Our Birds of Prey are some of the most majestic wildlife we have here in the UK. In the late 20th century many species were driven to the brink of extinction. But fantastic conservation efforts up and down the country mean that many of our hawks, falcons, kites and owls are thriving once again. Here’s our guide to some of the species you might spot when you are out and about, or even gazing at the sky above your garden.
What Makes A Bird of Prey?
Lots of birds kill and eat insects, animals and fish, from the blackbird who preys on worms in your garden to the penguin who catches fish. But we wouldn’t classify these as birds of prey. So what exactly makes a bird of prey or raptor?
The word Raptor gives us a clue as to what makes a bird of prey. Raptor comes from a Latin word meaning Plunderer, someone who grabs and carries away. This is exactly what birds of prey do, in a way that no other species can imitate. They have extremely strong legs and sharp claws and they use them to grab their food and carry it away. The three defining features of a bird of prey are:
- They eat meat, sometimes killed, sometimes scavenged carrion.
- They have fantastic eyesight with a wide, binocular field of vision enabling excellent depth perception and the ability to accurately pinpoint a target.
- They use their very strong legs and sharp claws to seize and carry away their food.
Size really doesn’t matter when it comes to birds of prey. Some of the tiniest falcons are smaller than a sparrow whilst some of the biggest eagles can weigh over 30 lbs with wings over 10 feet across.
There are six distinct groups of birds of prey around the world and we are lucky enough to have examples of four of them here in Great Britain.
This is the largest group of birds of prey with very diverse members including eagles, hawks, buzzards and kites. Accipitrids come in all shapes, sizes and colours and have vastly different behaviours. But all the species in this group have some common family features.
Although tail shape can vary all accipitrids have broad wings. They also have distinctive hooked beaks and a bony ridge above their eyes (supraorbital ridge) like a brow bone, which helps to give them their stern or fearsome appearance. Almost like they are constantly frowning at you.
The eyes themselves are red, yellow or hazel, never brown. Beneath the eyes, at the top of the beak, accipitrids have a fleshy membrane known as a cere, which is often brightly coloured, adding to the striking facial appearance.
Female birds in the group are almost always larger than makes and all species are diurnal, hunting in the daytime.
British birds of prey in the falconid or falcon family include the kestrel falco tinnunculus, peregrine falco peregrinus, the hobby falco subbuteo and merlin falco columbarius. They are very closely related to the accipitrids but have some distinguishing features.
All the falcons have brown eyes, the cere is yellow and they also have a yellow ring around the eyes. They have ridged beaks, falcons almost always have pointed wings, and like the accipitrids, the females are generally larger than the males.
The falcons have a more restricted colour palette ranging through pale grey, slate grey, blue grey, whites and mottled brown in mottled streaked and speckled patterns. They are usually a lighted colour underneath, and darker on top.
Other features such as their hooked beaks, strong and sharp talons and exceptional eyesight are shared with other raptors.
The pandionid family has just one member the Osprey.
Though ospreys are common in many parts of the world they became extinct as a breeding species in the UK in the early 20th century, but have returned since the 1950s.
Osprey live on fresh fish and in flight could be mistaken for a large gull due to their white undersides and dark wings. But get closer and you will spot the tell-tale beak and claws of the raptor.
The strigids or owls are our nocturnal birds of prey. British birds of prey in the owl family include the barn owl, tawny owl, little owl and long-eared owl.
Owls are easy enough to identify from the other birds of prey with their round heads, flat faces and forward-facing eyes.
The eyes cannot move at all and are not actually eyeballs, but eye tubes, like binoculars, giving them incredible ability to pinpoint prey, even at night.
Owls have exceptional hearing and some species have asymmetrically placed ears, enhancing their ability to pinpoint the source of a sound and lock in on their prey.
Top 10 British Birds of Prey
Sparrowhawk Accipiter Nisus
If there is a commotion around your bird table chances are a sparrowhawk could be the cause.
Nearly extinct in the last century due to the effects of organochlorine pesticide poisoning sparrowhawks have bounced back and there are now over 35,000 breeding pairs in the UK according to the RSPB.
The sparrowhawk is classed as a small bird of prey, but with a wingspan of over 2 feet, it still dwarfs most garden birds. It is easily recognisable by the red or brown bars over light plumage on its underside. It also has piercing yellow to orange eyes ringed in yellow and females can be twice the size of the males.
Sparrowhawks are adapted to hunting in dense woodland, so gardens are an ideal environment for them. Some people have tried to blame the sparrowhawk for the decline in some of our songbird species, but repeated studies have shown no link.
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
The golden eagle is a huge raptor that favours upland habitats and preys on birds and mammals.
The species was destroyed in England and Wales by the early 20th century, but a few pairs hung on in Scotland and numbers are now well on the increase there, with a small population starting to establish in Cumbria.
With a weight of well over five pounds for the female they are slightly smaller than the rare white tailed eagle, but their six-foot-plus wingspan is the widest in our UK skies.
This bird’s sheer size and habit of soaring and swooping in mountain airstreams make these birds easy to spot if you’re in the right place at the right time.
Golden eagles mate for life and can live for up to 25 years. Their nests or eyries are sited high up on remote cliff faces and are often used by successive generations over many decades.
Red Kite Milvus Milvus
If you ever get the chance to visit a red kite feeding station don’t miss out. It’s a sight you will never forget.
These birds are quite unusual for raptors in that they often live in large groups.
