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Snake River Birds of Prey NCA

Raptor Groups

Birds of Prey, like all birds, can be divided into groups of birds that are similar. Below are some general characteristics that distinguish falcons from hawks from eagles from vultures. Understanding these basic groupsing will help you identify a particular raptor you may see in the area. You can browse all or use the list to jump to a specific group.

VulturesOwlsHawksButeos (soaring hawks)
Accipiters (forest hawks)EaglesHarriersOspreyFalconsKites


  • Large black raptors with a long wingspan.
  • Often seen soaring in groups in high, wide circles, with a rocking or teetering flight; glides in a strong “V” shape.
  • There are three species of vultures in North America, the turkey vulture, black vulture, and the California condor; only the turkey vulture is found in Idaho.
  • These birds have a featherless head. This minimizes messy feathers when they stick their head into carrion.Turkey vulture
  • These raptors are known to gather by the hundreds or even thousands to roost together.
  • Diet consists mostly of carrion which they locate from the air (by sight and smell).
  • They are known as "honest" foragers, meaning they scavenge for their food, using a refined sense of smell.
  • These raptors have bare, unfeathered heads, which reduces infection when feeding on rotten meat.
  • Studies reveal that vultures will not find carrion on the day that it is killed, but almost always find it on the second or third day when it has begun to rot, and will rarely visit a kill on the fourth day when it is in a state of full-blown, foul smell. It is thought that on the first day the carrion is too fresh to give off enough odor to be easily located by vultures; but by the second or third days, enough decay has taken place to make the kill noticeably pungent; by the fourth day, there is no doubt of the kill giving off plenty of odor to be located by the bird, but very often the quality of meat is so severely compromised by the buildup of microbial toxins, that it is no longer attractive to vultures.
    With the ability to sustain life on half-rotten meats, they have extreme tolerance for microbial toxins (botulism) that greatly exceeds the capacities of many other birds.
  • Fairly silent unless cornered, then it lets out a "hiss" or "low grunt."
  • No nest; eggs are usually laid on the ground, in caves, hollow stumps, etc.
  • Chicks are fed by regurgitation.
  • These raptors use their sharp, hooked beaks for tearing meat; have weaker legs and feet and small hind toes since they are not used for capturing prey.  


  • Species vary in size, but typically have large, round heads, with forward-facing eyes framed by a feathered facial disk.
  • They have broad wings, short tails, lightweight bodies, and unusually soft, fluffy body Great-horned owl
  • Typically nocturnal predators, relying on their excellent vision and hearing to catch food.
    Some owls have tufts of feathers on top of their head, often called horns or ears, they are neither but are thought to serve as camouflage or behavioral signaling devices.
  • Have large asymmetrical ear cavities located behind the eyes on each side of the face,
    underneath the feathers.
  • The asymmetrical ear cavities allow owls to locate prey by triangulation of sound.
  • The round face and facial disks of feathers around the eyes also aid in hearing by funneling sound to the ears.
  • The eyes are fixed in their sockets so they are only able to see what is in front of them. To see the things around them, they must rotate the head.
  • They can rotate their heads 270° to the left or right but not in a complete circle. Owls have a total of 14 neck vertebra which allow this flexibility.
  • Have four toes; a permanent back toe and three front toes, one of which can rotate to the rear to improve their grip while capturing prey.
  • Most owls have feathers down to their talons unlike most non-owl birds of prey; thought to help in keeping warm and protection from prey bites.
  • Owls have soft-edged flight feathers that allow them to fly silently; the flight feathers of an owl are slightly spaced to allow air when flying to move around and through them helping to keep nosie down.
  • Diet consists of rodents and small mammals; their digestive system makes use of the nutritious portions of the prey, and the undigested parts (hair, bones, claws, teeth, etc.) are regurgitated in the form of a pellet.

 HawksSwainson's hawk

  • Hawk is a general term used to describe the entire group of diurnal raptors. Worldwide there are over 200 species of meat-eating birds that comprise the order Falconiformes, the scientific name for hawks. Some hawk species undertake long migration journeys, traveling thousands of miles each year - a testimony to their strength and stamina. They all have excellent hearing and eyesight. Their vision can be as high as eight times greater than that of humans.
  • In Idaho, hawk-like birds typically breed in early spring. Many species will pair for life, but will take a new mate if the other dies. Some species pairs remain together year round, while others may separate after the breeding season and repair the next year.


