Hunting Sky High: Birds of Prey in the Badlands

a hawk flying with its wings spread and shoulders hunched
Hawk with wings spread.

NPS Photo

a red-tailed hawk sits atop the branches of a juniper
Some birds of prey -- like this red-tailed hawk -- are seen perched on high points.

NPS Photo

What are characteristics of birds of prey?

All birds of prey will have at least four traits in common: hooked beaks, sharp talons, good eyesight, and a carnivorous diet. Their beaks, talons, and eyesight all aid these birds in hunting. While their hooked beaks are designed for ripping and tearing flesh, their talons are meant to help the bird catch and carry prey. These talons vary in curvature and thickness depending on what kind of prey the bird pursues -- some fishers even have scaly talons to help them hang on to slippery fish! Birds of prey are also benefitted by remarkable vision. They are able to use both binocular (using both eyes together) and monocular (using one eye individually) vision to maximize their field of view and depth perception. Some birds of prey, like eagles, can even pick up on UV (ultraviolet) light to detect urine trails left behind by potential prey. All of these features work in tandem to make these birds the best possible hunters: although the type of prey varies bird to bird, all of these raptors eat meat.

a golden eagle spreads its wings, taking off in badlands buttes
Golden Eagle in the Badlands.

NPS Photo

How can I identify a bird of prey?

Unlike many other birds, birds of prey are difficult to identify by plumage, so colors and patterns are not always helpful. Often, birds of prey come in many different morphs and the same species can appear visually different. That being said, there are other characteristics you can rely on to identify a bird of prey.

The size and shape of the bird can often be indicative of its species. Eagles are among the largest and have a fan-shaped tail twice as long as its head and neck. Buteos (soaring hawks like Red-tailed Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Swainson’s Hawks) are slightly smaller with broad, rounded wings and a fan-shaped tail. Moving down in size, accipters (forest hawks like Cooper’s Hawks) are next with short, rounded wings and a long tail. Even smaller are falcons, which have long and narrow-pointed wings, large heads, and long tails.

Wing beats and motion can also be helpful in identifying these birds. Eagles soar with few wing beats. Buteos, riding warm air currents, also may soar for long periods without flapping. Accipters beat their wings rapidly and glide between flapping. Falcons make regular, rapid wing beats and can occasionally be seen diving for prey.

a burrowing owl stands on top of a wooden post
Burrowing Owl resting on a post.

NPS Photo

Where do birds of prey live and what do they eat?

Different birds of prey live in all sorts of environments, and nesting habits are just as variable. Some birds of prey may not build a true nest, but those that do pick from a variety of locations: on the ground, in cliff faces, in treetops, in sand, in gravel, in depressions, or in scrapes. One particularly interesting bird habitat found in the Badlands is that of the Burrowing Owl. Burrowing Owls live in the burrows dug out by prairie dogs, a strategy also used by the Prairie Rattlesnakes and Black-Footed Ferrets in the park.

For birds of prey seeking out smaller animals, the Badlands contains a number of small rodents which would make a tasty snack. Smaller prey includes prairie dogs, rabbits, black-footed ferrets, 13-lined ground squirrels, field mice, least chipmunks, and insects. Larger birds of prey in the park, like Golden Eagles, can seek out correspondingly large prey like bighorn sheep lambs, white-tail and mule fawns, and young pronghorn antelope.

Part of a series of articles titled Wildlife in the Badlands.

Badlands National Park

Last updated: November 10, 2020