Birds of Prey 101: Raptors You'll Commonly Find in the South
Birds of prey, also called raptors, are widespread across North America. There are many types of birds of prey commonly found in the South, including hawks, falcons, vultures, and owls. They can be identified by their sharp beaks and talons; they also have incredible eyesight, which allows them to see across great distances and identify prey on the ground far below them as they soar through the sky. These species are called birds of prey because their main sources of food include fish, rodents, and other small- and medium-sized vertebrates. While you’ll usually see raptors soaring high in the sky, you may also encounter them on the ground or perched on a branch in a tree.
If you encounter a raptor, there are a few things to remember. First, if you think the bird is injured, don’t attempt to touch it or take it home with you. Instead, call the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center for instructions. On a related note, if you see a baby bird of prey hopping around on the ground, it’s best to leave it there. Why? It’s most likely not injured. Fledgling birds hop around below the nest as they gain their independence. At this stage, their parents are usually watching from a tree nearby. Read on for more information about raptors that live in the South, as well as a few ways to identify them if you see them.
The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), with its white head, dark brown body, and curved, bright yellow bill, has long been a symbol of the United States. These birds are enormous; they are some of the largest birds on the continent, and they like to live in coastal climates near oceans, lakes, and rivers.
This hawk (Buteo platypterus) is a small, compact species with a short, strikingly banded tail, broad wings that come to a point, and brown-and-white barring across its chest. It has bright yellow legs and talons and a small, hooked bill.
When mature, this raptor (Accipiter cooperii) has reddish eyes and blue-grey wings with a long and narrow barred (a.k.a. banded or streaked) tail. Immature Cooper’s hawks are brown and white with dramatic streaking and yellow eyes.
The Harris’ hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) has a distinctive color pattern—it has a dark body with reddish, copper sections on the upper sections of its rounded wings and white sections on the tip of its long tail and at the base of the body. It's most often found in the southwestern areas of North America.
As its name suggests, this large hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) has a reddish tail that lacks the barred banding that is so distinct on Cooper’s hawks. It has dark brown, rounded wings with subtle barring and a white underside.
These harriers (Circus hudsonius) hold their wings in a V shape and can be identified by a section of white feathers found where the tail meets the body. The rest of the body is grey or brown with darker brown wingtips and a lighter white or brownish underside. They can be found gliding through open spaces like plains and fields.
These birds of prey (Ictinia mississippiensis) have feathers in hues of grey, white, silver, and charcoal, or some combination of those colors, from their rounded heads to their pointed wings and long tails. They are a small species with deep red eyes, and they can be found in the lower reaches of the South, including Georgia and Alabama, and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma.
Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) have dark, hooked beaks and large bodies—brown wings and white undersides with strong barring across the feathers. Their heads are white and have thick, dark brown stripes across each eye and down either side of the head.
Barn owls (Tyto alba) have pale, heart-shaped faces and white-and-brown bodies. They hunt at night and have excellent vision and hearing, which allows them to catch prey in the dark. Female barn owls have spotted chests and are more reddish than their male counterparts.
These owls (Strix varia) are found throughout the eastern United States and can be identified by their barred appearance, which presents as streaked, striped, or checked brown-and-white feathers. They have big brown eyes, yellowish bills, and rounded faces.
Eastern Screech Owl
These tiny owls (Megascops asio) have tufts of feathers over their ears like other owl species, but what distinguishes them is their size. They are very small and most are mottled grey, which allows them to camouflage themselves against tree trunks. Juveniles are fluffy and grey; some adult screech owls also appear reddish or brown.
Great Horned Owl
Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) can be identified by the long tufts of feathers found above the owls’ ears that rise up over the eyes on either side of the face (and resemble horns). These large owls have bright yellow eyes and make the distinctive deep hooting sound we’ve all come to associate with owls.
This raptor (Falco peregrinus) is very fast in the air and has been known to reach speeds over 300 miles per hour in pursuit of prey. Adult peregrine falcons have dark grey wings and heads with a densely checkered pattern along the white-and-brown undersides of its wings.
Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are found across the southeastern United States. They are distinguished by their small heads, which lack feathers and are grey or black in hue. These vultures have black feathers across their large bodies, and when extended in flight, their big, dark wings reveal long, silvery tips.
Also known as turkey buzzards, these scavenging birds of prey (Cathartes aura) have grey and black bodies and small, bright red heads, which are featherless and tipped with a pale bill. In the air, you can identify a turkey vulture by the distinctive “V” shape it makes with its lifted wings.