  • Large bodied raptors, mostly dark brown in color with long, broad wings, and fan-shaped tails.
  • Have large, strong feet and a powerful beak.Golden Eagle
  • Often spotted soaring high and gliding.
  • Two species widespread throughout North America, the bald eagle and the golden eagle, can be found in Idaho.
  • The bald eagle has been America’s national symbol since 1782; the bald eagle is unique to North America.
  • The average wingspan of an eagle can vary from six to seven feet.
  • The adult bald eagle appears very different from immature eagles, it has a distinctive white head and white tail and a bright yellow beak. These distinguishing bald eagle features do not start to appear until after the fourth year molt and may take 7-10 years to achieve full adult plummage.
  • Bald eagles usually live near water (oceans, rivers, lakes), while golden eagles live in open, mountainous country.
  • Eagles nests are very large, measuring up to six feet wide and weighing 100 pounds; many nests are used repeatedly year to year.
  • Eagles may roost singly or in groups exceeding 100 birds.

 ButeosRed-tailed hawk

  • These are medium to large, stout bodied hawks, identified by their broad wings and fan
    shaped tails.
  • These raptors are soaring hawks, but may also hover or fly low along areas where prey may hide
  • Many species have a variety of color phases.
  • Their diet consist primarily of small mammals, but as a group, they will capture a wide
    variety of prey.
  • Often seen perched on large limbs of trees, utility poles, or fences. 


 AccipitersCoopers hawk

  •  Have short, broad, rounded wings and long tails, traits useful for speed and maneuvering in forested habitats.The diet of these small to medium-sized raptors consists mostly of other birds and small mammals.There are three species of accipiters found in North America, the northern goshawk, the Cooper’s hawk, and the sharp-shinned hawk; all can be observed in Idaho.
  • Adult accipiters typically have dark gray backs, barred or streaked breasts and tails, red eyes, and long toes.
  • Immatures typically have brown backs, streaked breasts, and yellow eyes.
  • Their flight pattern includes rapid wing beats alternating with longer glides, and occasionally soaring.
  • They are fierce, stealthy hunters. 


  • There are 10 species of harriers worldwide; only one species in North America, the northern harrier.Northern harrier
  • The Northern harrier is sometimes called a “marsh hawk.”
  • The Northern harrier is a medium-sized, slim raptor with long legs and tail.
  • They live in open areas, often hunting in fields, meadows, or marshes.
  • This raptor has a distinctive hunting flight called “coursing”, where they fly low over the ground following the contours of the land and holding the wings in a V-shape.
  • It has a white rump patch at the base of the upper tail.
  • Unlike other diurnal raptors, this bird has a facial disk which helps to direct sound to the
  • This raptor is a ground nester.
  • Diet consists of rodents, small birds, and insects.
  • Most species are reverse sexually dimorphic - meaning that the female is larger in size and brown and white in color, and the male is smaller in size and gray and white in color. 


  • A large eagle-like raptor that lives and nests near fresh or salt water, on treetops or on the tops of man-made poles with platforms.
    They eat fish; and their fishing is made easy with their long legs and sharp talons.
  • These raptors have long, narrow wings with a characteristic gull-like crook and dark patch at its wrist; their back is dark brown and their breast is white.
  • They have a distinct dark eye stripe (malar stripe), and lack the protective bony ridge above the eye like other raptors.
  • These raptors like to hover, and then dive into water for fish.  


  • A group of hawks that vary in size from small to medium, and are identified by their large head, notched beak, dark eyes, and distinct Peregrine falconstripe(s) below their eyes called malar stripes.
  • Their powerful short beaks have a tomial tooth on the upper jaw, which with the hooked tip create a notch for breaking the spinal cord of their prey.
  • Powerful fliers and divers with long, narrow, pointed wings and long tails.
  • These raptors do not build their own nests, but scrape out spots on cliffs or in cavities.
  • They typically live in open country.
  • Among the most aerial and acrobatic of the raptors, their flight ability is legendary; scientist say these raptors can fly at speeds of over 100 miles per hour.
  • Five falcon species can be found in Idaho, they are the American kestrel, merlin, prairie
    falcon, peregrine falcon, and the gyrfalcon.
  • It is this group of birds around which the sport of “falconry” revolves. 


  • Medium-sized raptors which have falcon-like flight appearance, but distinctly different tails.
  • These raptors have long, pointed wings and graceful flight.
  • The toy kites that children love to fly are named after these birds’ ability to “hang motionless” in a steady wind.
  • The hooked bill and snail kite have an exaggerated curve to their beak shape in order to eat snails.