Birds of Prey

Bird of Prey Facts

Birds of Prey ['bərds] [əv] ['prā]

A carnivorous bird (as a hawk, falcon, or vulture) that feeds wholly or chiefly on meat taken by hunting or on carrion.

Facts What Makes a Bird a Bird?

Silhouette of different types of birds of prey

All birds belong to the group of animals called vertebrates, meaning animals that have a backbone. Birds make up a special group of vertebrates called aves.

Examples of other groups of vertebrates are — fish, amphibians, mammals, and reptiles.

Reptilian Relatives

Eastern box turtle reptile

Birds have a lot in common with reptiles, such as turtles, crocodiles, and lizards. Scientists theorize that birds and reptiles are old relatives, and have many shared traits.

For example, both birds and reptiles:

  • lay eggs
  • have similar eyes and brain
  • have similar skull and ear bones
  • have partially hollow bones
  • have similar blood proteins
  • have scales covering parts of their body

Scientists also believe that birds have some very different traits from their relatives, such as feathers instead of scales (though most birds have reptile-like scales on their legs and feet), pointed beaks, and wings. People who study birds are called ornithologists.

All birds have the same basic parts and functions but are unique in their own ways. All birds are warm-blooded, which means they can control and maintain a constant body temperature even if the temperature around them changes. Cold-blooded animals can only control their body temperatures by moving into warmer or cooler areas.


birds of prey feathers

All birds grow feathers, making them different from all other animals. The different types of feathers help a bird survive. Feathers not only help a bird to fly or swim, they also:

  • protect its sensitive skin
  • help attract mates
  • serve as insulators to trap body heat
  • serve as camouflage

Feathers are held together and in place by a hollow tube called the shaft or rachis. The shaft is made of a very hard material called keratin.

Birds have three basic types of feathers.

feather contour

Contour feathers

These types of feathers cover the wings, body, and tail and streamline a bird to help give it a smooth, sleek shape. They are stiff, flexible, and very strong yet lightweight.

flight down

Down feathers

These are fluffy feathers located close to the body, underneath the contour feathers to help insulate a bird and keep it warm.

feather flight

Flight feathers

There are also special contour feathers on the wings, called flight feathers, shaped to fan the air, creating "lift" to help a bird get off the ground, move about in the air, and land safely.


Osprey bird of prey wingspan

All birds have wings even flightless birds such as ostriches and penguins. Birds' wings are attached to chest muscles called pectoral or flight muscles. In birds that actually fly those muscles are very powerful.

Wings are streamlined similar to an airplane's wings to move easily through the air. The wings are curved on top (convex) and are flat or slightly curved (concave) on the bottom. This special shape gives a bird the lift needed to get off the ground.

Once a bird is in the air, the outer ends of the wings (flight feathers) act as propellers and rudders, helping the bird move up, down, and forward in the air — usually they don't go backwards — well except for hummingbirds!

The kind of flying a bird does depends on the size and shape of its wings and even the type of prey that is pursued. The types of wings a bird may have include:

  • Big wings that are broad and long. These wings allow large birds to soar and glide for long distances without flapping their wings, conserving energy. Birds of this group often have longer and stronger tails, which help them in landing and turning quickly.
  • Short wings that are stubby and somewhat broad. These wings provide a lot of lift and some speed and allow mid-sized birds, typically with short tails, to fly in and out of thick vegetation.
  • Small wings that are thin, narrow, and have long pointed tips. These wings are built for speed and allow birds to spend a lot of time flying. The narrow wings provide less lift and require birds to flap more often, compared to birds with big broad wings.

Even for flightless birds, wings are important. Penguins use their wings as flippers to help them swim underwater and ostriches use their wings for balance as they run from place to place.


Black Kite Museum bird skeleton
From the National Museum of Natural History

A bird's skeleton is light and very strong. The bones are fused or joined together, giving the skeleton extra strength. The bones are also hollow or partially hollow, and some even have thin braces for support. Having a strong yet lightweight physique allows a bird to get off the ground and stay in the air while giving it the strength needed to support flight muscles and protect internal organs.


Close-up of an eagle's eye

Birds often see much better than other animals, including people. They have very large eyes that focus keenly on near and faraway objects. Unlike many mammals, birds can see color.

Birds use their keen eyesight to: find food; spot mates; keep an eye on enemies and find a place to live.

A bird's eyes are usually located toward the front and/or sides of its head and may point almost directly forward or in opposite directions, giving it one of two types of vision or a combination of both.

A bird that can focus its eyes independently, meaning that it can see two different objects at the same time (one with each eye) has monocular vision. Owls have monocular vision.

