Birds of Prey – Impressive Feathered Hunters in the Skies

Introduction – Preliminary Notes

Birds of Prey belong to the order Accipitriformes and are diurne birds. They feed on a range of small to medium sized mammals and catch their prey alive. Some large species live on carrion (vultures). As for vultures, please check out my site Vultures of the World. Falcons belong to the order “Falconiformes” and for more information please check out my page Falcons of the Western Palearctic.

Birds of Prey and their main characteristics

  • strongly hooked bills
  • toes with sharp talons
  • mostly no differences between male and female plumages
  • femals are mostly larger than males
  • very good flight abilities
  • larger species like soaring within thermals thereby gaining hight and then gliding between thermals, thereb losing hight. Flight displays can be seen from noon, because at that time conditions for thermals are best.

The term birds of prey covers 47 dirune species in three families, distributed throughout the western palearctic. All classifications given in this article refer to the Western Palearctic. Exceptions are made with the fish eagle taxonomy which has a global approach.

birds of prey white-tailed eagle
White-tailed Eagle

Eagles and their Common Characteristics

Eagles are divided into Aquila Eagles, Snake Eagles, Fish Eagles and Fishing Eagles and the Osprey which is truely a cosmopolitan species. All groups show their own specific characteristics.

Fish Eagles

Fish eagles are the largest eagles throughout all continents. They can easily be recognised by their extraordinary large beak, the flight silhouette and the short tail. Fish Eagles mostly feed on fish, waterfowl and even carrion. They do not depend on specific kinds of prey but feed on what is available in the habitat. Globally, Fish Eagles are a group of eight species of the genus Haliaeetus and are distributed nearly all over the world.

Order: Birds of Prey (Accipitriformes)
Family: Kites, Old World Vultures, Harriers, Hawks, Buzzrads, Eagles (Accipitridae)

  • White-tailed EagleSeeadlerPygargue à queue blanche (Haliaeetus albicilla)
  • Bald EagleBald Fish Eagle – Weisskopfseeadler – Pyagrue á tête blanche (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
  • Pallas’s Fish-Eagle – Bindenseeadler – Pygargue de Pallas (Haliaeetus leucoryphus)
  • Steller’s Fish-Eagle – Riesenseeadler – Pagargue empereur (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
  • White-bellied Fish-Eagle – Weissbauchseeadler – Pygargue blagre (Haliaeetus leucogaster)
  • Sanford’s Fish-Eagle – Salomonenseeadler – Pygargue de Sanford (Haliaeetus sanfordi)
  • African Fish-Eagle – Schreiseeadler – Pygargue vocifer (Haleaeetus vocifer)
  • Madagascar Fish-Eagle – Madagaskarseeadler – Pygargue de Madagascar (Halieaeetus vociferoides)
african fish-eagle
African Fish-Eagle – The Voice of Africa
african fish-eagle
The African Fish-Eagle (head shot)
white-tailed eagle flight display
White-tailed Eagle
imperial eagle
Imperial Eagle

Aquila Eagles in the Western Palearctic

The legs of the aquila eagles are feathered down to their toes. Their flight silhouette shows long and broad wings. Though, with regard to the overall size, the tail is rather short. Aquila Eagles are not as agile in flight as their larger relatives, but they do excell in gliding. They do hunt their prey out of cover and kill prey mostly on the ground. Only the Greater Spotted Eagle ant the Booted Eagle are able to catch prey in flight.

Order: Birds of Prey (Accipitriformes)
Family: Kites, Vultures, Hawks, Kites and Eagles (Accipitriformes)

  • Golden Eagle – Steinadler – Aigle royal(Aquila chrysaetos)
  • Eastern Imperial Eagle – Östlicher Kaiseradler – Aigle impérial (Aquila heliaca)
  • Spanish Imperial Eagle – Iberienadler / Spanischer Kaiseradler – Aigle ibérique (Aquila adalberti)
  • Lesser Spotted Eagle – Schreiadler – Aigle pomarin (Aquila pomarina)
  • Greater Spotted Eagle – Schelladler – Aigle criard (Aquila clanga)
  • Booted Eagle – Zwergadler – Aigle botté (Aquila pennata)
  • Bonelli’s Eagle – Habichtsadler – Aigle de Bonelli (Aquila fasciata)
  • Verreaux’s Eagle / Black Eagle- Kaffernadler – Aigle de Verreaux (Aquila verreauxii)
  • Steppe Eagle – Steppenadler – Aigle des steppes (Aquila nipalensis)
  • Tawny Eagle – Savannenadler – Aigle ravisseur (Aquila rapax)
steppe eagle accipitriformes
Steppe Eagle
flying osprey
Osprey hovering over a lake

The Osprey – A Cosmopolitan Bird of Prey

As such, the Osprey is a bit of a star because this species excelles as a real cosmopolitan with a near global distribution. Ospreys catch their fish in the water simply by abruptly switching from search flight into a nose dive.

