Birds of prey may be the easy to recognise, but there are subtle distinctions between them that make each one unique. Understanding what to look for helps birders identify the raptors more quickly. Their size, the shape of their wings and even their feeding habits are diverse and understanding these is essential to identify each one correctly.
By ancestry, birds of prey are classified into five families of diurnal and two families of nocturnal birds.
The diurnal birds of prey are classified into:
- Accipitridae: Hawks, eagles, buzzards, harriers, kites and Old World vultures
- Pandionidae: Osprey
- Sagittarridae: Secretary bird
- Falconidae: Falcons and caracaras
- Cathartidae: New World vultures including condors
The nocturnal birds of prey – the owls – are classified into:
Further let’s discuss some of these birds and how you can identify them better.
What is a Raptor?
Raptor is a generic term used for all birds of prey. Raptors are carnivorous birds with strong bills, large talons (claws) and exceptional flight capabilities. There are more than 500 species of raptors found throughout the world, and different types of raptors can be found in every type of habitat, from frozen tundras and scorching deserts to dense forests and bustling cities.
What is a Hawk?
Hawk is another generic term for a large grouping of different birds of prey. Raptors that are considered hawks generally have short, rounded wings and relatively long tails, but there are many variations among individual species. Hawks are generally divided into Accipiters (forest hawks) and Buteos (grassland hawks).
What are Accipiters?
Accipiters are relatively small, slender forest hawks with rounded wings and long tails that give them excellent flight maneuverability, such as Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. Accipiters are some of the most common backyard hawks and belong to the family Accipitridae, along with many other familiar raptors.
What are Buteos?
Buteos are larger hawks with broad wings and relatively short tails that soar over open country while hunting, such as red-tailed hawks and ferruginous hawks. Buteos are some of the most familiar birds of prey and can be found in urban or suburban areas, though most are found in less populated areas where prey is more abundant.
What are Eagles?
Eagles are very large soaring hawks in the family Accipitridae with exceptionally keen eyesight, very large, thick bills and powerful wings. Eagles are often considered sacred to native tribes in countries around the world.
What are Falcons?
Falcons are raptors in the scientific family Falconidae with tapered, pointed wings built for speed and agile flight. The peregrine falcon is the world’s fastest animal with dive speeds up to 300+ kilometres per hour. Other familiar falcons include the American kestrel, merlin and prairie falcon.
What are Harriers?
Harriers are hawks that fly low or hover while hunting over open country, often marshes or grasslands. Their unique facial disk helps them hear prey much better, and they hunt small mammals and rodents.
What are Kites?
Kites are small to medium-sized, agile birds of prey with tapered wings and graceful flight, and often with long, forked tails.
What are Osprey?
Osprey is a fish hunting raptor and one of the most widespread birds of prey in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica. There is only one species of osprey, and it is the only bird in the family Pandionidae. Its facial markings and long wings are good field marks, though this raptor is often confused with the bald eagle because it also has a white head.
What are Vultures?
Vultures are exceptionally large, scavenging raptors with featherless heads. Carrion is their preferred diet and vultures (often also called condors or buzzards) can soar for hours while searching for a meal. Unfortunately, vultures numbers are drastically decreasing in some parts of the world as they face many threats, including lead poisoning from contaminated carcasses.
What are Owls?
Owls are generally nocturnal birds of prey with upright posture and forward facing eyes set in a facial disk. Owls have keen vision, excellent hearing and nearly silent flight that make them superb night predators. The great horned owl and barn owl are some of the most widespread and familiar Owl species.
Some of the birds discussed above can be seen here
Tips to identify a Bird of Prey
Raptors are a fascinating class of birds, but identifying raptors can be a challenge even for experienced birders. Many of these birds have similar colors, markings and postures, and learning to identify subtle differences when the birds are either perched or in flight can help birders become more confident in their raptor identifications.
There are two ways to identify birds of prey on sight – studying the birds either perched or in flight. Knowing what to look for if a bird is perched or flying can help identification go more smoothly.
If the bird is perched, look for…
- Size: How does the bird’s size compare to surrounding objects? How does it compare to more familiar songbirds? How long is the tail? Does the head appear large or small in proportion to the body?
- Plumage: What is the bird’s overall color above and below? Are there any streaks, stripes or colored patches on the face? Is there a cap or hood? Is there streaking, striping, barring, or spotting on the chin, chest, flanks or abdomen? Is the tail striped or barred? How thick are any markings? Are there any bare skin patches, and if so, what color are they?
- Behavior: Is the bird looking around for food while perched? Is it preening, sunning or eating? Does it stay perched for long periods or just short breaks?
- Legs & Feet: What color are the legs and feet? How large are the talons? How thick are the legs? Are the legs bare or are they covered with longer feathers?
If the bird is flying, look for…
- Wing Shape: How long and wide is the wing compared to the bird’s body? Are the wings blunt or tapered? Are the primary (fingertip) feathers splayed or held closed? Where is the wrist joint in comparison to the bird’s head? Is there a bulge along the trailing edge of the wing?
- Wing Pattern: What colors are visible on the underside of the wings? Is the leading edge light or dark? Is there a definite pattern to the wings’ undersides? Are there markings near the wrist or edges of the wings? Are any colors solid or barred? Do the secondary flight feathers contrast with the primaries?
- Flapping: Is the bird soaring or gliding? How frequent are flaps, and how fast? Is the bird hovering or using a stoop dive while hunting? Are the wings held level with the body or slightly above or below when gliding?
- Body Pattern: Are there visible color contrasts between the body and wings? Is there a belly band of streaks or dots, or a color wash on the chest? Do the legs form a contrasting color to the body?
- Tail: How long is the tail? Is it held fanned out or tight together? It is blunt, rounded or pointed? Is it barred or does it have a different colored tip?
By knowing what details to look for when seeing raptors either perched or in flight, birders can quickly take note of each bird’s characteristics for positive identification.
Other things to keep in mind
Following the tips mentioned above will make it easier to identify a bird, but these other clues can help sort out tricky identifications or identify birds that aren’t as clearly visible.
- Range and Habitat: Just like other birds, different raptors have different ranges. Before jumping to an identification of a rare raptor, investigate the bird’s typical range. Then consider the habitat: Buteos prefer open habitats, while Accipiters prefer forested areas. Some birds of prey are commonly found in urban and suburban settings, while others are usually much farther from any developments.
- Prey: Birders who are fortunate enough to identify what a mystery raptor is eating or hunting can use that as a clue to which bird they’re watching. Seeing a bird with prey is a way to help judge size, and knowing what raptors eat, from insects to fish to carrion, can help make identification easier.
- Sounds: Most mature raptors are relatively silent, but knowing the common calls of typical birds of prey is a fast and easy way to use birding by ear for a positive identification.
Keep in mind that identifying raptors takes time and patience, but birders who know what clues to look for and what characteristics to consider can easily identify any raptors they see.