Here I have compiled a list of 20 raptors, or birds of prey, that call Tennessee home or at the very least are known to visit from time to time. There are several species that may pass through Tennessee during migrations, such as the merlin or the osprey. The merlin is not on this list but the osprey is. You can learn more about the merlin here.
Some are scarce and some are very common. Some of these you may even see in your backyard but all of the birds on this list have a distribution range that includes Tennessee according to allaboutbirds.org. If I missed one let me know in the comments so I can add it to the list.
I have arranged them into 6 groups; falcons, hawks, eagles, owls, kites, and the osprey. There is a picture for each raptor in this list and I added a few cool facts about each one! So without further ado…
There are around 40 species of falcons and they are found all over the world, but not in Antarctica. Falcons have insanely good vision and are able to spot small prey from 2 miles away. People have been using falcons for hunting for thousands of years because of their keen vision, which is said to be 8 times better than a human’s.
Falcons kill with their beaks rather than their talons, unlike eagles and hawks. Falcons have a tomial tooth that points down in a V shape and is very distinctive to Falcons. They use this sharply ridged tooth to bite their prey’s necks and sever their vertebrae. Hawks and eagles do not have this tool so they will normally use their talons to kill.
There are 2 species of Falcons (family Falconidae) that can be seen in Tennessee, 3 if you count the Merlin. Merlins may occasionally be seen in Tennessee when they are migrating but otherwise the 2 species below are going to be the what we are left with.
1. American Kestrel
Wingspan: 1’8″ – 2′
Weight: 3.5-5 oz
The American Kestrel can be found all over North America and year-round in Tennessee. The kestrel is the smallest falcon and bird of prey in the U.S. and only about the size of a Blue-Jay. They have beautiful feathers with the male having brighter, more vibrant colors than the female.
The kestrel typically hunts in open fields with short vegetation. They prefer to sit and wait for opportunities and then swoop down and grab prey in their talons. They feed primarily on insects and very small mammals such as mice and voles.
2. Peregrine Falcon
Wingspan: 2.4 – 3.9′
Weight: .73 – 3.3 lbs
The peregrine was almost totally eradicated from North America at one point in the 1950s. Recent efforts have been very successful in many areas including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Read more about the re-introduction to the smokies in this article.
The peregrine falcon is also the fastest animal on the planet. When it is diving for prey it can reach speeds of 240 mph! I was also interested to discover that up to 99% of their diet is other birds. They eat all types of birds from pigeons to songbirds.
Hawks are medium sized birds of prey and are found on 6 different continents. There are more than 200 species of hawks worldwide, and 17 species in North America. 7 of these 17 can be found in Tennessee.
Like falcons, hawks have very keen vision. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “hawk eye”. Hawks can see color like humans can, but can also see color in the ultraviolet range making their color vision even more advanced.
Hawks are also highly intelligent. They are said to be among the most intelligent birds on the planet, according to Canadian scientist Dr. Louis Lefebvre who created the avian IQ test.
3. Red-shouldered Hawk
Wingspan: 3.2 – 3.6′
Weight: 1.3 lbs
The red shouldered hawk medium size hawk that lives primarily in the eastern half of the U.S. They can also be found all along the coast of California and down into Mexico as well, but nowhere in-between.
They feed on small mammals and rodents, reptiles, and amphibians. They will find a place to perch and wait for their food to show itself and fly in for the kill. They can normally be found in woodlands and forests.
4. Northern Harrier
Wingspan: 3.2 – 4′
Weight: 14 oz
The northern harrier slightly resembles an owl, though they are not related. They have incredible owl like hearing that they use to hear mice and rodents when they are hunting. They are found throughout North America but are listed on the endangered species list in Connecticut.
Many of the birds on this list are monogamous but the harrier males may have up to 5 mates at one time. They feed mostly on small mammals and birds, however they are capable of taking medium sized animals like rabbits and ducks. They have been known to hold their prey under water to drown them first.
5. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Wingspan: 17″ – 2.2′
Weight: 2.9 – 7.7 oz
The males of this species of hawk are the smallest in the U.S. and Canada and second smallest on this list, with only the Kestrel weighing less fully grown. The male sharp-shinned are also smaller than their female counterparts, as is common with many birds.
Feeding on sparrows and robins, the sharp-shinned hawk are primarily bird eaters similar to the peregrine. They may also feed on small rodents, reptiles and amphibians, and insects.
6. Cooper’s Hawk
Wingspan: 2.4 – 3.1′
Weight: 1.2 lbs
Named after naturalist William Cooper, cooper’s hawks stick to living in forests and wooded areas. Coopers hawks feed on other birds and have been known to stalk parks and backyard bird feeders looking for their prey. If you notice a cooper’s hawk hanging around your backyard, take your bird feeders in for a few days and the hawk should move on.
The male cooper’s hawks are the ones who build the nest with very little help from the females. They kill their prey with their powerful talons by holding them down and repeatedly squeezing its body until they are dead. They’re very common throughout North America and are often seen in cities and urban areas.
