Falcons, Accipiters, and Hawks–Oh, My!

October is my favorite month for falcons, and I’ve typically seen more falcons during this month compared to any other month of the year. Good news: as November approaches we will continue to see southward-bound migrating falcons as well as an increase in the number of Red-tailed Hawks moving to areas where they will spend the winter.

Oftentimes, I’m asked how to identify the different species of falcons where we live, not to mention the hawks that we see every day. This article will help get you started on recognizing the various raptors in your area.

At a high level, let’s start by separating our hawks and falcons into three distinct groups:

  1. Broad, rounded wings; broad (relatively short) tail: many of our large and medium sized Buteo hawks fall into this category: Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk.
  2. Rounded wings, long & narrow tail: this is the typical shape for all of our Accipiter species: Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Cooper’s Hawk.
  3. Wing-tips pointed (not round), tail relatively long and narrow: this combination of features is typical of our falcons: American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and Prairie Falcon.

As you become more familiar with these three broad identification categories, it will make it easier to recognize some of the species that share traits from two or more of these categories: Red-shouldered Hawk (rounded wings, but overall shape & tail length sometimes suggests a large Accipiter); Swainson’s Hawk (although a member of the Buteo family, its wings may appear more pointed than rounded at the tips); or Northern Harrier (its unique shape and flight behavior help separate it from similarly appearing hawks or falcons already mentioned).

For the larger raptors, compare the Turkey Vulture’s flight pattern to those of the Bald and Golden Eagles, and study the plumage patterns visible on the underside of the wings and tail for each species.

Finally, if you haven’t visited a Hawk Watch station recently, there is probably one in your area! Talk to other local birders, members of the American Birding Association, or your local Audubon chapter to discover the closest Hawk Watch station in your area and best times to visit in November.

Until then … Wishing you the best in birds and birding!

/s/ John C. Robinson
President, On My Mountain, Inc. — “Your World of Birding and Nature”
Author of Tweet, Flutter, and Squawk! How to Identify Birds by Sight and by Sound
A Step-By-Step Bird Identification Guide
John’s Ongoing Work to Connect Kids to Nature:
On My Mountain Press Page