A bird that can only focus both of its eyes straight ahead on an object (i.e., sees an object with both eyes) has binocular vision, just like humans.

Examples of birds with binocular vision include eagles, falcons, and hawks.

Diagram of binocular vision
Barn owl

Although birds may have monocular or binocular vision or a combination of both, they vary in their capability to move their eyes in their sockets. Many birds can see all around without moving their head.

Some birds have eyes that are relatively fixed in their sockets. These birds cannot roll their eyes around the way humans can. Instead, they have long, flexible necks that enable them to turn their heads to see in different directions. This is the reason you see some birds twisting and tilting their heads.

Some birds can twist their heads from a half-circle (180°) to more than three-quarters of a circle (270°). Many birds have eye movement capability somewhere between the two extremes


Birds have a keen sense of hearing. Their ears are located on each side of the head, just below and in the back of the eyes. In most birds, the ear openings are positioned symmetrically on either side of the head, but in some birds, the openings are asymmetrical in size and position (owls).

Diagram of owl ear asymmetry
Owl ear asymmetry


Since birds have no teeth, their beak shapes vary depending on the type of food they eat. Birds use their beaks to:

  • gather food
  • feed their young
  • tear food into pieces
  • drink water
  • touch their mates
  • signal aggression by clacking them loudly
  • preen their feathers
  • collect-nesting materials
  • attack/kill enemies
  • scratch their bodies
Types of bird beaks


A bird's nose is on its beak. Birds seem to have a poor sense of smell and rely heavily on their sense of sight and hearing to find food and avoid predators. However, one exception is the vulture. The olfactory part of a vulture's brain is well developed, and they rely heavily on their keen sense of smell to locate food

Photo of falcon and vulture nostrils


Bird tongues come in many shapes and sizes, and are used in many different ways. Birds use their tongues to taste, spear, tear and hold their food.

Photo of bird tongues

Legs and Feet

Birds' legs and feet come in many different shapes and sizes, and reflect the different ways they make their living. Most birds have three or four toes, while the ostrich just has two.

Birds that rarely land, like swifts, have extremely weak legs and find walking very difficult. The pointed ends of birds' toes are called talons which vary in shape, size, and sharpness depending on how they are used.

Diagram of types of bird feet


Birds have an efficient breathing system, with two lungs that have special balloon-like air sacs. These air sacs spread into different parts of a bird's body, including the hollow parts of the larger bones. The air sacs allow a bird to:

  • store up more air
  • push more air through the lungs
  • help cool down if too hot
  • bring more oxygen to the cells
  • help some swimming birds stay afloat
Diagram of bird lungs

Birds need a lot of oxygen in order to turn the food into extra energy needed for flying and maintaining body temperature.

Birds do not have sweat glands, and cannot sweat the way humans and other mammals do to cool off. Instead, birds pant, breathing in and out very quickly in the same manner as a dog. Panting cools a bird by evaporating water from the lungs, throat, mouth, and other parts of the body. Birds can also cool off by taking a bath or sitting in shade.

Crop for Storage

When a bird swallows food, muscles in the esophagus push the food down the throat. In many birds, the bottom of the esophagus forms a large sac called the crop.

The crop simply stores undigested food before it enters the stomach. Birds with a crop can gorge (eat more than needed) when food is found, store it in the crop, and then slowly digest it later.

Diagram of bird digestion

Teeth in the Stomach

Diagram of bird gizzard

Once food has passed from the crop into the stomach it is attacked by strong acids to help digest the food chemically. The partially digested food then passes into the gizzard, a specialized muscular portion of the stomach. A bird will use its gizzard in the manner that other animals use their teeth, to grind and crush hard nuts, seeds, grain, and other foods. Birds do this because they don't have teeth.

Some birds may swallow small stones and grit that can help the gizzard grind and crush. Things (feathers, fur, stones, bones, etc.) swallowed by birds that the stomach cannot break down, are stored in the gizzard and regurgitated later as pellets.

Preen Gland

Many birds have what is called a preen gland located just above the base of the tail. This special gland secretes oil that the bird rubs over its feathers with its beak. This is called preening.

This oil . . .

  • helps condition and clean the feathers
  • helps make the feathers water-repellent
  • may contain special vitamins absorbed into the skin, helping to keep the birds healthy
Photo of a bird's preen gland

Birds of Prey: Facts What Makes a Bird a Raptor?

All Raptors have a hooked beak, excellent eyesight, sharp talons, and strong legs and feet. Check out what makes a bird a Raptor and other nesting habits of Raptors!