7. Northern Goshawk
Wingspan: 3 – 4′
Weight: 1.4 – 3 lbs
Goshawk females are larger than males just like many other raptors on this list. They are large and stealthy hawks and live mainly in coniferous forests. While they can be found in Tennessee, we are at the very bottom of their distribution and they are considered scarce in this state.
The goshawk is the largest of the 3 species of Accipiters in North America with the other 2 being the sharp-shinned hawk and the cooper’s hawk. They are aggressive hunters and have no trouble catching and eating other birds, rabbits, and other small mammals.
8. Broad-winged Hawk
Wingspan: 2.6 – 3′
Weight: 15 – 17 oz
This small hawk can commonly be found in Tennessee and the eastern half of the U.S. and even into Canada. They will migrate to Central and South America in the fall in large concentrations of tens of thousands. A small number of immature broad-winged hawks will migrate to the tip of Florida and the Keys rather than making the long trip south.
They will nest and breed in large deciduous forests while hunting for rodents, reptiles and amphibians, and insects. Your best chance to see one of these hawks is in mid-September when they are migrating in droves.
9. Red-tailed Hawk
Wingspan: 1.5 – 2.2′
Weight: 2.4 lb
Often seen in Tennessee, red-tailed hawks are among the largest and most common hawks in North America. They feed mostly on small mammals and carrion and are known to steal food from other raptors. As with most other birds of prey, the red-tailed hawk will feed on other birds. Because of their size and strength they can even nab larger ones such as pheasants.
They are fairly easy to identify because of their size and trademark red tail. You can often see them perched on telephone wires along the side of the road just waiting for an acceptable meal to appear.
Eagles are among the largest birds of prey on the planet and definitely the largest in the state of Tennessee. There are around 60 species of eagles worldwide but just 4 in North America. 2 of these 4 are pretty much exclusive to Alaska, the Sea Eagle and the White-tailed eagle.
Eagles are apex predators, the top of the food chain, and have no natural enemies. They feed on fish, reptiles, other birds, as well as small and medium sized mammals.
Eagles are monogamous and mate for life, they also will generally use the same nest year after year. They can live for up to 35 years and will will usually only lay 1-3 eggs per mating season.
10. Bald Eagle
Wingspan: 5.9 – 7.5′
Weight: 6.6 – 14 lb
Everyone knows the bald eagle. The national symbol of the United States and one of the most impressive looking birds of prey there are. It’s probably what many of us think of when we hear the term “bird of prey”. With a wingspan of over 7 feet, the bald eagle absolutely dwarfs the red tailed hawk, which I just referred to as large.
Bald eagles primarily feed on fish but will also hunt medium sized mammals, larger water birds, and eat carrion. They build their massive nests as high up in the tallest tree they can find. The nest is generally as big as 4-5 feet in diameter and 2-4 feet deep, so a small person could probably curl up in it! They will return to this same nest each year for their whole lives with the same mate.
They typically live to be around 20 years old in the wild but in captivity have been known to live for 30 or longer. There is a bald eagle sanctuary at Dollywood, which is in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. All of these eagles are disabled or have been injured in some way and must be taken care of by the workers at this facility.
11. Golden Eagle
Wingspan: 5.9 – 7.5′
Weight: 6.6 – 15 lb
Almost the same size as their cousin the bald eagle, golden eagles are found mostly in the western half North America. While they can be occasionally seen in Tennessee and the eastern states, they are much more rare.
The golden eagle is the most common national animal in the world. They are the national emblem of several countries such as Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.
They typically avoid eating fish and other birds and stick to small to medium sized mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, and prairie dogs. Because of this they have escaped the dangers of pesticides that some other birds of prey have dealt with like the peregrine falcon on this list who was almost eradicated at one point due to pesticides.
There are 22 species of kites worldwide and 4 species in North America. The only one that can be seen in Tennessee is the Mississippi kite. If you look at the distribution map for this species, you can see that they are scarce in this state.
Kites belong to family Accipitridae, the same as hawks and eagles. They typically have smaller heads and beaks and are known to prefer feeding on carrion, but will also take live prey from time to time. Some kites feed exclusively on insects, like the Snail Kite who only eats snails.
12. Mississippi Kite
Weight: 9.4 oz
The Mississippi Kite can occasionally be seen only in the far western edge Tennessee. They are fairly common in some of our neighboring states to the south like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi (obviously), and South Carolina.
I almost left this guy off of this list but he makes it a nice even 20 and does flirt with the western border of Tennessee. They are on the small side and feed mainly on insects. They appear unique to most of the raptors on this list and even resemble a pigeon a bit to me.
Owls are nocturnal predators and make almost no noise when they hunt making them extremely dangerous to their prey. Owls have fixed eyes that are completely immobile, however some can rotate their heads up to 270 degrees allowing them to see almost everything.
These tubular eyes allow them to super focus in on their potential prey from far away, it also gives them their acute nocturnal vision. They feed on small mammals and anything they find scurrying about. They have also been known to eat other owls!
Owls are experts in camouflage and many sleep in broad daylight but will totally blend in with their surroundings making them near impossible to see.
