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Identifying Native Hawks & Falcons
By Richard Tharp, Wildlife Biologist
Hawks are part of a large family called Accipitridae,which includes ospreys, kites, and eagles. Falcons, members of the Family Falconidae, are closely related and often referred to as hawks. The information following will summarize five groups: the buteos, accipiters, falcons, harriers, and the ospreys. The buteo hawks are the largest group. They are characterized by broad, round wings and tail. They are not suited for fast flight, but are known as gliding and soaring hawks. These birds have great value in that they feed heavily on rodents. These hawks include the red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, Swainson’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, and the rough-legged hawk.
Accipter hawks differ from the buteos in that they have short, rounded wings and a long tail. They are skilled, strong fliers and have the ability to pursue prey into dense cover or woods. Birds are the food of choice for these hawks. The sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk make up this group.
Aerodynamic bodies, long slender wings and long tails enable the falcons to be the speedsters of the hawks. Insects and birds are the principle food items of the American kestrel, merlin, and peregrine falcon.
One species falls into the category of harriers, the northern harrier. This bird is known as an open country species. It habitually glides low over terrain in search of voles, its favorite food. The last group also contains a single species, the osprey. Nearly as large as an eagle except in the body, this bird feeds on fish and is almost exclusively found near bodies of water.
Whether gliding on a summer wind thermal against a blue sky or perched atop a leafless tree on a blustery winter day, all hawks have markings and clues that will help in identification. The red-shouldered hawk is typically 16 to 24 inches tall and carries a longer tail than other soaring hawks. The most distinguishing trait is the reddish-brown shoulders, which are noticeable when perched. The red-shouldered hawk, the most common soaring hawk found across the state, builds a large nest in a pine or hardwood tree. This hawk is beneficial because it feeds on destructive pests such as rats and large insects. The broad-winged hawk ranges 13 to 15 inches with short, broad wings with pointed tips. In flight, this bird appears small and compact. This hawk is common in spring and summer but numbers increase during the fall as migrants enter the state. It prefers to nest in the crotch of a limb and trunk on a hardwood. These hawks rely on reptiles as a main food source so much so that they move to the tropics when reptiles are dormant.
The Swainson’s hawk is a larger hawk usually colored dark brown on the back with a white throat. This bird, if found in Alabama, would visit during the fall. The Swainson’s prefers open country such as a farm or prairie. It nests in groups of isolated trees and feeds on rodents such as meadow mice and insects.
The red-tailed hawk is normally 18 to 25 inches tall. It is distinguished from other hawks by its rufous, red tail and penetrating call. During winter it is common across the state, especially in hardwoods. These birds build large, bulky nests in the forks of large trees. The greatest portion of their diet consists of rats, rabbits and large insects. The rough-legged hawk is a large soaring hawk with a broad black tip on its normally white tail. This bird is a chance visitor and will only be seen during the winter. It is not known to breed in Alabama. It hovers habitually in flight, especially while attempting to catch meadow mice and other ground rodents.
The sharp-shinned hawk ranges from 10 to 14 inches and carries short rounded wings. This bird is distinguished from the similar Cooper’s hawk by a square tail when spread. The sharp-shinned is a common permanent resident in the northern half of the state but during winter migration it can be seen across the state. It prefers to nest in conifer trees, and birds are the food of choice. The Cooper’s hawk is very similar to the sharp-shinned except it is larger with a rounded tail. It is a permanent resident all across the state and habits wooded areas. This bird will build its own nest or use an abandoned one, preferably in a pine. It also preys on birds.
The American kestrel is the smallest and most common falcon. A dark tipped reddish-brown tail is a good identification mark. The male of this species has blue wings while the females are brown. These birds are found throughout the state with numbers elevated during the winter migration. A little known fact is that this species is a cavity nester. Insects compose almost its entire diet. The merlin, or pigeon hawk as it is commonly known, is about the same size as the kestrel. This raptor has no black markings on the face. It is usually found only along the coast during the fall. It will nest in an evergreen or in a tree cavity, on the ground, or a cliff ledge. It feeds on small birds up to the size of pigeons but will vary its diet with small mammals and insects.
The peregrine falcon, a crow sized raptor, can be identified by the black mustache mark running down from the eyes. It is rarely found in Alabama except during fall when it can be found along the coast. Nest locations are tall cliffs near water or in larger cities on buildings ledges. Its main food source is waterfowl, shorebirds and domestic pigeons.
The northern harrier is a slender bird with a distinctive white rump. This hawk winters all over the state. It is usually found around open areas such as pastures, meadows, and marshes. This bird is a ground nester in marshes or meadows. It prefers rats, rabbits, birds, and insects a food sources.
The osprey is a large bird with wings that are noticeably crooked during flight. It is common during spring across Alabama but will almost exclusively be found near rivers or large bodies of water. It builds large, bulky nests in dead trees. These birds feed only on fish.
Raptors are one of the most interesting groups of birds to watch and enjoy. Carry a child to the field in search of these spectacular birds. Watch as it hunts for prey or as it builds a nest to rear young. Please be aware that both state and federal laws protect birds of prey.