Birds of Prey

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl

Scott Rando

Birds of prey are a diverse group of birds comprising more than 500 species. Generally, birds of prey include any bird that hunts and kills other animals for food. This group is distinguished by strong talons which help them capture prey, and hook-tipped beaks that allow them to tear prey into pieces. They can hunt a wide variety of prey species. Birds of prey are divided into two main groups, diurnal birds of prey and nocturnal birds of prey. Diurnal birds of prey are active during the daytime and include hawks, eagles, vultures, and falcons. Nocturnal birds of prey are active during the nighttime and include owls.

Birds of prey are carnivorous, meaning they eat mostly meat. Their diet consists primarily of small birds, fish, mammals, lizards, and insects. They rely on their wings for powerful flight while hunting. Birds of prey can often be seen gliding and soaring through the sky, looking for a meal, and then quickly diving to capture prey. Some birds of prey are specialized to hunt a specific type of prey. For example, Osprey are unique among North American hawks because they consume almost exclusively live fish. When Osprey hunt for fish, they dive into the water feet first. Their toes are covered with short spikes that help them to grip slippery fish. Osprey feathers are covered in oil, which allows them to dive into the water without their feathers getting waterlogged. Other birds of prey, like Bald Eagles, only grab fish from the surface of the water and don’t dive in.

Cooper's Hawk Flying on a dark blue sky.
Cooper's Hawk

Scott Rando

Birds of prey are usually quite solitary and often seen alone. Like many other birds of prey, Red-tailed Hawks will aggressively defend their nest or territory by chasing off encroaching birds. Solitary behaviors help birds of prey avoid competition for the same resources. However, sometimes during migration or at wintering grounds, they can be seen congregating in large groups.

Nesting varies between species, but nests are generally found in locations inaccessible or hidden to predators, like at the tops of tall trees. For some birds of prey, the same breeding pair will often return to the same nesting area or even nest each year. These two birds work together to feed the young and defend the nest site. If you come across a nest, it’s important to leave it alone. Human disturbance can cause nests to be abandoned.

Common birds of prey found in the Upper Delaware Region include:

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)

Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Last updated: March 10, 2021

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