Bird of Prey Identification

Bird of Prey Identification
Birds of prey, also called raptors, are birds that hunt, kill and/or scavenge other birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and other creatures for food. In North America, these birds include such species as the vulture, osprey, owl and hawk. While these birds have some features in common, an observer may identify them by specific differences in appearance and behavior.


Vultures in the Western Hemisphere include such species as the black vulture, turkey vulture and California condor. Vultures are scavengers that possess unique soaring abilities. It is common to see a vulture use thermal pockets in the sky to ride, gliding for hours without flapping its wings. Vultures have a wide wingspan, such as the six-foot wingspan of a typical turkey vulture. Vultures have heads with few if any feathers; lack a voice box, which renders them practically silent; and do not build nests. Vultures have a habit of urinating on their own legs in order to cool their bodies.



The osprey, also referred to as the "fish hawk," is a globally distributed raptor that has a pair of long, narrowed wings. It is the sole raptor in North America that plunges into water to capture fish. Fish comprise the vast majority of its diet; as such, it typically lives near water. The osprey has a special "toe" with the ability to face backwards or forwards; it uses it to grasp the fish it catches. Ospreys build ponderous nests of sticks in high places, such as on top of telephone poles and bridges.


Nearly every species of owl is nocturnal in nature, doing the bulk of its hunting at dusk, during the night and at dawn. Owls' eyes face in a forward direction, and the feathers are soft so the bird makes little if any sound as it flies. Barn owls have a face shaped like a heart, but typical owls, including screech owls and the great horned owl, have rounded heads and barred feathers that act as camouflage. Owl eggs are white, and owls use hollow trees as their home or take over the nests of other birds.


Hawks, characterized as small to medium in terms of size, build nests of sticks. An individual may identify hawks as one of three types: The harriers, like the northern harrier, have longer wings, legs and tails, and fly quite low over the ground looking for prey. Accipiters, like the sharp-shinned hawk, have shorter, broader wings and a long tail, which gives it maneuverability in flight. The shins are long as are the toes, which grip their prey after the bird catches it. Buteos, with the red-tailed hawk as an example, display a soaring style of flight, with long wings. The legs are short in these hawks, which have a wide range across the nation.


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