Diagram of raptor beak and talons

Hooked Beak

Bald eagle's curved beak

A raptor's beak is one feature used to set them apart from other birds. All raptors have the same beak design, curved at the tip with sharp cutting edges to tear apart prey that will easily fit into the mouth.

The beaks have evolved over time based on the type of prey eaten. For example, the American kestrel has a small beak for eating small prey, like mice and insects. Eagles have powerful, heavy beaks for tearing large pieces of meat, but snail kites have a highly specialized long, curved beak for probing inside snail shells

Sharp Talons / Legs and Feet

Close-up eagle talon

Birds of prey have powerful leg and toe muscles that, when combined with their sharp talons, make their feet lethal weapons (see Sharp Feet Activity Sheet), perfectly designed to catch, hold, and carry prey. The length and size of a raptor’s toes, and the curvature and thickness of its talons are related to the type of prey it pursues.

Most birds of prey will have three toes pointing forward and one pointing backward. These toes can apply an extremely powerful grip on their prey, literally crushing it to death. The talons may also be used to pierce a vulnerable spot, such as the back of the neck, to quickly kill the prey. Eagles and hawks kill their prey by dislocating the neck.

Close-up of Osprey feet

Ospreys have two toes facing forward and two facing backward. This allows them to hold the fish they catch with four claws, two on each side for a secure grip. Ospreys also have spiny scales on their feet that help them hold the slippery fish more securely.

Owls also have four toes. However, one of the toes is very flexible, and can be rotated forward or backward for a two plus two or a three plus one toe arrangement.

Excellent Eyesight

Peregrine falcon close-up

Raptors are believed to have the keenest eyesight in nature because of the size of the eyeball and the eye muscles designed for rapid focus. Diurnal raptors have full color vision and two concentrations of cones (one directed to the side and one directed forward) in each eye, which control color perception.

The sharpest point of vision at these concentrations is called the fovea. When the fovea works in unison, they give raptors accurate depth perception, which is very important for birds of prey that must focus quickly when chasing moving objects.

The keenness of vision is related to the agility, size, and color of prey a raptor hunts. When a bird bobs its head, it is using its eyes like a range finder and focusing in on a specific area.

Close up of owl face

Nocturnal raptors, the owls, have an added advantage over other raptors with their remarkable sharp night vision. Owls have a concentration of more rods in their eyes that are essential for seeing under low light conditions. An owl's eyes are also located in the front of their heads, much like humans. By contrast, the night vision of diurnal raptors is no better than a human's vision at night. Another thing that sets raptors apart from other birds is a special eyelid or nictitating membrane.

This special transparent eyelid closes laterally across the eye and is used to

  • keep the eyes moist
  • protect the eyes during flight
  • protect the eyes when feeding themselves or their young
Photo of a bird blinking

When humans close their eyes to blink and sleep the upper eyelid closes. Depending on the species, raptors have eyelids that close from either the bottom or top, for blinking and sleeping. WOW!

An additional form of eye protection in most raptors is a bony shield that projects above the eye. The bony shield adds protection when raptors pursue prey into brush, protects the eyes from injury while hunting, and also gives raptors a menacing appearance.

Bird skull

Raptor Nesting Habits

Bald eagle nest in a tree

A female raptor is often larger than the male. The reason for this size difference is really unknown, but scientists think that it is because the female lays the eggs and spends a lot of time incubating and protecting the nest.

Nesting habitats of raptors vary. A few examples of what raptors may do to help rear their young include:

  • not building a nest, but using cavities and stick nests created by other birds (vultures, owls, and other raptors)
  • nesting and laying eggs in sand or gravel, depressions, or scrapes
  • nesting and laying eggs on the ground
  • nesting and laying eggs on cliff faces or in treetops (eagles do this and are known to build very large nests)
  • nesting and laying eggs in ground burrows of mammals (only burrowing owls do this)

For those raptor species that build nests, typically the female constructs while the male provides the material. Many raptors build a new nest each year, while others, particularly large raptors, reuse old nests or alternate between a number of nests.


Common Kestrel nest

Raptor eggs are typically large, rounded or oblong ovals, and vary in color. The number of eggs laid depends on their size. Large raptors lay fewer eggs than smaller raptors. It is believed that larger raptors live longer and need fewer eggs or young to sustain the viability of the species, while the opposite is true for smaller raptors.

Raptors have a two to three day lapse between laying each egg, and generally begin incubation after all of the eggs are laid for that nesting season (owls begin incubation immediately after the first egg is laid).

