Identify birds of prey

How to identify birds of prey

Sparrowhawk © Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

What are ‘birds of prey’?

‘Birds of prey’ are large, predatory bird species that have hooked bills, sharp talons, strong feet, and keen eyesight and hearing. They tend to feed on small mammals, birds, insects and reptiles. The UK’s birds of prey come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes:

Hawks and eagles: medium to very large; hooked bills; rounded or broad wings; sharp talons; tend to soar

Falcons: small to medium-sized; tapered wings and tails; fast and agile; often hover

Owls: small to large; rounded heads; small, hooked bills; forward-facing eyes; mainly nocturnal

Our birds of prey live in a variety of habitats, including woodland, farmland and even in cities. Some are easy to spot, while others are much rarer or live in places that are difficult to get to. Either way, seeing a bird of prey can be an awe-inspiring experience as they soar high in the sky, or swoop down with deadly accuracy on their unsuspecting prey.

Which birds of prey am I most likely to see?

Sparrowhawk

©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Sparrowhawk

Where: Variety of habitats, including gardens, across the UK

Description: Small. Males have blue-grey backs and white underparts with orange barring. Females are brown above, with grey barring underneath.

Common buzzard in flight

©Chris Lawrence

Buzzard

Where: Grassland, farmland and woodland across the UK

Description: Medium. Brown plumage, broad wings and a short tail.

Kestrel

©Steve Waterhouse

Kestrel

Where: Grassland, heathland and sometimes towns across the UK

Description: Small. Grey head, grey tail with dark banding, gingery-brown back, and a creamy, speckled underside.

Hobby in flight, the Wildlife Trust

© Dave Curtis

Hobby

Where: Southern and eastern heathlands and wetlands in summer

Description: Small. Slate-grey plumage, with black streaks on its belly, red 'trousers', a white throat, and a dark moustache and mask.  

Red kite on ground

©Margaret Holland

Red kite

Where: Woodland and farmland mainly in Wales and South East England

Description: Large. Reddish-brown plumage, black-tipped wings with white patches underneath, and a forked tail.

Tawny owl

©Margaret Holland

Tawny owl

Where: Woodland, parks and gardens across the UK

Description: Medium. Mottled brown plumage, a rounded head, large, dark eyes, and a dark ring around its face.

Barn Owl - Danny Green/2020VISION

Danny Green/2020VISION

Barn owl

Where: Grassland and farmland across the UK

Description: Small. Mottled silver-grey and buff back, white underside, heart-shaped, white face, and black eyes.

Which rarer species can I look out for?

Merlin

©Wildstock

Merlin

Where: Moorlands and coastal marshes in England, Wales and Scotland

Description: Small. Males are blue-grey above and cream with black streaks underneath. Females are grey-brown with dark streaking.

Juvenile peregrine falcon on rooftop with city in background, The Wildlife Trusts

© Bertie Gregory/2020VISION

Peregrine falcon

Where: Coastal cliffs and some towns in North and South West England, Wales and Scotland

Description: Medium. Slate-grey above and white below, with black bars underneath, a white throat and cheeks, and a black moustache and mask.

Golden eagle in flight

©Jon Hawkins

Golden eagle

Where: Upland areas and glens in Scotland

Description: Very large. Mainly dark brown, with a golden head and neck.

Male marsh harrier

©David Tipling/2020VISION

Marsh harrier

Where: Reedbeds in East Anglia, Somerset and the South East

Description: Large. Males are brown above and ginger underneath, with grey, black-tipped wings. Females are chocolate-brown with a golden-yellow crown and throat.

Osprey2 Peter Cairns/2020 Vision

Peter Cairns/2020 Vision

Osprey

Where: Wetlands in Scotland, Cumbria, Wales and the East Midlands in summer

Description: Large. Dark above and white below, with angled wings that show dark patches.

Short-eared owl

©Danny Green/2020VISION

Short-eared owl

Where: Moorlands and saltmarshes in England and Wales

Description: Medium. Mottled yellowy-brown above and pale below, with dark circles around its yellow eyes and short ‘ear tufts’.

Other rare species that breed in the UK include goshawk, hen harrier, white-tailed eagle and long-eared owl. Find out more about identifying all our birds of prey on our species explorer.

Are birds of prey under threat?

During the 20th century, many of our birds of prey were persecuted to near extinction (such as the white-tailed eagle), or severely suffered from the effects of organochlorine pesticides like DDT (such as the merlin). Today, massive conservation efforts offer them a lifeline. Not only are organisations like The Wildlife Trusts involved in reintroduction and habitat restoration programmes, we are also working towards a living landscape – a network of habitats that link urban green spaces and nature reserves with the wider countryside, enabling wildlife to thrive and move about freely.

Little Owl (c) Andy Rouse/2020VISION

Andy Rouse/2020VISION

How can I help birds of prey?

The Wildlife Trusts work closely with farmers and landowners to ensure that our wildlife is protected and to promote wildlife-friendly practices. You can support this vital work by joining your local Wildlife Trust – you'll find out about exciting wildlife news, events on your doorstep and opportunities to get involved in conservation, campaigning and fundraising.

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