13. Barn Owl
Weight: .95 – 1.4 lbs
One of the most widely distributed birds in the world and like most owls they do not migrate so they live in most of North America year round. The have very unique, heart shaped faces and are beautiful in my opinion.
They are called barn owls because they actually do like taking up residence in old barns and abandoned houses rather than nesting in trees and woodland areas like other owls. There are 16 different species of the barn owl worldwide, and the north american is the largest with the largest range.
They will swallow their food whole and are mostly nocturnal, unlike other owls though you can see a barn owl out at sunset or around sunrise as they are not strictly nocturnal.
14. Eastern Screech-Owl
Weight: 5.8 oz
An eastern screech-owl is small and elusive and a master of camouflage, especially against tree bark. They are found in forests of all types including deciduous and evergreen and prefer a water source nearby.
They actually like nesting in tree holes. Sometimes in dead trees or in abandoned woodpecker nest holes. They are very nocturnal and feed on insects, worms, small mammals and rodents, and other birds.
If you choose you can even set up an owl nesting box in your backyard or around your yard for some owls including the barn owl and the screech-owl.
15. Great Horned Owl
Weight: 3.2 lbs
This large owl is also referred to as a hoot owl. This is normally the face I picture when I think of an owl. They are widely distributed in the Americas and are known for being fierce predators even taking other raptors for their meals.
Their strong talons require a force of 28 pounds to open. They use this powerful grip to crush the spine of their prey. It seems they are not terribly picky when it comes to where they call home as they are equally comfortable in forests, deserts, backyards, or cities.
16. Barred Owl
Weight: 1.6 lbs
The barred owl’s main predator is actually the great horned owl that we just saw. If they detect a horned owl in their area they will move on to avoid becoming dinner. You may also hear these called hoot owls. Their call is very unique and sounds similar to “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”.
They are mostly nocturnal and generally sedentary. You can sometimes find them roosting in a tree in the daytime if you are lucky. The male has a very deep call and may even be mistaken for a barking dog from a distance.
17. Long-eared Owl
Wingspan: 2.9 – 3.3′
Weight: 8.9 oz
Well camouflaged, silent hunters, and with very acute hearing, these owls can swoop in in pitch black and snatch up mice from the ground based on sounds alone. The male’s hoot can can heard for over 3/4 of a mile away.
Long-eared owls do not build nests, but rather occupy abandoned nests built by other birds. This medium sized owl is scarce in Tennessee and will probably rarely be seen due to how secretive they are.
18. Short-eared Owl
Wingspan: 2.8 – 3.6′
Weight: 7.3 – 16.8 oz
These brown spotted owls are medium in size and unlike most other owls will normally hunt during the daytime. Short-eared owls can normally be spotted in grassy areas and open fields.
They are found widely across the globe and are known to travel very long distances across oceans. They are the only native owl to Hawaii and seem to have a short life span. The oldest recorded short ear on record is just over 4 years old.
19. Northern saw-whet Owl
Wingspan: 1.5 – 2′
Weight: 3.6 oz
The northern saw-whet is one of the smallest species of owls in North America and the smallest owl in Tennessee although they are not terribly common here. This nocturnal predator feeds on typical small raptor food such as rodents, reptiles and amphibians, other birds, and large insects.
They were given their name because of how the male saw-whet owl sounds when he is singing at night. He will sing for hours and hours during mating season and his sounds reminded early settlers of a whetstone sharpening a saw.
The last group on this list is the Osprey. Ospreys are actually a species of hawk, sometimes referred to as the river hawk, fish hawk, or sea hawk. They feed almost exclusively on fish and after 11 million years have perfected the art of fishing far more than any other raptor (bird or prey).
The Osprey can dive up to 3 feet deep to grab it’s meal however they do prefer to fish in the more shallow waters. Unlike the other birds on this list, the Osprey can actually close its nostrils as its diving into the water. They also have an outer toe that can be angled backwards to help them grasp the fish.
In all of the world, Ospreys are all a part of a single species. Except for the Eastern Osprey which is native to Australia. Ospreys are known for the crazy distances they will travel throughout their lives, flying as many as 160k miles in their life span.
Weight: 3 lbs
The osprey we are referring to here is the western osprey. It’s cousin, the eastern osprey, as mentioned above is native to Australia. They were once in the hawk family and are still commonly referred to as hawks, but now have been placed in a family all of their own.
They are very large birds that feed primarily on fish and have adapted extremely well to this type of hunting. With their massive talons and ability to dive underwater for fish they easily snatch prey right out of the water.
Even with their large size though, they still have to worry about the bald eagle who has been known to let them make the kill only to steal their lunch from them. They are not commonly seen in Tennessee, only rarely and during migrations.
I’ve learned some interesting facts in writing this article and noticed that most of these birds seem to have a few things in common. One is that most of them are cannibals! I think my favorite on this list is the little kestrel and although I’ve yet to see one in the wild yet I will definitely be on the lookout for one now.
If you are interested in raptors and these types of birds in the least, I suggest checking out this book on Amazon by Floyd Sholz. It examines birds of prey in North America in great detail and has amazing pictures.
Interested in Tennessee wildlife? Check out these posts: