Birds of Prey Identification – best field guides

Sharp-shinned Hawk hunting in my garden
Sharp-shinned Hawk hunting in my garden

Identifying birds of prey can be a combination of how a bird looks and what it does.

How a bird looks focuses on color, plumage, marking and other easily seen details. This is called the ‘field mark’ approach. This works best when you have a clear and close look at an animal. But, if the birds is flying a mile overhead, then the field mark system doesn’t work as well. This is where the behavioral approach comes in handy.Instead of looking for plumage details or eye color, more emphasis is placed on how a bird behaves. This behavior approach looks at a number of factors.

  • how a bird appears to fly
  • the rhythm of the flaps and glides while flying
  • does it fly with soaring, rocking motions, long flights or short bursts
  • the bird’s overall shape, size and color and silhouette
  • the bird’s behavior
  • any calls or sounds made

All of these behaviors and clues add up to a good identification. None of it focuses on what we can see up close.
Birds of prey species often have distinctive ways of flying and holding their wings. If you learn these profiles and behavior you will be able to identify raptors even when they are circling thousands of feet above you.I often see Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures flying overhead. When they are tiny specks in the sky is not easy to distinct between the two birds. I focused on identifying a Turkey Vulture. I figured if I could learn that one bird then I could judge the other birds of prey by it.

The Turkey Vulture is a dark underneath with a dark body, dark V-shape on the wings and translucent white “fingers” at the end of its wings. A soaring Turkey Vulture’s silhouette takes on a more pronounced V-shaped than a Red-tailed Hawk. And a Turkey Vulture often looks huge, where a Red-tailed Hawk can look smaller.

I often check the manner of flight, color pattern of feather and body and whether other birds are in the sky with it. I have gotten pretty good at telling a Turkey Vulture from any other bird.I think the behavioral approach used along with the field marks approach, helps to make a very knowledgeable birder. There is much to learn about identifying birds of prey. We can’t cover it all here.

The best books I have found for identifying are …
Hawks: All the day-flying birds of prey seen in North America (Peterson Flash Guides)
I like this laminated guide. It folds neatly to fit in a pocket.  This guide is perfect if you are a beginning birder. The guide covers the most common day-flying species in North America. It is not overwhelming with too many species, plumages, ages, etc.
As the years have gone by, I like the simplest equipment possible. This folding laminated guide is my first choice to carry.

Field Guide to Hawks of North America
This a classic Peterson field guide teaching the field mark method of identification. The Peterson Guide to Day-flying Hawks uses the drawings from this guide.

This guide has very good drawings on birds of prey. It guide illustrates several plumages and the sexes. The guide covers just the hawks (falcons, vultures, eagles, etc.) no owls are included. It is a thick little book just still small enough to fit in a pocket or day pack.

Books for Preparation Before Going Birding

Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant RaptorsThis very thorough guide to the holistic approach. This book is meant to be read before going raptor watching. It includes all the diurnal (day-active) raptors. Night-active owls are not included. It focuses on each species distinct characteristics. Including movement, color pattern and body shape. It is not necessarily meant to be carried outdoors.

How to Spot Hawks and Eagles (How to Spot)
This natural history book which discusses the types of raptors and how they differ. It is full of excellent color photographs of the various raptors you will see at hawk watching lookouts or from your neighborhood. It is a book to read and study at home before you go into the field.

Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight
There are over 300 photos on 19 species of raptors including vultures. This book is for the experienced birder. These 300 photos cover every angle of the birds in flight and plumage.The beginning of the book provides good basic information on hawk migration and top sites to view it.

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