How to Identify Backyard Birds: Part 3

What’s the difference between a hawk and an eagle?  What about a vulture and a falcon?  If you’ve ever spent sleepless nights wondering about such questions, then this blog is for you.  If you love to watch birds of prey or want to know more about them, then this blog is for you.  If you want to learn a few more tips on how to identify birds you might see in your yard or at the park, this blog’s for you.  If you like watching cartoon birds, this blog’s for you.  And if the only thing you like about birds is shooting them or eating them, well, I just might have something that suits your fancy.  In the third post in my bird identification series, birds of prey are the focus.  Now on to the birds!

In my last post on identifying birds, I mentioned the importance of looking at the shape of a bird’s body and bill.  Let’s use those features to examine birds of prey.  First of all, what are the differences between hawks, eagles, falcons and vultures?  Here is a picture to illustrate some of the differences.

 (Silhouettes picture from Hilton Pond Center)

Here is where looking at the shape of a bird can really come in handy.  Take a look at the silhouette of the falcon.  Notice that falcons have narrow, point wings and a long thin tail.  If you’re wondering what in the world a buteo or an accipiter is, don’t worry, I’ve hidden a secret message in this blog that explains them.  A harrier is a kind of hawk that has a face shaped similar to an owl, which allows for a great sense of hearing.  Ospreys are pretty cool birds that I have often seen when vacationing in Florida.

adult femaleAdult female

(Top – Northern Harrier photo from  Bottom – Osprey photo copyright Kim Taylor, VA, August 2009)

Ospreys are unique among raptors in that they dive to catch fish.  Their wing shape is also different from most hawks.  Pay attention to the ‘M’ the body seems to form while in flight.  Ospreys are usually found near bodies of water and due to their fish-hunting efficiency, are often the target of eagles who are hungry for an easy meal.  Bad pirates!  Now do you want to know what a buteo is?  I’ll tell you as soon as the U.S. is no longer in debt.  Okay, okay.  Buteos are hawks which have large, broad rounded wings and fan-like tails.  Most hawks that you see soaring over your neighborhood or in the country are buteos.  Accipiters are hawks that dwell in wooded areas and have short wings and long tails that enable them to quickly fly through the trees.   Because they spend a lot of time in the woods and tend to shy away from heavily inhabited areas, accipiters are seen less often than buteos.  Here are some pictures to help you visual the differences between these two groups of hawks.


(Left – Red-tailed Hawk, Right – Cooper’s Hawk.  Photos from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Take a close looks at the hawks above.  Which one is a buteo and which one is an accipiter?  Check out the size of the wings and the shape of the tails.  The Red-tailed Hawk is a buteo and the Cooper’s Hawk is an accipiter.  Red-tailed Hawks are prevalent throughout the U.S. and can be seen in almost any habitat.  I often see Red-tails perching on a tree or powerline near roads.  Cooper’s Hawks, often called sparrowhawks, are shy birds but there is a female that has been visiting my house lately and even landed by my patio.  She is possibly being attracted by the tasty buffet of songbirds feeding on birdseed.  I should also point out the presence of bands on the Cooper’s tail, which can prove helpful in identification.

Okay, here is another test, see if you can figure out which of the birds below is a falcon, which is a buteo hawk and which is an accipiter hawk.

Juvenile Light morph

(Pictures from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Now let’s take a quick look at eagles and vultures.  Eagles are heavy raptors with long wings and large, hooked bills.  Vultures are not as large as eagles and have smaller heads and bills.  Here are some pictures for comparison.

Adult in flightJuvenile

(Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Obviously, vultures and eagles have very different heads.  Here the Turkey Vulture’s pink head stands out.  But if you saw these birds flying high in the air, shape and flight patterns would be important.  This is an example of where behavior comes into play.  Vultures tend to flap their wings in short bursts and soar in a v-shape with wobbly flight patterns while the flight of eagles is more level with slow, powerful wing movements.  Also, the Turkey Vulture’s wingspan is around 65-70 inches while Golden Eagles, like the one shown above, have wingspans between 73 and 86 inches.  Discerning between vultures can be tricky as immature Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures both have grayish heads.  Black Vultures are a bit smaller and tend to fly with their wings flat, instead of the v-shaped posture of the Turkey Vultures.  Also, Black Vultures have white primary feathers near their wingtips.  Think of them as wearing gloves.  Here are pictures for illustration.

Adult in flight

Most of the time you would be able to distinguish an eagle from a hawk by the size and coloration of the bird.  Besides their larger size, eagles also have larger beaks.  In the U.S. we only have two common eagle species, so if you have the eyes of a hawk you would easily pick out an eagle with practice.  Of course, identification can be very tricky with immature Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles, but that’s a topic for another time.


(Left – Golden Eagle, Right – Zone-tailed Hawk –> Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Well, I’ve decided to write one more blog on identifying birds which will be posted this week.  I still want to examine behavior and habitat and songs.  I’ll also tell a few stories about my birding adventures.  In case you’re wondering, a roadrunner is a real bird that runs through the deserts of the western U.S.  Could a coyote catch a roadrunner?  Who is the greatest cartoon bird of all time?  I’ll have the answers to those questions and more in my next blog!  One more thing, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology just came out with a really cool bird ID app.  The app is free and helps you identify birds by asking questions and showing pictures.  If you have an iphone or ipad, be sure to this out –> Merlin Bird ID


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