The female does the incubating while the male provides food. The period of incubation also varies with the size of a bird. For owls, hawks, and falcons there is usually a 26 to 35 day incubation period, while for eagles and vultures it is 36 to 50 days.

Raptors of temperate climates breed in spring and summer when warmer weather ensures rapid growth and survival of young. Other natural resources also aid in the success of a nesting season:

  • growing plants that provide cover, nest sites, and nest material
  • longer days that allow parents to gather more food
  • the abundance of young prey species available during this time of year

After an eggshell is first cracked, it usually takes one to two days before hatching is complete. Raptor chicks grow quickly, doubling their birth weight in only a few days. The length of time a raptor spends from hatching until it is ready to fledge depends on size. Larger raptors stay in the nest from two to three months, while smaller raptors stay until they are three to four weeks old.

In temperate areas, like Idaho, raptors must grow rapidly in order to be ready to migrate when the seasons change and become too warm.

Birds of Prey: Facts Types of Raptors


The word raptor is derived from "rapere," a Latin word which means to seize or capture. More specifically, a raptor is a bird of prey. A bird of prey is a carnivore (meat eater) that kills and eats mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, rodents as well as other birds.

Many birds hunt, kill, and eat meat, but they may not be raptors. There are three distinguishing traits that make raptors different from other birds:

  • hooked beaks with sharp edges
  • feet with sharp, curved claws or talons
  • keen eyesight
Red kite flying

Orders and Groups

Raptors belong to two scientific orders, the Strigiformes and Falconiformes. The orders are divided into six groups with a total of about 446 species worldwide. They include:

  • secretary bird (1 species in Africa)
  • falcons (63 species)
  • osprey (1 species)
  • hawks and eagles (226 species)
  • vultures (7 species)
  • owls (148 species)
Diagram of Strigiformes and Falconiformes

Diurnal (daytime) hunters

  • include members of the order Falconiformes such as hawks, eagles, kites, vultures, harriers, osprey, falcons, etc.
  • shared traits include the hooked beak, sharp talons, and keen vision; a fleshy cere at the base of the beak; a hind toe which opposes the other toes; and powerful flight
Photo of the sun in the clear blue sky

Nocturnal (nighttime) hunters

  • members of the order Strigiformes, which includes all owls
  • shared traits include rounded heads with large, forward-directed eyes set in feathered disks; asymmetrical ear openings; and soft-edged flight feathers that allow silent flight
Photo of the moon skyline

Types of Raptors

The raptors that live in or visit our state include owls, vultures, and hawks (falcons, eagles, kites, buteos, accipiters, harriers, and osprey). Below is a list of the raptors representing each group. 

Diagram of types of birds of prey

Falconiformes (Diurnal)


  • Turkey vulture


  • Broad-winged hawks*
  • Ferruginous hawk
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Rough-legged hawk
  • Swainson's hawk
  • Harris's Hawk*


  • American kestrel
  • Gyrfalcon*
  • Merlin*
  • Peregrine falcon
  • Prairie falcon


  • Northern harrier


  • Cooper's hawk
  • Northern goshawk
  • Sharp-shinned hawk


  • Bald eagle
  • Golden eagle


  • White-tailed kite*


  • Osprey
Diagram of owl shapes

Strigiformes (Nocturnal)


  • Barn owl
  • Barred owl
  • Burrowing owl
  • Flammulated owl
  • Great gray owl
  • Great horned owl
  • Long-eared owl
  • Northern pygmy owl
  • Northern saw-whet owl
  • Short-eared owl
  • Snowy owl
  • Western screech-owl

Note: Starred * items are uncommon or rarely seen in our region.

Learn About Vultures

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)

Vultures are large black raptors with a long wingspan that are often seen soaring in groups in high wide circles, rocking and tilting in flight, usually gliding in a strong "V" shape. Vultures usually have bare, featherless heads, which helps reduce infection when feeding on rotten meat.

There are 3 species of vultures in North America — the turkey vulture, black vulture, and the California condor. The only one of these species to be found in our area is the turkey vulture.

These raptors are known to gather by the hundreds or even thousands to roost together!

A vulture's diet consists mostly of carrion (dead meat!), which they spot from the air by sight and smell! But, they are known as "honest" foragers, meaning they scavenge for their food, using a refined sense of smell.

Studies reveal that vultures won't find carrion on the day that it is killed, but almost always find it on the second or third day when it has begun to rot, and will rarely visit a kill on the fourth day when it is in a state of full-blown foul smell! Phewy! Scientists believe that the carrion is too fresh on the first day and doesn't stink enough to be located by vultures. On the second and third days there is enough decay to give it a pretty strong odor and by the fourth day the meat is just too rotten!

