Raptors

American Kestrel

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Falco sparverius

Mourning dove-sized; slightly smaller than a merlin

North America’s littlest falcon, the American kestrel packs a predator’s fierce intensity into its small body. It's one of the most colorful of all raptors: the male’s slate-blue head and wings contrast elegantly with his rusty-red back and tail; the female has the same warm reddish on her wings, back, and tail. Hunting for insects and other small prey in open territory, kestrels perch on wires or poles, or hover facing into the wind, flapping and adjusting their long tails to stay in place.

 

Merlin

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Falco columbarius

Between a robin and a crow, slightly larger than an American kestrel; less bulky than a rock pigeon

NESTING

Merlins are fierce, energetic predators that patrol shorelines and open areas looking for their prey of small birds (and sometimes dragonflies). They fly powerfully, with quick wingbeats, pausing to glide only rarely. They also spend long periods perched in open areas, scanning for prey.

 

Sharp-shinned Hawk

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Accipiter striatus

On average, males are the size of an American kestrel, slightly larger than a jay. Females are one-third larger than males, approaching the size of a male Cooper’s hawk

NESTING

A tiny hawk that appears in a blur of motion—and often disappears in a flurry of feathers. That’s the sharp-shinned hawk, the smallest hawk in Canada and the United States and a daring, acrobatic flier. These raptors have distinctive proportions: long legs, short wings, and very long tails, which they use for navigating their deep-woods homes at top speed in pursuit of songbirds and mice. They’re easiest to spot in fall on their southward migration, or occasionally at winter feeders.

Photo by John Drury

Peregrine Falcon

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Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcons are the largest falcon over most of the continent, crow-sized

Powerful and fast-flying, the Peregrine falcon hunts medium-sized birds, dropping down on them from high above in a spectacular stoop. They were virtually eradicated from eastern North America by pesticide poisoning in the middle 20th century. After significant recovery efforts, Peregrine falcons have made an incredible rebound and are now regularly seen in many large cities and coastal areas.

Photo by Kirk Gentalen

Cooper's Hawk

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Accipiter cooperii

Larger than a sharp-shinned hawk and about crow-sized, but males can be much smaller.

Among the bird world’s most skillful fliers, Cooper’s hawks are common woodland hawks that tear through cluttered tree canopies in high speed pursuit of other birds. You’re most likely to see one prowling above a forest edge or field using just a few stiff wingbeats followed by a glide. With their smaller lookalike, the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawks make for famously tricky identifications. Both species are sometimes unwanted guests at bird feeders, looking for an easy meal (but not one of sunflower seeds).

Broad-winged Hawk

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Buteo platypterus

Between a crow and a goose

One of the greatest spectacles of migration is a swirling flock of broad-winged hawks on their way to South America. Also known as “kettles,” flocks can contain thousands of circling birds that evoke a vast cauldron being stirred with an invisible spoon. A small, stocky raptor with black-and-white bands on the tail, the broad-winged hawk is a bird of the forest interior and can be hard to see during the nesting season. Its call is a piercing, two-parted whistle.

 


Red-tailed Hawk

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Buteo jamaicensis

The second-largest buteo hawk in North America, between a crow and a goose

This is probably the most common hawk in North America. If you’ve got sharp eyes you’ll see several individuals on almost any long car ride, anywhere. Red-tailed Hawks soar above open fields, slowly turning circles on their broad, rounded wings. Other times you’ll see them atop telephone poles, eyes fixed on the ground to catch the movements of a vole or a rabbit, or simply waiting out cold weather before climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.

Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Osprey

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Pandion haliaetus 

Smaller than a bald eagle; larger and longer-winged than a red-tailed hawk

NESTING

Ospreys search for fish by flying on steady wingbeats and bowed wings or circling high in the sky over relatively shallow water. They often hover briefly before diving, feet first, to grab a fish. You can often clearly see an Osprey's catch in its talons as the bird carries it back to a nest or perch. 

