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All raptors are birds of prey but not all birds of prey are raptors

Updated: Nov 22


Cooper's Hawk exiting a bird feeder. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Published November 19, 2022 in the McAllen Monitor.

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist


Some label all birds of prey as raptors, using the word generically for any bird that hunts other animals for food from the air.


Others claim there are three main characteristics of true raptorial birds: hooked beak, powerful talons and keen eyesight, ranking mainly eagles, hawks, falcons and owls as raptors.


Raptors are at the top of the food chain and play a unique role in the ecosystem. Collectively, their carnivorous diet includes reptiles, like snakes, lizards and frogs; large insects like grasshoppers and cicadas; other birds; and mammals. They control pest species by eating mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, skunks and raccoons. Were it not for raptors, the prey species would over-run its habitat.


The word raptor comes from a Latin word rapere, which means to seize or take by force. Raptors are generally larger and bulker than other birds, their talons thicker, sharper and larger and they have broad wings for powerful flight. Most raptors are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day. Owls are nocturnal, night hunters. Owls have superb night vision, rapid focus and superior depth perception along with keen hearing and the ability of silent flight.


Hunting styles differ with each species; some glide and soar while searching for prey; others perch and execute powerful dives and rapid pursuit.


Raptors are mainly solitary hunters, which avoids prey competition; most species do not gather in flocks except during peak migration periods.


It’s sometimes not a pretty world in the field. A raptor’s powerful feet allow it to grasp and carry off prey. Some raptors use their sharp talons like daggers to pierce through skin and flesh or to choke its victim to death. Other raptors break the neck of their prey or eat their victims alive after slashing them open.


Here are four raptors to identify this winter:

Cooper’s hawks are winter visitors. They are a small hawk. In flight their wings are rounded; their long tails help with flight maneuverability. They frequent bird feeders; their diet includes other birds.


Cooper's Hawk near a bird feeder. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Red-shouldered hawks are winter visitors, too, although their permanent range begins just north of the Valley. They are primarily forest dwellers and can be found in urban settings populated with trees. They are a medium-sized hawk with a reddish-brown breast, white and dark checkered wings and reddish shoulders. They hunt by sight and sound from a perch and drop directly onto prey from above.


Red-shouldered Hawk. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Red-tailed hawks are year-round residents of the state and the most common hawk in Texas and in the United States in general. A wingspan to 52 inches makes them the largest bird of prey in North America. They have broad wings and a white-based red tail. They hunt from a perch, chasing prey in a short burst of speed. They prefer large open areas.


Red-tailed Hawk. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Red-tailed Hawk in flight. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Harris’s hawk is a permanent Valley resident. They are sooty brown with rufous-chestnut shoulders and boldly marked black-and-white tail and white rump. They hunt both from a perch or soaring and will hunt cooperatively in small groups, sharing large prey.


Harris's Hawk in flight. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

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These sources were helpful in writing this article: audubon.org, raptorrerehap.edu, mdc.mo.gov, Stanford.edu, wonderopolis.org, Morley-Nelson-Snake-River-Birds-of-Prey_More-About-Raptors.pdf, allaboutbirds.org, birdwatchinghq.com, birdfeederhub.com, animaldiversity.org, txtbba.tamu.edu and Fred J. Alsop III, Smithsonian Handbooks Birds of Texas, DK Publishing.