Turkey vultures eating carrion

With the ability to sustain life on half-rotten meats, Vultures have extreme tolerance for microbial toxins (botulism) that exceeds the capacities of many other birds.

Vultures are pretty quiet unless they are cornered, then they will "hiss" or make a "low grunt" sound.

Vultures usually don't build a nest and will lay eggs on the ground, in caves, hollow stumps, or in swamps. They feed their young through regurgitation.

These raptors use their sharp, hooked beaks for tearing meat and have weaker legs and feet and small hind toes.

Did you know?

Vultures have weak legs and feet because they eat dead meat instead of capturing their prey!

All About Owls

Owl flying

Owl species vary in size, but typically have large, round heads, with forward-facing eyes framed by a feathered facial disk. They have wide wings, short tails, lightweight bodies, and unusually soft, fluffy body feathers.

Owls are typically nocturnal predators, relying on their excellent vision and hearing to catch food.

Some owls have tufts of feathers on the tops of their head, often called horns or ears. They are not really horns or ears but are thought to serve as camouflage or behavioral signaling devices.

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

Owls have large asymmetrical ear holes located behind the eyes on each side of the face, underneath their feathers which aid in hearing and flight direction to catch prey. Each ear catches sound at a different time allowing for pinpoint accuracy of prey location.

The round face and facial disks of feathers around the eyes also help in hearing and funneling light to increase visibility

Owls have binocular vision. Their eyes are fixed in sockets so they are only able to see what is in front of them.

To see the things around them, owls must use the added bones in their neck (14 total) to rotate their head. They can rotate their heads about 270° in one direction – not in a complete circle!

Owl talon

Owls have four toes; a permanent back toe and three front toes, one of which when the feet are spread wide apart is capable of rotating to the front or back to improve their grip on prey once captured.

Most owls have feathers down to their sharp toenails unlike most birds of prey. It's believed to help keep them warm and protect from prey bites.

Owls have soft-edged flight feathers that allow them to fly almost silently; the flight feathers of an owl are slightly spaced to allow air to move around and through them when flying which helps to keep noise down.

An owl's diet consists of rodents and small mammals. Their digestive system makes use of the nutritious portions of the prey, and the undigested parts (hair, bones, claws, teeth, etc.) are regurgitated in the form of a pellet.

Learn about Hawks!

Broad winged hawk

"Hawks" is a general term used to describe the entire group of diurnal (active by day) raptors. Worldwide there are over 200 species of meat-eating birds that comprise the order Falconiformes, the scientific name for hawk.

Some hawk species undertake long migration journeys, traveling thousands of miles each year - a testimony to their strength and stamina.

Hawks have excellent hearing and eyesight. Their vision is 8 times greater than that of a human!

In our region, hawks typically breed in early spring, and many will pair for life, unless a mate is lost to death. Some species pairs remain together year round, while others may separate after the breeding season and return to the same breeding/nesting site the next year (after the migratory season is over).


Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Eagles are large bodied raptors, mostly dark brown in color with long, broad wings, and fan-shaped tails and have large, strong feet and a powerful beak.

You can often spot eagles soaring high and gliding in the sky.

There are 2 species of eagles widespread throughout North America, the bald eagle and the golden eagle; both can be observed in our region!

The bald eagle is America's national symbol — has been since 1782 — and is unique to North America!

The average wingspan of an eagle can vary from six to seven feet! WOW! That's a BIG bird!

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

The mature bald eagle appears very different than its relative the golden eagle in color; it has a distinctive white head and tail, and a bright yellow beak. These distinguishing bald eagle traits do not appear until the bird reaches adulthood when they are three to four years old.

Bald eagles usually live near water (oceans, rivers, lakes), while golden eagles live in open, mountainous country.

Eagles’ nests are very large, possibly measuring up to six feet wide and weighing 100 pounds; many of the nests are used year after year.

Eagles may roost singly or in groups exceeding 100 birds!


Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)
Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

There are 10 species of harriers worldwide but only 1 species in North America, the northern harrier also known as the "marsh hawk".

The marsh hawk is a medium-sized, slim raptor with long legs and tail with a white rump patch at the base of the upper tail.

Marsh hawks live in open areas, often hunting in fields, meadows, or marshes.

This raptor has a distinctive hunting flight called "coursing", where they fly low over the ground following the contours of the land and holding the wings in a V-shape.

Unlike other daytime raptors, this bird has a facial ruff which helps to focus sound toward the ears.

