunting behavior. These birds contribute to the diverse avian population in South Dakota, each playing a unique role in the local ecosystem.
|Black Hawk (hypothetical)
|Imaginary species for representation, not actual
|Common Black Hawk
|Dark plumage, broad wings, found near water sources
|Dark plumage, often mistaken for turkey vultures
|Dark markings on wings, social hunting behavior
|Dark-morph Red-tailed Hawk
|Variation with predominantly dark plumage
Best Places to See Hawks in South Dakota
As migrants or residents, hawks occupy habitats statewide, but these destinations offer prime viewing opportunities:
- Beaver Creek Nature Area – 200+ raptors during autumn migrations
- Lake Thompson – Hundreds of migrating Swainson’s Hawks in September
- Snake Creek Recreation Area – Variety of buteos, accipiters during migration
- Oakwood Lakes State Park – Nesting Red-tails, year-round residents
- Rhoads HawkWatch – Situated along a major flyway for thousands of raptors
Use eBird bar charts by week and location to discover ideal times and hotspots for observing different hawk species moving through the state.
Types of hawks in South Dakota
|Large size, distinctive red tail feathers, broad wings
|Migratory, slender body, often seen in open fields
|Medium-sized, adapted for maneuvering through trees
|Largest North American hawk, light coloration
|Feathered legs, adapted for hunting in Arctic tundra
|Long wings, facial disk, hunts low over open areas
|Small size, short wings, agile flier
Hawk Watching Techniques
Patience and practice will help you identify hawk species more easily:
- Notice silhouette, wingspan, tail length
- Compare relative sizes to crows, eagles, etc
- Watch flight mannerisms – soaring, hovering, flapping
- Listen for vocalizations like screeches or cackles
A good spotting scope allows closer study of field marks. When hawks perch, note plumage patterns. Getting decent photos means using fast shutter speeds to freeze rapid motion.
Why Hawks Are Important
Hawks fill crucial ecological roles as apex predators. They help regulate prey populations of small mammals and birds. Losing hawk diversity negatively impacts ecosystems.
As raptors require healthy habitats to thrive, they also indicate environmental quality. Pollution, climate change, or habitat loss affecting hawks signals broader ecological issues.
Hawks also carry cultural significance for Native American tribes, symbolizing courage, vision, freedom, and more. Spotting awesome raptors in flight can deeply inspire the human spirit too!
So next time you observe South Dakota’s incredible hunting birds – like an agile Sharp-shinned Hawk darting amidst pines, or a mighty Ferruginous Hawk patrolling plains, appreciate the wild majesty hawks represent!
Many hawk species suffered significant declines in the 20th century before protective laws and DDT bans enabled rebounds. Still, habitat loss and climate change remain threats. How can we ensure future stability for South Dakota’s raptors?
Preserving migration corridors and breeding grounds supports hawk survival. This involves conserving forests, wetlands, and sagebrush through public lands. Private land initiatives that restore native prairie also help offset habitat losses.
Replacing toxic chemicals with integrated pest management benefits raptors and people. Limiting rodenticides protects the food chains hawks depend on. Improving water quality maintains aquatic food webs for ospreys.
Installing raptor nesting platforms helps make up for diminishing natural cavity sites. Monitoring nests helps minimize disruptive human activity like logging or construction near critical reproductive stages.
Ingesting lead ammo fragments left in discarded big game gut piles can poison eagles and hawks. Using non-lead bullets aids raptor health. Covering or removing animal remains prevents contamination.
Citizen Science Contributions
Submitting hawk sightings to databases like eBird or joining monitoring efforts helps scientists track raptor populations. Capturing migration events or unusual species and documenting range shifts is extremely valuable for research.
With conscientious effort, South Dakotans can ensure flourishing habitats exist to sustain hawks for generations. Give birds like the Rough-legged Hawk expansive open country each winter. Protect wetland caches with wriggling amphibians to feed nesting red-shouldered hawks. Together, through small daily actions, we can maintain healthy hawk populations across landscapes.
Conclusion: Hawks in South Dakota
In conclusion, the presence of hawks in South Dakota plays a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of the region. These majestic birds of prey contribute significantly to the local ecosystem by controlling rodent populations, thereby preventing crop damage and the spread of diseases. Hawks also serve as indicators of the overall health of the environment, reflecting the availability of prey and the state of the ecosystem.
Furthermore, the diverse species of hawks found in South Dakota, such as red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, and Swainson’s hawks, showcase the rich biodiversity of the state. Their unique behaviors, nesting habits, and migratory patterns add to the biological diversity, making South Dakota a habitat suitable for a variety of avian species.
FAQs About Hawks
What is the small hawk in South Dakota?
The Sharp-shinned Hawk is South Dakota’s smallest hawk. A woodland species, it reaches just 9-14 inches long with a wingspan of 21-27 inches. It specializes in catching small songbirds.
Are there Falcons in South Dakota?
Yes, South Dakota hosts falcon species like the American Kestrel and the rare Peregrine Falcon. The American Kestrel is a colorful small falcon that frequents grasslands and meadows. Larger Peregrine Falcons prey on ducks, pigeons, and shorebirds along migratory pathways.
What Eagles are in South Dakota?
Two eagle species occur in the state. The Bald Eagle reigns as America’s iconic raptor with white heads and tail feathers. It nests near waterways fishing for ducks and fish. Meanwhile, the enormous Golden Eagle breeds out west preying on prairie mammals. Both have wingspans exceeding 6 feet!
What are hawks famous for?
Hawks are renowned for their incredible vision – up to 8X sharper than humans. They can spot tiny prey from 100 feet up. Hawks also impress with their aerial capabilities – diving at 150 mph, migrating thousands of miles, or maneuvering deftly through dense forests in pursuit of a meal.
Who are hawks sacred to?
Many Native American tribes revere hawks and eagles. Hawks symbolized guardianship and nobleness. Their feathers often adorn the ceremonial dress. Hawks still appear in tribal rituals, artwork, and lore today. Vision quests sometimes involved observing hawk behaviors to gain insight.
What eats a hawk?
While aerial masters, hawks do fall prey at times, mainly to larger raptors. Eagle and horned owls prey on smaller hawk species. Ferruginous Hawks or Golden Eagles may attack Red-tailed Hawks. Great Horned Owls take goshawks and Cooper’s Hawks. But most adult raptors perish from accidents or starvation rather than predation.
Are hawks color blind?
Hawks likely see a range of colors. Their eyes evolved to detect subtle movements of prey rather than discern complex hues. But compound eyes with multiple color cones suggest red-tailed hawks see some color, especially reds and greens.
What scares a hawk?
Like most wild animals, hawks startle easily to sudden loud noises or quick movements which may indicate danger. They take flight to avoid perceived threats on the ground. However, hawks seem remarkably resilient to human environments, often nesting near noisy highways and developments.
Are Hawks and Eagle the same?
Hawks and eagles belong to separate taxonomic families. Hawks (Accipitridae) usually have broader wings and longer tails. Eagles (Acciptridae) have heavier heads, shorter tails, and massive feet with thick yellow bills. But as medium-sized raptors, some buteo hawks almost match small eagle dimensions.