What Do Raptors (Birds of Prey) Eat?

birds_Perergine Falcon
Raptor: Peregrine Falcon

Raptors (birds of prey) eat a wide variety of animals. They are at the top of the food chain on most habitats. They’re good indicators of habit health. Without sufficient food (small birds, reptiles and mammals) these birds can’t survive.

Most birds of prey are hunters, but some are scavengers. They hunt and eat rats, mice, smaller birds, snakes, lizards, frogs and fish. There is little that a raptor will not eat. The larger the bird, the larger the prey. Eagles will hunt medium-sized fish, rabbits, ducks, and occasionally fawns and lambs. Smaller hawks and owls will eat mice, rats, smaller birds, etc. The Sparrow Hawk feeds mainly on insects.

Raptors hunt during the day (diurnal) and some are active at crepuscular times (dawn and dusk). Owls are nocturnal (active at night).

Red-tailed Hawk perched on refuge sign
Raptor: Red-tailed Hawk.

Birds of prey require large home ranges, with few other raptors around. They are mostly found in open habitats of grasslands and agricultural fields.The greatest abundance of different species can be found in the tropical rainforest where they roost and nest in trees.

Flying Skills

With few exceptions, raptors are excellent fliers. The Falconidae (falcon, caracaras and allies) family are rapid fliers that take prey while flying at top speed. They catch small prey with their sharp talons and kill it with a bite on the back of the neck.

Claws and Beaks are the Main Weapons

These razor sharp claws and beaks are on a dead raptor I got a chance to study years ago at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Most of the dead birds were the casualties of window collisions. Raptor Workshop at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

birds_raptors_american kestrel
American Kestrel. Photo FWS.gov.

How Small Raptors Hunt

Small Accipitrides (hawks, eagles and allies) hunt from a perch. They make short flights to catch small prey on the ground. They squeeze prey to death with strong feet. They then take the prey a short distance away for plucking, ripping and eating.

Small Accipitrides include American Kestrel, Merlin, and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Medium-sized Raptors include Peregrine Falcons, Cooper’s Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawks.


mature female Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Photo taken by Donna L. Long
Mature female Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Photo taken by Donna L. Long

How Large Raptors Hunt

Larger Accipitrides (larger hawks, eagles and allies) don’t actively flap their wings but search for prey while riding thermals. Thermals are warm columns of air that rise from the ground to high in the sky. By riding the thermals these birds can glide for long distances. These thermal-riders do not hunt until the air warms up and when the thermals are created several hours after sunrise. This enables these birds to soar effortlessly for many miles while searching for food.

These large birds tend to eat the soft high protein organs first. Any indigestible material (fur, feathers and bones) is regurgitated in a pellet through the bill, 16-18 hours later.

Large birds of prey include Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Gyrfalcon.

Very Large Accipitrides include Eagles (Bald and Golden) and Osprey. Vultures are raptors but they scavenge rather than hunt.

The sizes are my personal opinions.

More Information on Raptors and Hawks

Bird of Prey Facts – What Makes a Raptor, a Raptor?

Fall Raptor Migration: What You Need to Know (with video)

Raptor Identification – Best Field Guides

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