Photo by Kirk Gentalen

Northern Harrier

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Circus hudsonius

Smaller than a red-tailed hawk; larger than a sharp-shinned hawk

NESTING

The Northern Harrier is distinctive from a long distance away: a slim, long-tailed hawk gliding low over a marsh or grassland, holding its wings in a V-shape and sporting a white patch at the base of its tail. Up close it has an owlish face that helps it hear mice and voles beneath the vegetation. Each gray-and-white male may mate with several females, which are larger and brown. These unusual raptors have a broad distribution across North America.


Turkey Vulture

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Coragyps atratus

Slightly smaller than a turkey vulture; slightly larger than a red-tailed hawk

With sooty black plumage, a bare black head, and neat white stars under the wingtips, Black Vultures are almost dapper. Whereas Turkey Vultures are lanky birds with teetering flight, Black Vultures are compact birds with broad wings, short tails, and powerful wingbeats. The two species often associate: the Black Vulture makes up for its poor sense of smell by following Turkey Vultures to carcasses. Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty, Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged.

Black Vulture

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  Cathartes aura

Smaller than an eagle; larger than a red-tailed hawk

If you’ve gone looking for raptors on a clear day, your heart has probably leaped at the sight of a large, soaring bird in the distance– perhaps an eagle or osprey. But if it's soaring with its wings raised in a V and making wobbly circles, it's likely a Turkey Vulture. These birds ride thermals in the sky and use their keen sense of smell to find fresh carcasses. They are a consummate scavenger, cleaning up the countryside one bite of their sharply hooked bill at a time, and never mussing a feather on their bald heads. 

Bald Eagle

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Haliaeetus leucocephalus 

NESTING


One of the largest birds in North America, wingspan slightly greater than great blue heron. You'll find bald eagles soaring high in the sky, flapping low over treetops with slow wingbeats, or perched in trees or on the ground. Bald eagles scavenge many meals by harassing other birds or by eating carrion or garbage. They eat mainly fish, but also hunt mammals, gulls, and waterfowl. 

Photo by Kerry Hardy

Owls

Northern Saw-whet Owl

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 Robin-sized, slightly heavier (but more compact) than a Hairy Woodpecker

  NESTING


Photo by Amy Palmer



Short-eared owl

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 Asio flammeus

Crow-sized

This open-country hunter is one of the world's most widely distributed owls, and among the most frequently seen in daylight. Don't look too eagerly for the ear tufts, which are so short they're often invisible. More conspicuous features are its black-rimmed yellow eyes staring out from a pale facial disk. These birds course silently over grasslands on broad, rounded wings, especially at dawn and dusk. They use acute hearing to hunt small mammals and birds.

Long-eared Owl

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Asio otus

Smaller than a great horned owl

Long-eared Owls are lanky owls that often seem to wear a surprised expression thanks to long ear tufts that typically point straight up like exclamation marks. These nocturnal hunters roost in dense foliage, where their camouflage makes them hard to find, and forage over grasslands for small mammals. Long-eared Owls are nimble flyers, with hearing so acute they can snatch prey in complete darkness. In spring and summer, listen for their low, breathy hoots and strange barking calls in the night

Hawk Owl

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 Smaller than a great horned owl 

Barred Owl

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 Smaller than a great horned owl 

Great Horned Owl

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 Bubo virginianus

Slightly larger than a red-tailed hawk, between a crow and a goose

NESTING

With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the great horned owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fare such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America, equally at home in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.

Photo by Kirk Gentalen

Snowy Owl

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Bubo scandiacus

About the size of a great horned owl

The regal snowy owl is one of the few birds that can get even non-birders to come out for a look. This largest (by weight) North American owl shows up irregularly in winter to hunt in windswept fields or dunes, a pale shape with catlike yellow eyes. They spend summers far north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey in 24-hour daylight. In years of lemming population booms they can raise double or triple the usual number of young.

Great Gray Owl

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Strix nebulosa

Larger than a great horned owl in size, but not in weight, smaller than a bald eagle.

The great gray owl is a dapper owl dressed in a gray suit with a bow tie across its neck and a surprised look on its face. In the stillness of a cold mountain meadow the elusive giant quietly floats on broad wings across meadows and openings in evergreen forests. They are mostly owls of the boreal forest with small populations in western mountains, but in some years they move farther south in search of food, giving some a unique opportunity to see this majestic owl.

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