Any bird of prey can be majestic to see as it soars effortlessly in the sky or dives powerfully onto prey. To the layman, it can be tough to distinguish the difference between a hawk, falcon, eagle and other raptors. What makes each of these birds of prey unique, and how can you tell them apart?
What Is a Raptor?
All birds of prey share certain characteristics that make them raptors. These birds are all powerful hunters and exclusively carnivores, eating nothing but meat. They prefer to kill living prey, but many raptors will occasionally nibble on a carcass, especially when it is an easy meal or other prey may be scarce. Raptors have powerful, hooked bills and thick, strong talons to help them hunt more effectively. Their preferred prey ranges insects to mice, rabbits, gophers, squirrels, fish, snakes, or even other birds. They tend to be more solitary than other birds, but may gather in flocks where hunting is good or during the winter when they aren’t as competitive for mates and nesting sites. Despite their similarities, there are ways to easily tell different types of raptors apart.
See also: Talons VS Claws: What’s the Difference?
Types of Birds of Prey
There are more than 500 species of raptor in the world, but they all fall into certain categories.
This is the broadest category of raptor, and hawks may be further classified as accipiters (forest hawks) or buteos (open country hawks). They are medium-sized, relatively stocky, and have broad wings for soaring. The most familiar hawks include the red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, northern harrier, bat hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and sharp-shinned hawk.
These are the largest raptors, with very heavy, thick bills and powerful talons. Eagles have broad, rectangular wings and often show splayed “fingers” at the tips. These are heavy birds of prey, and often take larger prey. The bald eagle, golden eagle, harpy eagle, steppe eagle, and Steller’s sea-eagle are some of the most familiar eagles.
Falcons are smaller, slender raptors, though some species are more medium-sized. They all have tapered wings with sharply pointed tips that allow them to fly faster and dive very swiftly. These raptors are more comfortable in open areas, though some have adapted to urban habitats. Common falcons include the peregrine falcon, American kestrel, and merlin.
See also: How to Become a Falconer
These raptors are small to medium-sized, and they have longer, deeply forked tails that give them more agility in the air. They can be acrobatic fliers, and may be found in different habitats, though they often prefer open areas and marshes. Popular kites include the swallow-tailed kite, snail kite, red kite, and hook-billed kite.
The osprey is so unique among raptors, it’s the only species in its own classification. These are large, brown-and-white raptors with very long wings that show splayed fingers similar to eagles’ wings. Ospreys are exceptional fishermen and prey almost exclusively on fish, and so are typically found close to healthy waterways where fish populations are abundant.
Owls are generally nocturnal raptors, most active at night. They have forward-facing eyes and distinct facial disks that help funnel sound to their sensitive ears, and they can fly nearly silently. The great horned owl, barn owl, barred owl, burrowing owl, and snowy owl are some of the most familiar and beloved owls.
See also: How to Attract Owls to Your Backyard
Once birders are familiar with the different types of raptors, it can be easy to identify which raptor is which based on overall size, body shape, wing shape, habitat, and the time of day the birds are most active. If you know you’re looking at a falcon instead of an eagle, or a kite instead of a hawk, it is easier to focus on specific field marks such as coloration, tail bands, and wing patterns to properly identify the raptor species.