Hawks galore: Minnesota is haven for raptors

A favorite group of birds for many people is a group that's collectively called "raptors" or "birds of prey." Raptors include hawks, falcons, ospreys, eagles, owls, and even vultures.

A favorite group of birds for many people is a group that’s collectively called “raptors” or “birds of prey.” Raptors include hawks, falcons, ospreys, eagles, owls, and even vultures.

Here in Minnesota, where we’re fortunate to enjoy not only four biomes coming together across our vast state, we are also blessed with a diverse array of avian species, particularly with regard to raptors.

In Minnesota alone there are 12 species of owls, close to 20 hawks, eagles, and falcons, including the osprey, and the turkey vulture.

Indeed, from the migratory scavenging turkey vulture to the year ‘round resident and supreme aerial predator the northern goshawk, Minnesota is replete with raptors.

There are two particular raptors that I’d like to talk about today. To be sure, these two distinctly different raptors that each inhabit different environments-one being a raptor of open landscapes and one being a raptor of woodland haunts; one is long tailed, the other short tailed; one has long wings, one has short wings-illustrate the diversity of two closely related species of birds.


One of them is an accipiter, the other a buteo.

One builds its nest on the ground in a prairie grassland or marsh meadow, while the other constructs a nest of sticks within mature deciduous trees deep in the forest.

Indeed, one is often called marsh hawk, though it is really a northern harrier, while the other, although likely the lesser known of the two species, certainly much less observed given their niche, is the descriptively named broad-winged hawk.

When I think of the northern harrier, a.k.a. marsh hawk, a couple of experiences readily come to mind.  One occurred on the Great Plains of North Dakota while conducting my graduate wildlife research project.

On that particular day I flushed a female harrier from a patch of tall grass near a clump of hawthorn trees.  I could tell it was the female by her color-females are brown, males are gray; and of course by the characteristic dorsal white rump patch.

After a brief search, I found her nest with five white eggs inside.

On another occasion I was hunting sharp-tailed grouse in Beltrami County many years ago along the edge of a hay field and brushy area.  I happened to be taking a break at the time, looking across the brushland, when I spotted a harrier flying slowly above the willows.  The bird appeared to be hunting.

A moment later, evidently noticing me, the hawk abruptly turned and began flying directly towards me. When the harrier reached me, it circled scarcely a dozen feet above my head looking directly into my eyes.


This was the first time I became acutely aware of the owl-like face of the northern harrier.

Now here’s one of the fascinating facts of this elegant raptor: Harriers have a curved, facial ruff just like owls possess.  Such an adaptation helps northern harriers collect and funnel the faint sounds of scurrying mammals and other prey to the hawk’s ears as they fly a few yards above the ground.

In other words, a harrier’s face is a sound reflector, an amplifier if you will.

Regarding the other raptor, the broad-winged hawk, the hawk of the forest, here’s a bird that is often heard before it is seen, if at all.

Pay attention the next time you explore a woodland and you might be alerted by the high-pitched, thinly whistled territorial “teeteeeeee” of the broad-winged hawk.

Again, on a different occasion several springs ago while searching for morel mushrooms on the forest floor beneath large quaking aspen trees, I heard the telltale cry of this nondescript crow-sized raptor.

Quickly searching the treetops for its location, I managed to spot the hawk perched on a branch of a leafless aspen. 

A brownish raptor, the broad-winged hawk would be better named for its tail, not its “broad” wings (indeed, buteos are so classified together because of their relatively short, broad wings).  Next to its distinctive call, the tail feathers of the broad-winged hawk should be all that’s required to correctly identify this bird.


Perhaps sensing that I discovered its hiding spot or the bird was unnerved by my standing motionless, the hawk took flight, unintentionally exposing itself for me to see, and thus positively concluding its true identity, the evenly spaced, alternating black and white bands of its tail. As such, wouldn’t then the broad-winged hawk be better named for its tail, the band-tailed hawk?  I think so.

Both raptors, the northern harrier and the broad-winged hawk, now absent from Minnesota, will eventually return to establish their respective breeding territories, construct their nests, and undertake the tasks of laying and incubating eggs and raising their offspring.

With incubation periods of about a month in duration, the subsequent hatching of young coincides wonderfully, as nature intended, with the arrival of an abundance of prey such as mice, voles, and gophers, birds, amphibians, snakes and other reptiles, and even insects.

For now, we snowbound Minnesotans are looking at our calendars and hoping for a mild winter and an early spring.

And though winter woodlands and open landscapes provide food and shelter for an abundance of resident birds, including raptors such as most of the dozen or so owls that call Minnesota home, it won’t be long until all of our raptors return once again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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