Birds of prey are not only defined by their physical characteristics, but also by their carnivorous diets. While it is widely assumed that the primary prey for raptors is small mammals, these birds actually have a varied diet that can include many different types of game and prey species. So what do hawks and other birds of prey eat?
What Birds of Prey Eat
Different types of birds of prey eat a wide range of different animals. In general, the larger the hunter the larger the prey, but many medium and large raptors will also choose easier, smaller meals, especially when small prey is more abundant. The most common prey includes:
- Large Insects: Grasshoppers, praying mantises, beetles, and other large insects are the preferred prey of small raptors such as American kestrels, merlins, and Mississippi kites. Raptors that spend a large amount of time on the ground, such as burrowing owls, also eat a lot of insects.
- Fish: Birds of prey that live along coastlines or near large bodies of water often hunt fish, in some cases poaching it from other predators such as bears, raccoons, and mountain lions. Fish is the majority of the diet for bald eagles and osprey, and the snowy owl will also occasionally eat fish.
- Small Mammals: Small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews, and gophers are the most popular prey for medium and large raptors. Red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, Cooper’s hawks, barn owls, merlins, and many other species hunt small mammals, either by perching and scanning fields or by soaring to spot prey.
- Small Birds: Many small birds including finches, sparrows, and songbirds are prey for larger birds. Depending on the raptor species, they may surprise smaller birds on the ground or catch them in mid-flight, either through diving or after an acrobatic aerial chase. Accipiters such as sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks are specialists at hunting small birds.
- Large Birds: Larger birds such as pigeons, doves, ducks, rails, and grouse often become prey for larger raptors. Fierce predators such as the northern goshawk and the swift diving peregrine falcon feed frequently on larger birds.
- Medium Mammals: Medium-sized mammals such as rabbits, raccoons, and large squirrels are regular parts of the diet of large birds of prey. Red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, northern goshawks, and golden eagles hunt these bigger mammals.
- Carrion: Dead animals and rotting carcasses are the primary diet of scavenging raptors such as the turkey vulture and the California condor. Other large raptors, including golden and bald eagles, will also choose an easy meal like carrion if it is available.
- Reptiles: Snakes and lizards are popular prey for desert-dwelling raptors such as the crested caracara. The barred owl is also known to feed frequently on reptiles.
- Amphibians: Smaller birds of prey and those that prefer habitats near water often feed on amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders. Red-shouldered hawks and American kestrels often include amphibians in their diet.
Birds of Prey in the Backyard
While raptors are not common backyard birds, smaller species such as the sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, and Cooper’s hawk may occasionally show up in suburban and urban areas. While they will mainly hunt small birds, mammals, and insects, they have also been known to take large chunks of suet if available, and if they can access suet feeders.
Meat and poultry scraps are also taken by raptors of all sizes, though adding them to a bird feeding station is unlikely to attract birds of prey. It is not recommended to offer meat in order to tempt raptors, since meat scraps can also attract other animals and predators that can be dangerous. Furthermore, raptors need to consume their prey whole, organs and all, to get adequate nutrition. Meat that is offered at feeding stations will also more quickly rot and could become toxic to birds that may sample it.
Raptors Eating Backyard Birds
Many birders dislike birds of prey hunting and feeding on their backyard birds, and conscientious birders may consider attracting birds an ethical dilemma when it results in a raptor buffet. It is important to remember, however, that having a hawk visit a backyard demonstrates the great bird diversity of the area and the suitability of the habitat, since raptors will not hunt where prey is scarce.
When raptors do take backyard birds, they are usually capturing the oldest and weakest birds. By culling these less than prime specimens, they actually help improve the strength of the backyard flock and will help the other birds survive. Nevertheless, birders who prefer to protect their songbirds from birds of prey can do so by offering suitable shelter for the birds to hide from passing raptors. If a hawk returns regularly to the same spot to feed, removing all bird feeders for a week or two will disperse the flock and encourage the raptor to find a more suitable hunting ground.
From insects and fish to mammals, lizards, and frogs, birds of prey have a highly varied diet. Even when they prey on backyard birds, they are still a fascinating and valuable part of the ecological food chain.