There’s a bird, up in the sky, soaring, circling and gliding ever so effortlessly. Birds of prey or raptors are known for displaying this style, and showing off their long wingspan and speed ability. But how to identify birds of prey while in flight? Since these birds come in a variety of shapes and sizes it’s often difficult to pinpoint the bird family. Especially at a distance when their characteristics are not easily discernible. For example bird watchers often confuse vultures for eagles, since they have a similar flight shape. To distinguish birds of prey, a bird watcher can use body shape, size, color and flying style.
AccipitersAccipiters reside in forests and hunt in the ambush-style of dash and catch. These birds have the keen ability to move around thick forests and dart through trees. Their long nails and short, round wings allow for this lifestyle. Often confused with buteos’ style of soaring, Accipiters typically do several flaps followed by a glide. Some examples of Accipiters include the famous Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. Keep an eye out for the white under-tail coverts in adult plumage for these three species.
ButeosUnlike the Accipiters, Buteos are easily recognizable by their ability to soar for a long time without the need to flap their wings. They have long, broad wings, and a wide, short, fanned out tail. They stay up in the sky lazily circling over open areas until they find a catch, or perch from an indiscreet tree branch then drop to the ground to capture their prey. Some examples of Buteos include Red-shouldered Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawk.
FalconsFalcons are of a smaller size than their counterparts. But size is nothing to these birds. They are the fastest birds of prey, and fittingly they display agile, long bodies with pointed wings. They are seen continuously flapping while in flight, or diving at a quick speed. The American kestrel, one of the smallest falcons, has a habit of hovering in one spot until a small rodent insect appears. Other falcons include the Peregrine and Merlin.
HarriersHarriers hold their wings in a soft “V,” and their faces comically resemble that of owls. They hunt near meadows, open fields, and marsh areas. One of the most famous ones is the Northern Harrier, a medium-sized bird with long, broad wings and a rounded tail. The best way to identify the Northern Harrier is by the white rump patch at the beginning of their long, narrow tail.
VulturesIt’s the classic bird watching tale: confusing a turkey vulture for an eagle. Unlike Vultures, Eagles soar with leveled, flat wings, where as the former holds their wings in a “V” shape with a few flaps, and can be see rocking in flight while they soar in circles. Black vultures have white tips only on the ends of their wings, but Turkey Vultures have white throughout the lower half. Though vultures are usually grouped in with birds of prey, they are closely related to herons and storks.
Ospreys are large-raptors of 24 inches in length and 71 inches across. This fish-eating bird has long narrow wings, often crooked in the middle to make an “M” shape. Its plumage display is of contrasting light and dark colors, usually brown upper parts and grayish head and underparts. Osprey tend to have a close proximity to water, and are often seen gliding during migration.
EaglesThese are the largest raptors with the exception of some vultures. Their median wingspan can range up to 7 feet, making for a powerful bird of prey. Within North America, the Bald Eagle and the Golden Eagle are the largest. When soaring, eagles display mostly flat, leveled wings, sometimes with a slight shaped “V” when gliding, which is true for Golden Eagles who have small heads and beaks. The Bald Eagle is the most prominent with a white head and tail on a dark body. Their wide wings, large head and beak are easily recognizable.
To find more birds of prey in a state park near you, download our Pocket Ranger® mobile apps. And if you do spot a cool raptor, share it on our social media sites and with our Pocket Ranger® Bird Feed App!