Marsh hawks nest on the ground and their diet consists of rodents, small birds, and insects.

Most species are sexually dimorphic — meaning that the female is larger in size and brown and white in color, and the male is smaller in size and gray and white in color.


Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Osprey are large eagle-like raptors that live and nest near fresh or salt water, on treetops or on the tops of man-made poles with platforms.

Ospreys eat fish; and their fishing is made easy with their long legs and sharp talons. They like to hover, and then dive into water for fish.

These raptors have long, narrow wings with a characteristic gull-like crook and dark patch at its wrist; their back is dark brown and their breast is white. They have a distinct dark eye stripe (malar stripe), and lack the protective bony ridge above the eye like other raptors.


Cooper's Hawk (accipiter cooperii)
Cooper's Hawk (accipiter cooperii)

Accipiters are small to medium-sized raptors and have short, rounded wings and long tails, traits useful for speed and maneuvering in forested habitats!

There are three species of accipiters found in North America, the northern goshawk, the Cooper's hawk, and the sharp-shinned hawk; all of which can be observed in our region.

Adult accipiters typically have dark gray backs, barred or streaked breasts and tails, red eyes, and long toes.

Young accipters typically have brown backs, streaked breasts, and yellow eyes.

Their flight pattern includes rapid wing beats alternating with longer glides, and occasionally soaring.

Accipiters are fierce, stealthy hunters and their diet consists mostly of other birds and small mammals.


Photo of a Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Falcons are a group of hawks that vary in size from small to medium and are identified by their large head, notched beak, dark eyes, and distinct stripe(s) below their eyes called malar stripes.

Their powerful short beaks have a tomial tooth on the upper jaw, which with the hooked tip creates a notch for cutting the spinal cord of prey.

Falcons are powerful fliers and divers with long, narrow, pointed wings and long tails. Among the most aerial and acrobatic of the raptors, their flight ability is legendary. Scientists say these raptors can fly at speeds of over 100 miles per hour!

These raptors do not build their own nests but scrape out spots on cliffs or in cavities and typically live in open country.

Five falcon species can be found in our region. They are the American kestrel, merlin, prairie falcon, peregrine, falcon, and the gyrfalcon.

It is this group of birds around which the sport of "falconry" revolves.

Peregrine Falcon (falco peregrinus)
Peregrine Falcon (falco peregrinus)


Red Tail buteo (buteo jamaicensis)
Red Tail buteo (buteo jamaicensis)

Buteos are medium to large, stout bodied hawks.

These raptors are soaring hawks, but also hover or fly low along areas where prey are thought to be.

Many species have a variety of color phases most commonly dark.

Their diet consists primarily of small mammals, but as a group they will capture a wide variety of prey.

You often can see this type of raptor perched on large limbs of trees, utility poles, or fences.


White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus)

Kites are medium-sized raptors which have falcon-like flight appearance, but distinctly different tails.

These raptors have long, pointed wings and graceful, flight.

The kites that children love to fly are named after these graceful fliers.

Some species of kite have a slightly different wing and beak shape, in order to eat snails

Birds of Prey: Facts Threats to Birds of Prey

Close-up of an eagle

Raptor mortality is affected by a number of natural and human-caused factors. Natural factors include such things as climate, weather, accidents, natural catastrophes (e.g. lightning, volcano), predators, parasitesenvironmental contamination, electrocution, disease, and old age. Human-caused factors often include increased population growth and industry, habitat destruction, shooting, and egg collection.

Human Behavior and the Environment

Humans are often unaware of the long-term consequences of air, water, and land pollution on both wildlife and themselves.

Photo of a factory producing pollution

In the United States (U. S.), millions of tons of atmospheric pollution are created and emitted, and their impacts on animals (wild or domestic) far greater and immediate than that which can be observed in humans. Below are a few examples:

  • Birds and mammals become soaked in oil. The oil reduces the thermal properties of their feathers or fur and they eventually die from hypothermia and starvation. Scavengers - vultures, eagles, hawks - that eat the oil-soaked carcasses often die from petroleum ingestion.
  • Pesticides clearly affect birds of prey. Pesticide residues build up in raptors that feed on animals or insects that have ingested or been contaminated with pesticides. During stress or when food supplies are low, pesticides stored in the tissues are released into the bloodstream. When pesticide levels reach a lethal dosage in the organs or nervous system, the bird dies.
  • Waterfowl often ingest spent lead pellets from shotguns. Raptors then die from lead poisoning after eating the affected birds.
  • Non-target poisoning also creates problems for unsuspecting birds of prey, particularly scavengers. Eagles or vultures occasionally eat a carcass baited with poison intended to kill coyotes or other predators.