Order: Birds of Prey (Accipitriformes)
Family: Pandionidae
Genus: Pandion

  • Osprey – Fischadler – Balbuzard pêcheur (Pandion haliaeetus)
flying osprey
Flying Osprey harrassed by Jackdows

Snake Eagles – Specialised Birds of Prey

Snake Eagles are quite a different sort of eagle. As their name has it, they feed almost exclusively on snakes. Howerver, snakes are not the only prey to feed on. The usual diet is clompledted with lizzards, frogs and only rarely with small birds. Below I provide the taxonomy of the Snake Eagles of Europe and Africa.

  • Short-toed Snake Eagle / Short-toed Eagle – Schlangenadler – Circaète Jean-le-Blanc (Circaetus gallicus gallicus) – Europe
  • Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle – Beaudouin-Schlangenadler – Circaète de Beaudouin (Circaetus beaudouini) – Africa
  • Banded Snake Eagle / Smaller Banded Snake Eagle – Bandschlangenadler – Circaète cendré (Circaetus cinerascens) – Africa
  • Brown Snake Eagle – Afrikanischer Schlangenadler – Ciraète brun (Circaetus cinereus) – Africa
  • East African Snake Eagle / Southern Banded Snake Eagle – Graubrust-Schlangenadler – Circaète barré (Circatetus fasciolatus) – East Africa
  • Black-chested Snake Eagle – Schwarzbrust-Schlangenadler – Circaète à poitrine noire (Circaetus pectoralis) – Africa
  • Bateleur – Gaukler – Bateleur des savanes (Terathopius ecaudatus) – Africa

Goshawks and Sparrowhawks

Both Goshawks and Sparrowhawks belong to the genus Accipiter. As such they form an impressive family consisting of nothing less than 53 species – allies included. With the exception of Greenland, all these species are distributed around the globe.

Goshawks and Sparrowhawks are specialists with regard to habitat and food. Their body is specifically built for their way of hunting and catching prey. Most obvious to us are the rather shortish round wings and relatively long tails. Especially the tails seem to be oversized compared to the overall body size.

As for hunting, both Sparrowhawks and Goshawks use the cover of the landscape to catch prey by surprise. These birds mostly start their hunt from a perch and can mobilise huge energy in flight over short distances, thereby remaining very agile.

Within the Accipiter genes, sexes might not always look dissimilar but usually the male is smaller than the female by a third. This makes sense because the female is mostly responsible for incubating whereas the male is tasked with hunting and feeding the female during the incubation period.

Holarctic and Palearctic Accipiters

The following taxonomy only covers the species of the Palearctic and Holarctic:

Order: Birds of Prey (Accipitriformes)
Family: Vultures, Eagles, Kites, Hawks, Harriers (Accipitridae)
Genus: Goshawks and Sparrowhawks (Accipiter)

  • Northern Goswawk – Habicht – Autour des palombes (Accipiter gentilis)
  • Eurasian Sparrowhawk – Sperber – Épervier d’Europe (Accipiter nisus)
  • Levant Sparrowhawk – Kurzfangsperber -Épervier à pieds courts (Accipiter brevipes)
common buzzard buteo buteo
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Buzzards and their Common Characteristics

From my point of view Buzzards seem to be the smaller edition of the much larger eagles. At least when looking at their flight silhouette such associations spring to mind. What we see are long wings and a rather shortish but broad tail. Moreover, buzzards are excellent gliders and make use of thermals. We can watch them gliding in the sky mainly during the hours between 12 am to 3 pm.

Though, when it comes to behaviour, buzzards are quite the opposite of eagles. Especially when flying, buzzards appear as clumsy birds. They don’t fly at higher speeds, on the contrary, these birds are slow. Despite their slow flight abilities, they are most shy and make a habit of escaping quickly as soon as humans come too close. So, buzzards are best to watch and observe from a distance.

