|Silhouettes of birds of prey (including vultures here)|
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Most people can tell a bird of prey when they see one in flight or at rest. Many don't know or cannot tell the types of raptors from each other. This article will allow you to recognize, or at least know about the major groups of raptors in the United States.
First, let's discuss the major groups of raptors, then we'll get into the major groups of hawks. Raptors are birds that prey on other animals, be they other birds, small animals or large insects. Generally, this does not include birds that prey on small insects. Eagles are one class of raptors. There are two common species of eagles in the US, the Bald Eagle, and the Golden Eagle. The adults are easy to tell apart as the Bald Eagle has the black body and white head and tail, and the Golden Eagle is dark brown all over with the less noticeable golden hackles of the back of the neck from which it gets its name. Both are very large birds that soar high in the air much of the time.
Falcons are narrow-winged fast flying birds of prey. Then mostly feed on other birds, and tend to have fast direct flight, except in the smallest US falcon the American Kestrel which tends to have a weaker more buoyant flight. The Falcons we see are the massive bulky Gyrfalcon, the Peregrine Falcon, the Prairie Falcon, the Merlin and the American Kestrel, listed from largest to smallest. Buteos are what most of us think of as the classic hawk. They are broad-winged, relatively short-tailed birds that usually inhabit open areas, though some of the smaller may be forest birds. They soar on broad wings and hunt by dropping from flight or a perch onto prey.
Accipiters are a group of three species of hawks that primarily hunt other birds and take their prey by direct attack. Some use surprise, others just agility, strength and speed. They all have long tails, broad wings, and strong flight. The three species are the large Goshawk, the medium-sized Cooper's Hawk, and the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk.
In almost all birds of prey, the females are larger than the males. This is presumably to allow them to better conserve heat and incubate eggs, while the smaller males are more efficient hunters and support the female and the young on the nest. See the Cornell University Ornithology web site for photos and more information.