Differentiating Birds of Prey

Hawks, falcons, and eagles are three of the most skilled birds of prey. While birders are trained to identify these hunters by their plumage, people who have never experienced watching these birds end up mystified.

Telling the difference between a falcon, a hawk, and an eagle is a common problem among many beginners. However, these three have different traits that you can easily make out, even from a distance.

Despite having identical size and physical attributes, hawks, falcons, and eagles have specific traits and behaviors that differentiate themselves from each other. Experienced birders know that identifying a bird of prey takes time and experience.

The different types of raptors have varying plumage, size, and flight patterns, which all factor into their category. These characteristics are what you should be looking out for to identify each type of animal successfully.

1. Size and Shape

Among the three types of prey birds, the eagle has the largest body size, with a broad wingspan and massive feet. Eagles also have a wedge-shaped tail that helps keep them balanced in flight.

Falcons typically have long and pointed wings and a long tail, while hawks have shorter and rounder wings and a long, narrow tail.

2. Flight Behavior

Different birds of prey have varying flight behaviors and patterns. Eagles, for instance, hover over treetops flapping their wings slowly while on the lookout for its next target. They can also be seen perched in trees or on the ground.

Falcons are considered swift flyers that catch their prey off-guard with dives at breathtaking speeds. Peregrine Falcons, one of the falcon species, is regarded as the fastest animal alive. This bird of prey is often found sitting on high perches to wait for the right opportunity to make their assault.

Hawks are medium-sized birds that are mainly found in woodlands. When hunting, this bird dashes from a concealed perch and quickly ambush their prey.

3. Hunting Style

When it comes to hunting prey, Eagles are aggressive and powerful. They have heavy heads and powerful beaks that they use to tear flesh apart. Their massive claws are strong enough to kill their target and ensure it does not escape its grasp.

Falcons generally dive towards their intended target, taking it by surprise. These birds of prey feast on smaller animals located around their territory, such as doves and pigeons. These raptors have an angled beak that is used to snap an unsuspecting animal’s neck quickly.

On the other hand, Hawks are equipped with smooth beaks featuring a simple curve. These animals primarily use their powerful talons to snatch their prey and kill them.


Common types of birds of prey found in Eastern US


Peregrine Falcon: Ohio

Before the 1940s, analysts estimated that there were more than 3,800 nesting sites made by Peregrine Falcons in the United States. However, introducing a toxic pesticide to the environment cut down their numbers to about 300 sites.

In Ohio, officials conducted a restoration project that reintroduced the species to the state to breed and recover their numbers. There were 46 of the species released in the cities of Akron, Cincinnati, and Columbus, which have since expanded the falcon’s range and territory.

Peregrine Falcon landing on tree branch

Peregrine Falcon

American Kestrel: Tennessee

The American Kestrel is the smallest species of falcon in North America. It sports various colors and has spread widely across the nation. This type of falcon is more commonly observed than other varieties due to its fondness for creating its nest on agricultural lands and residential areas.

Red-shouldered Hawk: Georgia

A year-long resident in Georgia, the Red-shouldered Hawk is a common resident and has an unusual courtship ritual. Two birds would come together and fly while occasionally rolling over on their backs. They are commonly seen soaring the skies while upside down.

Red-tailed Hawk: Florida

Red-tailed Hawks are typically seen making their nests along fields and atop telephone poles and fenceposts in Florida. This hawk species sports a signature bright red tail, which even first-time birders would be able to identify in flight.

Bald Eagle: Alabama

While Bald Eagles are common in the United States, birdwatchers have only seen an average of 100 to 150 birds in Alabama in recent years. This large, majestic bird of prey makes its nest along rivers and large bodies of water.

Bald Eagles stick with one mate for their entire lives and divide responsibilities with each other. Enormous nests are usually found on the crown of massive trees near water bodies.

Golden Eagle: Appalachian Mountains

Sporting a beautiful golden hue, the Golden Eagle are large birds of prey that could have a wingspan of up to seven feet. This species of raptor is found in Alabama in mid- to late November before migrating elsewhere.

Like Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles make their nests on top of large trees and are called aeries. These birds of prey begin laying eggs in February or March inside nests of lower attitude than usual.

Golden eagle sitting

Golden Eagle


You can find more information on birds of prey here.


On the Trail: Water Birds

Birds are beautiful and diverse animals that inhabit nearly every ecosystem on Earth. There are thousands of different species of birds, ranging from the tiniest hummingbird to the vibrant peacock to the 9 ft tall ostrich. In this article, we will explore the world of water birds. These birds have adapted to life in the water through flattened bills, webbed feet, and waterproof feathers.

Waterproof feathers

Aquatic birds give their feathers water-resistant properties by coating them with waxy oils. This process is called preening, in which the bird distributes oils from the preen gland at the base of its tail to the other feathers. Water birds must continually preen their feathers to keep them water-resistant. Another way these birds stay protected from water is through a dusty powder in their feathers. This powder comes from the breakdown of special feathers called ‘powderdowns’ and adds to the water-resistance of the feathers.

The following birds are examples of North American water birds you may see on the trail:

    1. Waterfowl

Waterfowl is a classification of aquatic birds that live in freshwater. The main types of waterfowl are ducks and geese, who are both commonly found in North America.


Ducks can be found in practically any type of body of water including marshes, ponds, rivers, and lakes. They are omnivores and their diet varies by species. Ducks may be shovelers, who eat insects, snails, and seeds, diving ducks, who are able to dive deep to catch fish, or dabbling ducks, who feed on land or at the water’s surface. Dabbling ducks eat plants, grasses, insects, and small animals.


There are several types of geese, a common example being the Canada Goose. Canada Geese can often be found flying overhead in a V-formation or around water or grassy fields. These birds are herbivores and eat grass, berries such as blueberries, seeds, and grains.

Geese can sometimes get violent both with other geese and with humans. When threatened, they will hiss or honk and may chase after people. If they’re fighting with another goose, they may attack and hit each other with their wings.

Two geese flying in the sky

Geese flying in the sky

     2. Common Loon

The common loon lives mainly in lakes and ponds. A lake populated with loons is often a good indicator that the water is very clean, even crystal-clear. Loons prefer crystal-clear water so they can see their prey easier underwater, which is mainly small fish. They will also eat crustaceans, snails, or leeches if there’s not enough fish around.

Loons are excellent hunters in the water and powerfully dive after their prey with the help of the feet located at the back of their body. They have the unique talent of being able to flip around 180° in less than a second to follow their prey. After lurking in the water looking for fish, they will suddenly dive down and use these skills to their advantage.

     3. Pelicans

Pelicans are relatively large birds with a weight of 30 pounds and a wingspan of up to 10 feet. They can be found on islands in freshwater lakes where they breed or in shallow marshes where they go foraging for their food. During a migration, they may stop at lakes or inland rivers.

Pelicans are very social and often hunt prey together. This is accomplished by using their collective wings to drive fish toward the shore where it will be easy to catch them. Pelicans also travel together in flocks and will occasionally fly in a V-formation like geese over long distances.

The most characteristic feature of the pelican is its throat pouch, called the gular, which they use to catch and drain fish. They mainly eat small fish but will also hunt crayfish and tadpoles; their diet can vary based on the water levels and which types of fish or other creatures are available.

Two pelicans standing in front of a tree

Pelicans standing by some trees

Next time you’re at Houston Leisure, see how many water birds you can spot.