Raptor Identification Tips

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Which species of raptors have you been able to identify this migration season? Identifying raptors can be easy when they’re sitting on a fence post or power line, but identifying them while they are in flight can be a difficult task, even for the most seasoned veterans. Hawks, falcons, and eagles come in all different shapes and sizes. With that in mind, we’d like to offer some expert tips for identifying raptors.

First, lets cover some basic bird anatomy and other factors that can be used to identify raptors. In this section, we’ll be coving the size, shapes, and appearance of various bird parts. (i)
Size: How large is the bird compared to another nearby, easily identifiable object?
Coloration: What color(s) can you see in the bird’s plumage? Are there any distinct patterns or banding?
Feet and Legs: How long are the legs? What color are they? How long are birds talons and digits?
Behavior: What’s the bird doing? Is it soaring on thermal updrafts or flapping it’s wings?
Wings: How wide are the wings? How long are they? What kind of shapes do the wings make when they are extended fully? Any distinct colors or patterns?
Tail: How long are the tail feathers? What shape do the tail feathers form?
All of these questions can give you clues pertaining to the identity of the species. Many field guides include some more common language, such as “wide wings, fanned tail feathers,” that is more user friendly for less experienced birders.

Now, lets do a quick rundown of various types of raptors and some of their defining physical characteristics. (ii)
Buteo Hawks: These hawks are aerial hunters, and they rely on updrafts to keep them aloft while they look for prey. Buteos have long, wide wings and broad tail feathers. You can find buteo hawks soaring high in large circles over open areas, or perched on service poles looking for prey on the ground.
Accipiter Hawks: Accipiters have shorter, rounded wings, and longer, more narrow tail feathers. These adaptations make it easier for accipiters to chase their prey (typically other birds) through the canopies of trees. They can also be seen soaring, but they typically will flap their wings a few times before gliding on an updraft.
Falcons: Falcons are built for speed with a streamlined body shape and long, pointed wings. Unlike buteo and accipiter hawks, falcons must flap their wings continuously while in flight.
Eagles: Eagles are some of the largest of the raptors in North America. Like buteos, they have long, wide wings. Eagle beaks are also quite large, and they can be noticed from a great distance. Eagles hunt mostly for live prey, but they have been noted to be scavengers from time to time.
For a downloadable guide of the types of raptors listed above, click here. (iii)

Finally, we’d like to suggest two applications that are FREE and downloadable on both Android and Apple devices. An extremely powerful tool that can help you to identify birds is an app known as Merlin (iv). Merlin is extremely user friendly, and it’s meant for both novice and experienced birders. When users beginning a bird identification, they are given two options. They can go directly to the index and browse every species in the system, or they can go through a series of questions that helps the Merlin system to narrow down all possible options. Going directly to the index is great for instances in which a birder has a general sense of the type of bird that they are seeing. Using the questions system is extremely helpful when identifying a bird species that’s completely novel to the user. Merlin also has different “bird packs” associated with specific geographic regions of North America so that storage space on your devices isn’t wasted on birds that you’re extremely unlikely to see. Merlin was created by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology.



A great complimentary application for Merlin from the Cornell Lab is eBrid (v). eBird is an application that allows user to log birds that they observe, and it keeps a life list for each user. eBird is also a citizen science program that uses all of the data submitted by it’s users for actual studies conducted by the researchers at Cornell. Using eBird helps it’s user to keep track of all of the bird species that they’ve seen, and it helps researchers to better understand so much about birds! Anyone can be a citizen scientist, so download eBird and Merlin today to start logging birds!

Ian Martin, Education Coordinator, 2016

(i) About: Raptor Identification Tips

(ii) Hawk Mountain: How to Identify Hawks

(iii) Hawk Migration Association of North America: Hawk Guide

(iv) Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Merlin Bird ID

(v) Cornell Lab of Ornithology: eBird

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