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Canadian Peregrine Foundation - Raptor Identification

The Canadian Peregrine Foundation

Raptor Species Identification and Photo Gallery

 

Click on the photos of each species below for our photo gallery of that species and for more information concerning it. For more help in identifying different species, please see our Identification tips, found below the galleries on this page (Click here to go directly to the Identification tips).

Please note that neither this section as a whole, nor the individual parts of it, is exhaustive. There are many raptor species, including some indigenous to North America, that are not included in the present version. If you have photographs or information about any raptor species, please feel encouraged to send e-mail to the Canadian Peregrine Foundation.

(See also the New York identification guide, with Illustrations and brief descriptions of all raptors in the northeastern states.)

If you are looking for photographs of owls, Visit the Owl Photo Gallery

 

Scroll down, or click below for direct access:
Falcons --- Hawks --- Eagles --- Other Raptors

 

FALCONS
Peregrine
Gyrfalcon
Saker
Kestrel
Merlin

 

HAWKS

BUTEOS

ACCIPITERS

Broad-winged
 
Sharp-shinned
Red-shouldered
 
Cooper's
Red-tailed
 
Goshawk
Swainson's
   

 

EAGLES
Golden Eagle
Bald Eagle
Harpy Eagle

 

OTHER RAPTORS
Marsh Harrier
Northern Harrier
Turkey Vulture
Osprey

 

IDENTIFICATION TIPS

From each category below, try to identify the species that match best with your observations. In most cases this should narrow down the possibilities to just a couple of species.  Once these have been selected, go back to the galleries of species at the top of this page, and visit the pages to which the photos lead for more information.

size shape colour location habitat behaviour

Size:
Try to estimate the size of the bird.  The easiest way is often to compare it to a common bird.   Some commonly used reference birds are listed in the table below.

A raptor similar in size to a: ...is likely to be a:
Blue Jay, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove (Pigeon), Common Grackle American Kestrel, Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk
American Crow, Ring-billed Gull Peregrine Falcon, Cooper's Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk
Common Raven or large American Crow Rough-legged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Gyrfalcon

Peregrine with crows - Compare size and colour
(Photo by Hervé Michel / www.oiseaux-nature.com)

Shape:
When perched, most raptors have a similar upright posture.  However, in flight the shape of their wings and tail can be very helpful for identification. 

Flight shape Species
Long, narrow wings, generally pointed toward the tips.  Moderately long tail, usually narrow, but can be flared wide occasionally. American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon
Short, broad wings, with rounded tips.  Long narrow tails. Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk
Broad wings, relatively long, and rounded at the tips.  Tails short and broad. Rough-legged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk

Colour:
Often the most obvious feature of a bird at first is its plumage.   Observing the colours and patterns on a raptor can help greatly in identification.
There are two sections below. The first relates characteristics to species exhibiting that characteristic. The second relates each species to the characteristics it exhibits.

sorted by characteristic

Characteristic Species
Back Wings  
dull brown dull brown immature Merlin, adult female Merlin, immature Peregrine Falcon, immature accipiters (Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk), Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, immature Red-shouldered Hawk
rusty brown rusty brown female American Kestrel
rusty brown blue male American Kestrel
mottled red/gray/black mottled red/gray/black adult Red-shouldered Hawk
blue-gray blue-gray adult Peregrine Falcon, adult accipiters (Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk)
Underparts  
vertical brown streaks immature Peregrine Falcon, immature accipiters (Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk)
upper breast mostly unmarked; horizontal black barring further down adult Peregrine Falcon
horizontal reddish-brown barring adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, adult Cooper's Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk
fine horizontal gray barring adult Northern Goshawk
upper breast dark brown; lower parts mostly white with some speckling Swainson's Hawk
upper breast pale with light speckling or streaking; dark band across belly (sometimes incomplete) Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk (light phase)
solid dark brown Rough-legged Hawk (dark phase)
Iris  
yellow immature accipiters (Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk), Red-tailed Hawk, immature Broad-winged Hawk, immature Red-shouldered Hawk, 
orange/red adult accipiters (Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk)
dark brown/black American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon, adult Broad-winged Hawk, adult Red-shouldered Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk

 

sorted by species

Raptors Characteristics
  Back/Wings Underparts Iris
immature Peregrine Falcon, immature Merlin, adult female Merlin Solid brown back whitish underparts with moderate to heavy vertical brown streaking black
immature Red-shouldered Hawk, immature Broad-winged Hawk Mottled brown back whitish underparts with moderate to heavy vertical brown streaking yellow
immature accipiters (Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk) Solid brown back whitish underparts with moderate to heavy vertical brown streaking yellow
adult Peregrine Falcon Blue-gray back mostly unmarked white to salmon breast; moderate black barring across rest of underparts. (Distinct malar stripe (mustache) on face) black
adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, adult Cooper's Hawk Blue-gray back underparts covered in moderate to heavy reddish-brown barring orange/red
adult Northern Goshawk Blue-gray back underparts covered in fine gray barring (prominent white line over eye) orange/red
adult male Merlin Blue-gray back vertical brown streaking on breast black
male American Kestrel Blue wings contrasting with rusty brown back rusty brown above with black speckles below black
female American Kestrel Rusty brown back and wings breast white with vertical rusty brown streaks black
adult Red-tailed Hawk Dull brown back and wings upper breast white with brown speckles; partial to complete dark band across lower belly; tail red above, pinkish-red below. yellow
immature Red-tailed Hawk Dull brown back and wings upper breast white with brown speckles; partial to complete dark band across lower belly; tail barred white and brown. yellow
adult Red-shouldered Hawk mottled red/gray/black breast heavily barred with red dark brown/black
adult Broad-winged Hawk brown breast heavily barred with red dark brown/black

Location:
Many raptors are migratory, and thus have the potential to appear in areas far outside of their normal distribution.  For the most part, however, the range of possibilities can be narrowed down by consulting the range maps of any field guide.  Most of the species discussed on this page are widespread across much of North America; notable exceptions are the Gyrfalcon (restricted to the Arctic in summer and rarely south of Canada even in winter), the Swainson's Hawk (primarily western), the Broad-winged Hawk (primarily eastern), and the Red-shouldered Hawk (primarily eastern, plus in California).

Habitat:
Most raptors are somewhat adaptable in the range of habitats they frequent, but are more typically found in certain areas, as follows:

Habitat Most likely species
Forest interior Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk
Forest edges Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk
Agricultural lands / other open areas American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Gyrfalcon (also Turkey Vulture)
Wetlands Red-shouldered Hawk, Peregrine Falcon (also other raptors such as Bald Eagle, Osprey, Northern Harrier)
Residential areas American Kestrel, Merlin, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk
Industrial areas American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk
City centres American Kestrel, Merlin, Red-tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon (also Turkey Vulture)

Behaviour:
Observing the way in which any bird acts can often reveal some diagnostic clues.  Among raptors, these are some of the more useful behaviours for identification purposes: 

Behaviour Species
High altitude, high speed vertical stoop (dive) at prey Peregrine Falcon
Low level stoop at prey American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk
Hovering American Kestrel, Rough-legged Hawk, (occasionally Red-tailed Hawk)
Perching on roadside fence posts / lamp posts / poles / wires American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson's Hawk (occasionally Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk)
Hunting at bird feeders Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk
Low level rapid pursuit of prey Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Gyrfalcon
Nesting in eavestrough / roof / other building cavities American Kestrel
Nesting in spruce or other conifer Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk
Nesting in deciduous tree Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk
Nesting on a cliff Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon

 

Still confused?  E-mail us as complete a description as possible and/or a photograph of the bird, and we'll try to assist with the identification.

 


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