They’re very easy to identify with a red underbelly (males) angled, dark wings with white patches, and a forked tail.
Red kite feed mainly on carrion, which accounts for the success of the feeding programs which have played such a key role in the conservation of the species.
Red kites are widespread in Wales and becoming established in southern England.
Buzzard Buteo Buteo
Buzzards are the UK’s most common bird of prey with numbers having quadrupled since the 1970s. There are now over 70,000 pairs in the UK.
They like to nest in woodland but prefer to hunt in open spaces like farmland and hills. This is one of the reasons that they are less likely to prey on your garden birds than the sparrowhawk.
The other is that crows and magpies will often gang up on a buzzard and mob it until it leaves.
Buzzards are jokingly known as the “tourist eagle” in Scotland, as they are so often mistaken for the golden eagle. It’s an easy mistake to make, but the buzzard is a much smaller bird, with a shorter tail adapted to flight through woodland.
Kestrel Falco Tinnunculus
Kestrels are the UK’s most widely distributed bird of prey. You can see them throughout the mainland and on many of our offshore islands.
Traditionally at home in a wide variety of habitats, they have adapted well to living alongside mankind and can often be seen hovering above motorways and even city centres.
The kestrel is a pretty little bird, with distinctive pointed wings and a long tail.
They have a varied diet. In towns and cities, they will often take small birds and a variety of small mammals. But in the countryside, they live almost entirely on voles and there is a direct relationship between the number of voles and the number of young kestrels that successfully fledge in a given year.
Kestrels have excellent eyesight even in very low light, allowing them to hunt well into the evenings and bringing them into competition with the owls.
Barn Owl Tyto Alba
There is no mistaking the beautiful barn owl with its caramel back and wings, pure white front and heart-shaped face.
But as well as being lovely to look at this owl is a miracle of design. That heart-shaped face helps to direct sound to its ears, allowing it to pinpoint prey. Feathers are designed to be silent in flight enabling the bird to hover low over farmland hunting for its next meal. Which will usually be some sort of a rodent.
It’s good they are well designed for hunting as barn owls need to eat around 5000 rodents each year to thrive. They don’t chew but swallow their prey whole: skin, bones, fur, tails the lot. The indigestible bits are then brought up in pellets which form the basis for their nests.
Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
In 1971 there was thought to be just one nesting female marsh harrier left in the UK, after unrelenting persecution. Today there are more than 4 breeding pairs. It’s a true conservation success story.
Marsh harriers live in wetlands, nesting in reedbeds and feeding on frogs, invertebrates and small mammals.
These harriers are widely distributed through southern England including East Anglia and the Sommerset levels.
Though traditionally a summer migrant, breeding here and returning to Africa for the winters, they are increasingly choosing to over-winter in the UK.
Peregrine Falcon Falco Peregrinus
The word peregrine means pilgrim or wanderer and around the world peregrine falcons are migratory birds. Our UK population though, is year-round resident, with individuals rarely straying more than 100km from where they hatched.
Peregrines prey mainly on other birds, particularly pigeons and game birds. For this reason despite their protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, they are still persecuted. Researchers believe that in the grouse moors of Scotland up to a quarter of peregrine nests are deliberately damaged or destroyed each year.
The peregrine falcon nests on cliff edge sites in the wild and have become adept at finding suitable sites on tall buildings in towns and cities. So although there may only be around 1400 breeding pairs in the UK they are widespread throughout the country, and it is possible to see them without going too far from home.
Tawny Owl Strix Aluco
The tawny owl is our most common owl here in the UK with an estimated 50,000 breeding pairs. Though these strictly nocturnal birds are extremely hard to count.
It is responsible for the twit-twoo call that we associate with owls, the call of the barn owl si more of a screech.
As you can see from the picture they are built to living in woodland with short wings making them highly manoeuvrable, but they have successfully adapted to life in many habitats and are widespread throughout the UK although they don’t occur on our offshore islands.
Tawny owls like to nest in holes in trees, but they have become fond of nest boxes. You might even be lucky enough to get a pair in your garden.
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
The Osprey is one of our rarest raptors, but a conservation success story nonetheless. Persecuted to the brink of extinction in the 20th century they are once again breeding in each country of the UK. The RSPB Loch Garten reserve in Scotland was the first nature tourism site in the UK enabling the public to view osprey nests (at a safe distance). Well worth a visit.
Ospreys are fish eaters. They mainly live by fresh water taking trout and salmon but are happy to fish in the sea too.
They are specially adapted to fishing, Their toes have small spines on the undersides to give them extra grip on a slippery wet catch. And they are able to close their nostrils, allowing them to dive underwater in pursuit of a meal.
Thanks For Reading
Awesome is an overused word but it’s the right word to describe our British birds of prey. With their aerial acrobatics, grace and often spectacular size we are lucky to have them with us. And although they still need our help and support, the way that many of these species have been brought back from the bink of extinction shows us just what we can do with conservation when we put our minds to it.
Garden bird lovers can sometimes get a bit squeamish about a bird of prey killing a smaller bird in our gardens. But the raptors have to eat too, and which of us shows the same sympathy for the worm being gobbled up by the blackbird on our lawn? It’s all part of nature!
Thanks for reading. We hope you’ve found this article interesting and that maybe we’ve inspired you to go out and take a close look at our native raptors. If you have questions or suggestions we would love to hear them. Leave us a comment below.