Other human-related raptor mortality factors

Photo of 2 osprey on a power pole

Collisions with high tension cables, towers, vehicles (especially in populated areas), and large windows . . .

  • raptors are attracted to power poles and power lines because they provide high perches for hunting, roosting, and occasionally nesting
  • touching two conductors or a conductor and ground wire at the same time may electrocute raptors with large wingspans
  • 70 to 90 percent of all raptor mortalities on power lines occur to young eagles
  • after studies of this problem, power companies have taken steps to prevent electrocutions by adding perches, modifying ground wires on problem poles, and designing safer poles

Shooting — although SHOOTING A RAPTOR IS ILLEGAL, it still occurs . . .

  • before laws were established to prohibit raptor shooting, many people would gather along migration routes for target practice
  • raptor species, which occasionally prey on domestic animals (e.g. chickens, pigeons, duck, quail, fish, and rarely sheep), are most vulnerable to shooting because humans see these birds as competitors
  • only instinct and opportunity are to blame for a raptor's choice of food

Legal Protections for Raptors & Raptor Parts

Close-up of a bird of prey

All raptors are protected by state and federal regulations. It is illegal to capture or kill a raptor; it is also illegal to possess a raptor (living or dead) without the proper permits from local state governments and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Raptors pose no threats to humans, although adult birds will defend their territory (habitat, space, home, nest) and their young against any intruders, human or otherwise.

Unfortunately, superstitions and untruths about raptors still persist and subject them to unwarranted suspicion and persecution.

In the U.S., wildlife is considered the property of all citizens and is protected and managed by the federal and state governments. Public sentiment, as well as law, does not favor the unrestricted use of wildlife for commercial purposes. Thus killing, collecting, or taking into captivity most forms of wildlife is heavily regulated.

All birds native to North America (thus excluding pigeons, European starlings, and English sparrows) are protected by at least one, and sometimes up to three, federal laws. Additionally, many states and municipalities also regulate the keeping of wild birds.

Legal Protections for Native Raptors

  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) – One of the earliest laws passed to protect wildlife in the U. S. This law was initially an international treaty between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and has now been amended to include Great Britain and Japan. It prohibits anyone from taking, killing, or keeping any native bird, its parts, or its nest, without a permit or license. All raptors native to the U.S. are covered by this law.
  • Bald Eagle Act (1940) – Congress passed this act in response to the slaughter of eagles during the first half of the twentieth century and because of the special status bald eagles hold as our national symbol. This law protects both bald eagles and golden eagles, their nests, and nest trees. It specifically prohibits anyone from killing or disturbing either species.
  • Endangered Species Act (1973) – This act provides additional protection for any animal listed as "threatened" or "endangered." The raptors currently listed include the bald eagle, spotted owl, California condor, peregrine falcon, and everglade kite.
Bald eagle skimming over water

At the time of this writing, however, the list was undergoing revision. Each of these laws has a separate set of regulations and permits. Depending on the species of bird you would like to possess, at least one and possibly three, federal permits may be required. For example:

  • to keep a red-tailed hawk you need a Special Purpose Possession Permit to keep the bird under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
  • to keep a peregrine falcon, both a Special Purpose Possession Permit and an Endangered Species Permit are required
  • to keep a bald eagle, you will need a Special Purpose Possession Permit and an Endangered Species Permit, as well as an Eagle Exhibition Permit, issued under the Bald Eagle Act
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service logo

All of these federal permits are issued through the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at their regional offices. Each permit requires annual reports and renewal.

Federal and state agencies and personnel are not exempt from obtaining permits. This includes state and national parks, wildlife areas, research facilities, all of which must obtain the same permits as everyone else.

Legal Protections for Non-native Raptors

  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (1975) – Non-native raptors (those not regularly found in North America) are not protected under the previously mentioned laws. However, there are special regulations governing the import of non-native raptors. All raptors of this type are listed under CITES. CITES requires special permits from the country of origin, as well as the U.S., before a raptor can be brought into this country.
  • Wild Bird Conservation Act (1954) – This law regulates the import of birds into the U.S.

Legal Protections for Non-living Raptors

  • Special Purpose Salvage – This special permit allows for the possession of non-living raptors or raptor parts. Dead specimens collected under this permit may be mounted, prepared as study skins, or otherwise used for educational purposes, including public display.

How You Can Help

Girl looking at birds through binoculars

Many of the problems facing birds of prey result from human activity. The solutions to these problems are difficult, because we must have food to eat, lumber for building, and industry for employment. But we must also have wildlife, and that includes raptors.

