Mastering bird identification can be a minefield but, like all things, practice makes perfect. One group that can be relatively easy to identify and distinguish between, once you know a few “tells”, are eagles, hawks and falcons, those sharp-beaked hunters of the skies.
Learning to tell the difference between these birds is a great first step. The abundance of birds of prey usually means you don’t need to go too far or on a dedicated birdwatching trip to find them. If you live anywhere near woodlands, farmland or countryside such as pastures, steppes, marshes or just stretches of fields between road networks, you can usually spot at least one or two on their eternal hunt for food.
All that jizz
Being able to determine the type of bird just from watching it has a special word, which perhaps isn’t the first thing you’d think that word meant. In birding terms, the way a bird flies, preens, the head and wing shape, and how it finds and deals with its food, is what’s known as a bird’s jizz. When you are good at seeing the jizz, you can often identify a bird even in silhouette.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that to become an expert identifier you need years of study.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that to become good at identifying birds you need years of study and very little time doing anything else, but that’s not true. Bird identification, even for those who have spent years studying, is still a step-by-step process – you have to build a picture using what you know about a few composite facts, like a jigsaw.
To the uninitiated, the difference between eagles, hawks and falcons just isn’t there – seen at a distance, they are usually brown-ish, have scary–looking beaks, and sharp-clawed feet. Eagles are indeed far larger than hawks and falcons, but the problem with using size as a marker is how it is defined – are we referring to wing span? Body weight? Length of bird from tip of beak to tip of tail? What it will eventually come down to is genetics and classification – eagles belong to the genus Aquila, hawks to Accipiter (but other genera as well), and falcons to Falco. But for identification purposes, we’ll keep it loose and simple.
So – eagles are huge, hawks are big, and falcons are small. But until you’ve learnt the specifics such as plumage, face markings and so on, just remember you can get small hawks (sharp-shinned hawk, measuring a body size of around 25 cm) and large falcons (the gyrfalcon, coming in at an average of 55 cm).
The art of flying
Perhaps the best way to tell these birds apart is how they fly. Looking out of my window one day, I spotted a striking white bird flying across some fields in the distance, where two great egrets had been hanging out for the past couple of weeks. The distance made it hard to tell, but this bird seemed a little smaller, but what struck me is that it just didn’t fly in the same slow, meandering and high-up manner. Using occasional strong short wingbeats and then gliding and dipping, it followed a more or less direct line low over the field’s edge, before coming back around again at the end of the fields, following a different edge. Knowing what I know about birds of prey, I was thrilled to think I had some sort of hawk in front of me. Grabbing my binoculars and focussing on the plumage, I could see the head was grey, the white wings were boldly tipped in black, and a line of black feathers ran along the lower outer edge of each wing. Looking in my field guide I then realised it was a hunting male hen harrier. Instead of dismissing this as the now commonplace egrets, I watched a beautiful bird scour the stubbled farmland for a good ten minutes. I felt very privileged.
But it was my ability to discern from a good 200 m away that the way this bird flew meant it couldn’t be the same old egrets, and instead of looking away I listened to the urge to look closer, eventually rewarding myself with a wonderful experience.
Flight patterns will be determined by the shape of the bird’s wing, which will be influenced by the environment it inhabits and the type of food the bird eats.
Falcons’ wings are slender, long and thin, and end in points. Combined with a sleek, less rounded body shape, this makes them exceptionally aerodynamic, and they can alter direction quickly by tipping their wing points. Because the surface area of falcons’ wings is quite small, they have to beat them much faster, and only glide in descent. They thrive in open spaces, and can fly very fast, using this speed to catch their prey in flight by grabbing it with their beaks, often from above. An angular bend to their beaks makes it easier for them to break the neck of their prey, still in flight, and carry it off to eat later.
Tucking those finely pointed wings into a deep wedge shape, they can create a magnificent dive, practically slicing through the air. When engaged in a vertical dive, the peregrine falcon is the fastest bird – actually, the fastest animal – on the planet, hitting speeds in excess of 200 miles an hour. When not in a dive, they can still reach 60 mph.
Conversely, hawks have rounder wings which are wider at their base where they connect to the body, and are also much shorter compared to a falcon. Hawks tend to be more woodland-based birds, using a hidden perch as their vantage point to spy on potential prey, making fast and unexpected dashes from the cover of foliage to snatch their prey with their feet. As their wings have more surface area than a falcon’s, they intersperse their longer wingbeats with glides, making them much slower in flight. But what they lack in speed, they gain in agility: with their longer tails and shorter wings, they are exceptionally adept at moving through the branches and leaves of forests and shrubbery.
Perhaps the best way to tell these birds apart is how they fly.
Eagles, with their wide, long and large wings, are the experts in soaring and gliding, locking their wings out to their sides with a special tendon making them rigid as planks, and their wings end with distinct, separated feathers referred to as fingers in field guides, which allow them to manoeuvre more precisely to gain a better view. They fly with measured and low wingbeats to gain that height and survey all that cowers before them from above.
If you are lucky enough to get a good view of a stationary bird of prey, how can you tell them apart when they are just sitting there?
Another excellent identifier of falcons with respect to hawks and eagles, is something called the suborbital ridge.
If they are sleek, slender but small, this will normally be a falcon. Topped with a small rounded and slightly set-back head, their beaks are usually wide at the base and short overall, and will end in the distinct overlapping hook that also exhibits a small and often pointed undulation along the side of the beak before the hook, called a tomial tooth, which sits in a corresponding notch on the lower beak.
Hawks have longer, sleek heads whose beaks are also longer, ending with the same dangerous hook but this time there is no extra “tooth” and therefore no notch, just a longer lower jaw that tapers to rest underneath the arch of the hook. The same goes for eagles, but another excellent identifier of falcons with respect to hawks and eagles, is something called the suborbital ridge. Hawks and eagles have a more pronounced “eyebrow”, giving them that fierce, focused look. As they fly slower, they use height to their advantage in terms of surveying, which puts them relatively nearer the sun, so this ridge helps to shade the eye.
Falcons lack the harsher definition to their ridge, and instead have something called a malar stripe, a dark stripe either side of their head that passes under the eye. This cuts down the glare of the daylight instead, and is mimicked by footballers and Hollywood mercenary types who smear black paint under their eyes to help in the same way. This mark is very noticeable on most falcons, like the peregrine but also kestrels and hobbies.
Always magnificent to see, learning how to identify these incredible birds will add to the joy of your experience, and maybe one day instead of ignoring a distant egret, you’ll witness one of the rarest glimpses of hunting life possible.