The term "raptor" is generally used to describe a bird of prey. The three criteria that 'technically' define a raptor are: 1) excellent eyesight, 2) sharp talons for seizing prey, and 3) a hooked bill for tearing prey. There are 34 diurnal (active at day) species that can be seen regularly throughout North America (this includes vultures, which are not true "raptors"). Owls, which are primarily nocturnal (active at night), are raptors as well, and often thought of as the diurnal hawks' counterparts. Some people think of raptors as bloodthirsty hunters, but they are beautifully plumaged, graceful aerialists, and ultimate survivalists that only hunt out of necessity. Whether an intrepid enthusiast traveling the world to watch birds, or a casual observer who enjoys spotting birds on neighborhood strolls, seeing a hawk can enhance one's curiosity and appreciation for the natural world; even non-birders will stop in their tracks at the sight of a raptor!
One of the most fun and challenging aspects of hawk watching is identification. At first, it seems difficult to tell one hawk from another, but with practice the nuances of identification become clearer and easier to recognize. It is the basic nuances that are most helpful in recognizing birds in flight, with the minute details being of lesser importance. Understanding which traits are most reliable to key in on in the field can be as helpful as learning the actual traits themselves (see species pages below). Structure (a.k.a. shape or silhouette), flight style, plumage, habitat, and behavior are all important to learn. For example, the shape of a bird may be easier to tell than its plumage on a cloudy day or at a distance, or vice versa. Visiting migration or winter sites with daily concentrations of raptors, and often multiple species visible at one time, is an ideal situation for accelerated learning. Especially when hawk watching with someone who is familiar with identification. At the end of the day, watching hawks is about having fun and learning about the natural world. And remember, it is impossible to identify every bird you see, but it's fun to try! There are several great hawk identification field guides available, such as the books for sale on our store page. And, when you purchase from HawkWatch, you are supporting our conservation and education programs! HWI also offers raptor watching field trips to various locations throughout the year, check our calendar for available trips.
Raptors are naturally categorized by family groups, with each group (or "type") having its own set of identifying traits and specialized adaptations (either to their habitat and/or prey). Knowing each family or species' identifying traits and general behaviors is the first step in the identification process, and helps greatly in narrowing down the choices at a glance to a few options. For most raptors, the sexes are similar, and females are usually larger than males. For some species, males and females look quite different, but their shapes and flight styles remain similar.