The Broad-winged Hawk

Hello readers! In my previous (and first ever) blog post I wrote about the differences between the Red-tailed Hawk and the Red-shouldered Hawk. We discovered how the Red-tailed is bigger than the Red-shouldered and how it is more likely to be seen in our area as well. In this blog we will talk about the Broad-winged Hawk, probably the third most commonly seen hawk in Western North Carolina. The Broad-winged Hawk is a very interesting creature. Its entire population flies south for the winter, with only a few remaining in the most southern part of Florida, but the majority spending the season in Central and South America. In fact, in the Peterson Field Guide to Hawks, the author states that if you think you’ve seen a Broad-winged Hawk anywhere north of these locations during the winter months, than it is most likely an immature Red-shouldered Hawk. Here in Western North Carolina we have a prime location for hawk watching because during migration season (Spring and Fall), the Broad-winged Hawk uses updrafts that come off of our ridgelines to soar during its journey north and south. Hawk Watcher Tip: Hawks prefer these updrafts after a cold front, when they are particularly strong.

While researching the Broad-winged Hawk, I stumbled upon a website called, which gives novice and expert bird watchers the opportunity to help scientists track raptors throughout the year. I learned a few things through this website; first of all, that most of the sightings at hawk watches in Western North Carolina were of Broad-winged Hawks. For example; during the month of September of last year birders saw 3,393 Broad-winged Hawks at Mahogony Rock in Sparta, North Carolina! Check out the stats here: Mahogony Rock Hawk Count

In comparison, the second highest seen raptor that month at that location was the Turkey Vulture which was seen 121 times. That’s a big difference! Now it’s possible that birders just didn’t want to log their Turkey Vulture sightings but I did want to emphasize how stark in contrast those numbers are.  And what’s even more interesting about these Broad-winged Hawk sightings is that most of them occur at the same time! These birds are known to flock in kettles that can mix with other species and reach amounts of up to tens of thousands of birds. That wasn’t a typo; imagine seeing a flock of raptors numbering in the TENS OF THOUSANDS? If you want to see this with your own eyes (who wouldn’t?) then visit one of our nearby hawk watches in September, which, according to, seems to be the best time to see multiple Broad-wings on their migration south.

However, seeing as how September is so far away, I’m going to plan on visiting a hawk watch in mid-April, which, according to this article here, is the best time to see the Broad-winged hawks making their way back up north.

As a reminder, our nearest hawk watch is at mile marker 404.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just a little north of Mt. Pisgah. (About an hour drive from Sylva, NC) At this hawk watch, on September 23rd, 2017, there was a kettle sighting of Broad Winged Hawks, which brought the final Broad-wing count for the day to 401.

So here are some quick facts before we get into identifying features:

The Broad-winged latin name is Buteo Platypterus which derives from the Greek words for broad: “platys”, and wing: “pteron”.

They have been known to get pretty aggressive in defending their nests, even swooping at humans who have gotten too close!

Early settlers of this continent mistakenly applied the name of buzzard to vultures. The word buzzard comes from the latin root Buteo, which translates to “a kind of hawk or falcon”. But we can dive more into this in a future blog post.

Now that we know all about the Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawk from my previous post, we can speak about the Broad-shouldered Hawk comparatively, and we will be ready to identify this coming Spring! The Red-tailed is much bigger than the Broad-winged so it seems to be harder to distinguish between the Broad-winged and the Red-shouldered. So the first thing to look for is the coloring of the underside of the wings. If you’re at a Hawk watch, you will most likely be looking at hawks from below, as they soar above you and the underside of a Red-shouldered Hawk usually has more of a rust coloring on its breast, belly and wings. The Broad-winged Hawk is normally much paler underneath and it also has one or two thick, white bands across its tail. The Red-shouldered will have bands as well but they will be thinner, and there will be three to four of them.


Broad-winged: By Francesco Veronesi


Red-shouldered hawk taking flight

Now more generally speaking, the Broad-winged is going to be smaller and while in flight it will seem to have slightly more pointed wing-tips than the Red-shouldered. If you are trying to identify a perched hawk in your backyard then look for the coloring. The Red-shouldered will have more vibrant hues of red and rust, particularly bright around its head, while the Broad-winged Hawk will be darker, with a more uniform brown coloring.



Len Blumin “Taken several years ago at Bolinas Lagoon”


Red shouldered:  Len Blumin

So a few things to keep in mind next time you identify a hawk that you think might be a Broad-winged hawk:

  1. It is extremely rare to see a Broad-winged Hawk anywhere in North Carolina during the winter.
  2. When looking at the underside; a Broad-winged Hawk has thick, white tail bands and is pale underneath.
  3. When looking at a perched hawk; a Broad-winged has dark brown coloring and no rust coloration.


Happy Bird Watching!

4 thoughts on “The Broad-winged Hawk

    • Agreed Luke! Raptors sometimes remind me of dinosaurs, which are also very cool! Thanks for reading!


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