All About Raptors

Types of Birds

Red-Tailed Hawk

Tim Lenz / Flickr / CC by 2.0

A raptor is a generally medium-sized or large bird that hunts and kills other animals for food, including small birds, fish, mammals, lizards, and insects. These birds typically hunt living prey rather than eating mostly carrion, but will eat at fresh carcasses when other prey may be scarce. Raptors are found on every continent except Antarctica.


(rhymes with chapter, captor, and "tapped her")

Raptor Facts

The Latin word “raptor” means “to seize or capture” and describes how these birds hunt with their large, strong talons and sharply hooked bills. But there is more to raptors than just their hunting style. Many characteristics make raptors unique, including:

  • Larger Size: The sizes of these birds can vary greatly, but they are generally larger and bulkier than most other birds, which allows them to hunt a greater variety of prey. Their talons are often thicker, sharper, and larger than most birds, and they have broad wings for powerful flight.
  • Meat Diet: Raptors are carnivorous and eat only meat, though the type of meat varies. Some raptors are fish-hunting specialists, while others may hunt snakes or others specialize in hunting birds. Many raptors are generalist hunters and will take a variety of prey.
  • Quiet Voice: Most raptors are nearly silent birds, with only a few calls used in extreme circumstances, such as an alarm call or the dramatic begging calls of young hatchlings. Silence is beneficial to a raptor since excessive vocalizations could scare off potential prey.
  • Powerful Flight: While most birds are adept fliers, raptors have different flight styles that help them hunt. Easy gliding and soaring can help a raptor find its prey, while powerful dives and swift pursuit is essential to capture each meal.
  • Solitary Behavior: Unlike many birds that gather in flocks, raptors are almost always anti-social to avoid competition for prey. Only in rare circumstances will these birds be seen in large flocks, such as during peak migration periods or at winter feeding grounds.

Many other characteristics can help distinguish raptors from other types of birds, including individual territory size and patient hunting behavior.

Types of Raptors

There are more than 560 species of raptors around the world. Common and familiar raptor classifications and examples of popular raptors include:

  • Accipiters - Sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper's hawk, northern goshawk
  • Buteos - Red-tailed hawk, ferruginous hawk, forest buzzard
  • Eagles - Bald eagle, golden eagle, Steller's sea-eagle
  • Falcons - Peregrine falcon, American kestrel, Eurasian hobby
  • Harriers - Northern harrier, pallid harrier, pied harrier
  • Hawks - Broad-winged hawk, red-shouldered hawk, grey hawk
  • Kites - Swallow-tailed kite, snail kite, brahminy kite
  • Osprey - Only one bird in this classification, the osprey
  • Owls - Barn owl, great horned owl, great gray owl
  • Vultures - Andean condor, turkey vulture, king vulture

Each of these types of raptors has unique characteristics that distinguish them from one another, but they all share traits and behaviors that make them birds of prey.

Birding for Raptors

Many birders are interested in seeing more raptors, and fortunately, it is easy to add birds of prey to one's life list. Raptors are found in all types of habitats, and because these are larger birds, they are often easier to see and identify, particularly for novice birders. At the same time, since raptors require large territories and are relatively solitary birds, it can be difficult to find many raptors within a small region. Understanding the where, when, and how to find raptors can help any birder see more of these phenomenal birds.

Other Familiar Raptors

Because raptors are powerful, iconic birds, they are often used as symbolic representatives for many things that involve strength, power, fierceness, and nobility. Such popular raptors include:

  • Official symbols as national birds for different countries
  • Mascots for sports teams, businesses, or schools
  • Religious icons to symbolize gods or spirits
  • Names of comic book characters and superheroes
  • Names of vehicles, including extreme performance cars and military aircraft

Even many places are named after birds of prey, such as Hawk Inlet in Alaska, Eagleville in Connecticut, and Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. Bird place names with raptor connections are also popular throughout the world, often naming locations after the birds of prey that can be found there.

Also Known As

Bird of Prey, Raptorial Bird

Common Misspellings