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.

Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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.

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.

Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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.

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).

Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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.

Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology


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.

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

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.Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology


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.Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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.Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Eagle

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Haliaeetus leucocephalus 

One of the largest birds in North America, wingspan slightly greater than Great Blue Heron

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