Raptor Identification Tips

How to Identify Birds of Prey

Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk in Flight
Larry Lamsa/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Raptors are a fascinating class of birds, but identifying raptors can be a challenge even for experienced birders. Many of these birds have similar colors, markings, and postures, and learning to identify subtle differences when the birds are either perched or in flight can help birders become more confident in their raptor identifications.

Equipment to Identify Raptors

A prepared birder needs the right equipment to positively identify raptors.

  • Optics: Binoculars are often preferred for identifying birds of prey because soaring birds can be difficult to keep in a spotting scope field of view for long study, though a scope can be useful for perched raptors or kettles. Choose optics with a high magnification and anti-glare coatings to get sharp details that won't be washed out when sighting raptors in bright skies. A wide field of view is also desirable to help make spotting raptors quicker and easier.
  • Field Guide: A field guide for raptors should include both perched and flight views of each bird, preferably from different angles. Alternate plumages, including juvenile colorations and morphs, should also be represented. General field guides have a basic raptor section that is adequate for most identifications, but advanced birders may prefer a more detailed guide specifically for birds of prey.
  • Hat: While a hat will not automatically help any birder identify raptors, it will provide sun protection and minimize glare when gazing into clear skies looking for raptors. Choose a hat with crown ventilation and a wide brim for the best use.

Identifying Raptors by Sight

There are two ways to identify birds of prey on sight: studying the birds either perched or in flight. Knowing what to look for if a bird is perched or flying can help identification go more smoothly.

If the bird is perched, look for clues such as:

  • Size: How does the bird's size compare to surrounding objects? How does it compare to more familiar songbirds? How long is the tail? Does the head appear large or small in proportion to the body?
  • Plumage: What is the bird's overall color above and below? Are there any streaks, stripes, or colored patches on the face? Is there a cap or hood? Is there streaking, striping, barring, or spotting on the chin, chest, flanks, or abdomen? Is the tail striped or barred? How thick are any markings? Are there any bare skin patches, and if so, what color are they?
  • Behavior: Is the bird looking around for food while perched? Is it preening, sunning, or eating? Does it stay perched for long periods or just short breaks?
  • Legs and Feet: What color are the legs and feet? How large are the talons? How thick are the legs? Are the legs bare or are they covered with longer feathers?

If the bird is flying, look for these clues:

  • Wing Shape: How long and wide are the wings compared to the bird's body? Are the wings blunt or tapered? Are the primary (fingertip) feathers splayed or held closed? Where is the wrist joint in comparison to the bird's head? Is there a bulge along the trailing edge of the wing?
  • Wing Pattern: What colors are visible on the underside of the wings? Is the leading edge light or dark? Is there a definite pattern to the wings' undersides? Are there markings near the wrist or edges of the wings? Are any colors solid or barred? Do the secondary flight feathers contrast with the primaries?
  • Flapping: Is the bird soaring or gliding? How frequent are flaps, and how fast? Is the bird hovering or using a stoop dive while hunting? Are the wings held level with the body or slightly above or below when gliding?
  • Body Pattern: Are there visible color contrasts between the body and wings? Is there a belly band of streaks or dots, or a color wash on the chest? Do the legs form a contrasting color to the body?
  • Tail: How long is the tail? Is it held fanned out or tight together? It is blunt, rounded, or pointed? Is there a fork in the tail? Is it barred or does it have a different colored tip?

By knowing what details to look for when seeing raptors either perched or in flight, birders can quickly take note of each bird's characteristics for positive identification.

Other Ways to Identify Raptors

While watching a bird is often the easiest way to identify it, other clues can help sort out tricky identifications for birds that aren't as clearly visible.

  • Range and Habitat: Just like other birds, different raptors have different ranges. Before jumping to an identification of a rare raptor, investigate the bird's typical range. Then consider the habitat: buteos prefer open habitats, while accipiters prefer forested areas. Some birds of prey are commonly found in urban and suburban settings, while others are usually much farther from any developments.
  • Prey: Birders who are fortunate enough to identify what a mystery raptor is eating or hunting can use that as a clue to which bird they're watching. Seeing a bird with prey is a way to help judge size, and knowing what raptors eat, from insects to fish to carrion, can help make identification easier.
  • Sounds: Most mature raptors are relatively silent, but knowing the common calls of typical birds of prey is a fast and easy way to use birding by ear for a positive identification.

Identifying raptors takes time and patience, but birders who know what clues to look for and what characteristics to note can easily identify any raptors they see.