As hunters, buzzards hunt their prey on the ground. They start either from a perch or out of search flight. In case of favourable winds we can watch buzzards hovering over the ground like the Common Kestrel does. Though this special flight display is only rarely to be seen with buzzards. Because of their weak feet and legs buzzards can only catch prey no heavier than 500 g a piece. Therefore, their food mainly consits of rodent making buzzards dependent on the availability of rodents. Because of this dependency on mice abundance makes buzzards suffering from lack of suitable food in years of mice gradations.

The great exception is the Honey Buzzard because his species is not closely related to Buzzards in general. Its field characteristics and behaviour is much different from buzzards. The diet mainly consists of nests, larvae, pupae and adults of wasps, hornets and bumble bees. Honey Buzzards reach their food by digging out the nests of wasps and hornets with their feet. Because the feet are feathered down to the toes the birds are mostly immune to against insect bites.

Buzzard Taxonomy

Order: Birds of Prey (Accipitriformes)
Family: Kites, Vultures, Hawks, Eagles (Accipitridae)
Genus: Buzzards (Buteo)

  • Long-legged Buzzard – Adlerbussard – Buse féroce (Buteo rufinus)
  • Steppe Buzzard – Falkenbussard – Buse variable vulpinus (Buteo buteo vulpius)
  • Common Buzzard – Mäusebussard – Buse variable (Buteo buteo)
  • Rough-legged Buzzard – Raufussbussard – Buse pattue (Buteo lagopus)
  • Red-backed Hawk – Rotrückenbussard – Buse tricolore (Buteo polysoma)
  • Harris Hawk – Wüstenbussard – Buse de Harris (Parabuteo unicinctus)
  • Black-chested Buzzard-eagle – Kordillerenadler / Aguja – Buse aguia (Geranoaeetus melanonleucus)

Genus: Honey Buzards (Pernis)

  • Honey Buzzard – Wespenbussard – Bondrée apivore (Pernis apivorus)
  • Crested Honey Buzzard / Oriental Honey-buzzard – Schopfwespenbussard – Bondrée orientale (Pernis ptilorhynchus)
common buzzard
Common Buzzrad (Buteo buteo)
western marsh harriers
Western Marsh Harrier

Harriers and their Common Features

We know harriers from their lurching flight and their high circling and soaring flights they use to perform over marshland and open country. In flight harriers hold their wings in a v-position. Harriers usually breed in thrick marshy vegetation. They benefit from sharp hearing and long legs to locate and catch prey in denses vegetation.

Special Features of Harriers

  • Medium-sized birds of prey
  • long slim wings
  • long tails
  • long slim legs
  • face veil

Taxonomy of Harriers

Order: Birds of Prey (Accipitriformes)
Family: Kites, Vultures, Hawks, Eagles (Accipitridae)
Genus: Cirus

  • Western Marsh Harrier – Rohrweihe – Busard des roseaux (Circus aeruginosus)
  • Northern Harrier / Hen Harriers- Kornweihe – Busard Saint-Martin (Circus cyaneus)
  • Montagu’s Harrier – Wieseweihe – Busard cendré (Circus pygargus)
  • Pallied Harrier – Steppenweihe – Busard pâle (Circus macrorus)
marsh harrier
Marsh Harrier
black kite
Black Kite

Kites and their Common Features

For a start, Kites are brilliant gliders. They slowly glide with angled wings over their hunting areas but can also soar up to enormous altitudes within seconds. Most obviours to the observer are how expertly kites can use their tail to change directions or when hovering over a spot to keep the position. Also, the gabled tail is a striking identificaiton feature of their flight silhouette.

The Orld World Kites – a Taxonomy

  • Red Kite – Rotmilan – Milan royal (Milvus milvus) – Europe
  • Black Kite – Schwarzmilan – Milan noir (Milvus migrans) – Europe
  • Cape Verde Kite – Kapverdenmilan – Milan du Cap-Vert (Milvus fasciicauda) – Cape Verde
  • Black-shouldered Kite – Gleitaar – Élanion blac (Elanus caeruleus) – South Europe, Africa, South Asia
  • Black-eared Kite – Sibirischer Schwarzmilan – Milan brun (Milvus lineatus) – South to Central Asia
  • Yellow-billed Kite – Schmarotzermilan – Milan d’Afrique (Milvus aegyptius) – Africa
black kite milvus migrans
Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
black kite
Black Kite

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