The environment in which we live would be very boring if only humans existed. Thus, seeking a balance between man's progress and species conservation and preservation is a challenge for all — which includes you.

Raptors are top predators and are often the first to suffer when changes occur in the environment. By protecting raptors, we provide an umbrella of protection for other species living in the same ecosystem.

Photo of binoculars and field guides

HELP by learning as much as you can about birds of prey and all wildlife:

  • Read books, newspaper articles, magazines
  • Watch television programs about nature
  • Take the time to study the animals that live in your neighborhood
  • Create wildlife habitats in your backyard (e.g. birdhouse, birdbath)
  • Encourage parents to limit their use of pesticides
  • Create a nature or ecology club in your school
  • Recycle and reduce your use of consumptive (use that may directly kill or impact wildlife) goods
  • Share what you know with your families and friends; quite often people are simply not aware of the problems raptors face
  • Write letters to important people, including government leaders (congressional representatives, mayor, council persons, president, etc.) in your town, state, and country expressing your concern and interest in wildlife conservation and preservation; government leaders are often influenced by the opinions you express on such issues and your opinions often impact greatly their decisions as to whether actions and/or laws get implemented or not
  • Offer your support to organizations, federal (e.g. BLM) and non-federal (e.g. Peregrine Fund), and facilities that protect raptors nationally and internationally; humans are often unaware of such groups' ability and effectiveness in making the world safer for wildlife

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."
– Baba Dioum

Top 10 Questions

March 2014

Thanks to Bill Heinrich, Interpretive Center Director, World Center for Birds of Prey, Boise; and Greg Kaltenecker, executive director, Intermountain Bird Observatory, Boise State University for the answers

  1. What makes a bird a bird of prey?

    Birds of prey have keen vision, sharp talons, and a hooked bill. (From Piper at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

  2. How many birds of prey are there?

    There are about 130 owl species and over 200 raptors. Overall, roughly more than 500 different birds of prey have been identified. (From Ryan at Kamiah Elementary School in Kamiah)

  3. What is the most endangered bird of prey?

    There are several species of birds of prey that are endangered or in trouble. The Philippine eagle is one, and there are several that have fewer than 200 members. The Mauritius kestrel was endangered and down to only two breeding pairs. Now there are over 200 breeding kestrels on the island. The California condor was down to 22 individual species and now there are 400. This shows that a bird species can be really down in numbers and still be able to recover. (From Zach at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

  4. Which bird of prey has the largest wingspan?

    The Andean condor is the largest bird of prey with a wingspan right around ten feet. (From Elliot at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

  5. How do eagles swoop down and get their fish?

    Eagles swoop down to get fish, but they only go into the water as far as their legs. Their talons go just under the surface of the water and are able to grab the fish. The osprey, on the other hand, will sometimes dive completely into the water to catch fish. (From Dillon at Kamiah Elementary School in Kamiah)

  6. Does an eagle have eyelids to protect its eyes against the wind when it dives?

    Eagles have two eyelids: a lower and an upper lid. When they are diving, however, they are flying in rapid flight and a nictitating membrane comes across the eye sideways from front to back. This membrane protects the eye when the bird is in flight. (From Garret at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

  7. Do birds of prey have a really good sense of smell?

    Most birds of prey do not have a good sense of smell. There are a few exceptions though. The turkey vulture is one of these exceptions and has been shown to have a keen sense of smell. If a carcass is completely covered up, this vulture will still find it. (From Jaden at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

  8. How do eagles sneak up on their prey?

    Most birds of prey will try to sneak up on their prey. Frequently eagles will do it simply by flying high so the prey cannot see them. Or they may try another successful method by following the contour of the land and fly over the top of a hill where there will be an unsuspecting ground squirrel or rabbit. This will give the eagle an advantage to see their prey before the prey sees them. (From Brayden at Dalton Gardens Elementary School in Dalton)

  9. Why do turkey vultures have two holes in the middles of their beaks?

    The bill of a turkey vulture is called perforate. That means that they don't have a septum. You can see from one side of their nostril to the other side. The reason for this may be because they are scavengers. They have their head down when busy with a carcass and the perforate nostril makes it easy for them to clean after feeding on a carcass. It also helps with their keen sense of smell. (From Deborah at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

  10. Why do hawks fly low and eagles fly high?

    Both hawks and eagles fly low and high. Most diurnal raptors, those active during the daytime, use thermals, which are air currents that consist of warming air that rises up during the day. Both hawks and eagles use these air currents to fly very, very high. (From Cooper at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)