Many people hold a particular fascination with raptors—otherwise known as birds of prey. I know I do. These big, powerful birds inspire us with their raw power, grace and majesty. So respected are these birds that they are often chosen as sports team mascots. Many countries use birds of prey as their national symbol.
The DFW Metroplex is home to a number of these mighty birds. Depending on the season, there can be as many as 20 different species of falconiformes living in the North Texas area. Some are seasonal migrants. Other are what is known as occasional vagrants—birds that sometimes roam outside their normal range. When you’re as big and powerful as a raptor soaring high in the sky, moving outside your home range is not difficult to do.
Buteos – Medium to large-sized Raptors with robust bodies and broad wings.
Perhaps the most common of all of our raptors is the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). These ubiquitous hawks are widely distributed across all of North America, and are superbly adapted to urban living. They breed readily around human populations, and often make use of man-made structures as nest locations. Urban Red-tailed Hawks can frequently be seen perched on lampposts along our highways where they stay on the look out for prey animals in the grassy medians. Red-tailed Hawks are year round residents, but their numbers increase in the winter when northern populations migrate into Texas.
The Red-tailed Hawk is a large bird with a wingspan that can approach 5 feet. The plumage displayed by this bird can vary widely depending upon age, color morph, and whether migratory subspecies are in the area. Most adult Red-tailed Hawks in the DFW area, however, display the namesake red tail, a dark band across a white breast, and light wings with a dark bar along the leading edge.
Red-tailed Hawks typically feed on small mammals such as Eastern Cottontails, Fox Squirrels, rats, and mice. Occasionally they will feed on common urban birds like feral pigeons or starlings.
More information about Red-tailed Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Red-tailed Hawk
Perhaps the second most common Buteo in the metroplex is the Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). Although very numerous in North Texas and a year round resident, the Red-shouldered Hawk is not often seen. This is because the Red-shouldered Hawk prefers heavily wooded areas along rivers and creeks. In North Texas that means the Trinity River and its various tributaries.
These hawks breed readily in and around the metroplex, but they seldom make use of man-made structures when choosing a nesting site. Instead red-shouldered Hawks prefer to nest in tall trees located in riparian forests. Red-shouldered Hawk feed on small mammals and reptiles. Snakes are a favorite food.
The Red-shouldered Hawk is slightly smaller than the more common Red-tailed Hawk. It is easily distinguishable by its red chest and shoulders, and by its starkly black and white striped wings and tail when in flight.
More information about Red-shouldered Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Red-shouldered Hawk
The Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) is another large Buteo frequently seen around the DFW Area in the summer time. Swainson’s Hawks spend their winters in South America, and only reach portions of the United States after a long springtime migration.
The Swainson’s Hawk is usually seen at altitude, soaring high over our urban development. In the air they are recognizable by their unique colors and configuration. Swainson’s Hawks have darkly colored heads and light undersides. Their flight feathers create a contrasting darkly colored trailing edge on their wings. In flight, the wings of these Buteos often appears narrower and more pointed that those of other similar species.
The metroplex is just at the edge of the Swainson’s Hawk beeding range, and presumably they do nest here—though I have yet to come across one of their nest. Swainson’s Hawks are much less tolerant of human activity than some of our other hawks, and therefore may nest in more rural and isolated areas.
Unusual for a hawk of this size, the diet of Swainson’s Hawk can largely consist of insects.
More information about Swainson’s Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Swainson’s Hawk
Other, less common, Buteos can be seen in the metroplex from time to time. These birds reach our area as migrants or as occasional vagrants.Though rarely seen, these hawks will be spotted by sharp-eyed birders from time to time.
The Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) is a small hawk that is usually seen during its fall and spring migrations. At these times great kettles of Broad-wings Hawks may be seen passing high overhead as they make their way to and from South America.
Broad-winged Hawks have been know to breed in the metroplex, but Dallas/Fort Worth represents the western most limits of their summer distribution. Incidents of breeding Broad-wings Hawks increases as one travels into the eastern United States.
More information about Broad-winged Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Broad-winged Hawk
The handsome Harris Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) is another Buteo that occasionally makes its way to the metroplex during the winter months. These hawks are seldom seen in North Texas.
More information about Harris Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Harris Hawk
The Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) is a rare winter visitor to the metroplex. They are most likely to be be seen on prairies in our western most counties during the coldest winter months.
More information about Ferruginous Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Ferruginous Hawk
Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) may make their way down into our northern counties during the coldest months of winter. Prairies and pastures well away from developed areas are where they are most likely to be found.
More information about Rough-legged Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Rough-legged Hawk
Accipiters – Woodland hawks with short wings and long tails
There are two species of Accipters to be found in the North Texas area—the Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-shinned Hawk. These two species are remarkably similar to each other in general apperance. Both sport nearly identical plumage coloration. Size is the primary differentiator, as the Cooper’s Hawk is usually significantly larger than the Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Of the two, the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is the most commonly observed. It is a year round resident in the DFW metroplex, and is beginning to breed more readily in our cities.
Adult Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized raptors. They have slate gray plumage with a red and white herringbone pattern on their breast and wing leading edges. Tail and flight feather show black and white stripes when viewed from below.
Cooper’s Hawks are well adapted to hunting in wooded areas, and feed largely on other birds. A well stocked bird feeder that attracts a constant crowd of song birds might also attract a hungry Cooper’s Hawk to your backyard as well.
More information about Cooper’s Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Cooper’s Hawk
The smaller Sharped-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) is very similar in appearance to the Copper’s Hawk. Key differences include a shorter, square cut tail, and a large-eyed, more gentle appearance about the face. Sharp-shinned Hawks are in the DFW Area only in the winter months.
Like the Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawks are well adapted to woodland hunting a preferred to feed on small birds.
More information about Sharp-shinned Hawks can be found here: Wikipedia – Sharp-shinned Hawk
Falcons – Sleek aerobatic raptors with long pointed wings
The most common falcon in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). This small, Blue Jay-sized raptor can frequently be seen perched on utility wires overlooking open fields and vacant lots. The American Kestrel is a strikingly beautiful bird with a multicolored plumage that includes slate gray, yellow, orange, black, and white. The male of the species is particularly exotic looking.
These birds are year round residents in North Texas and breed readily in urban areas. They are cavity nesters and will make use of man made structures near suitable hunting grounds for their nesting needs.
The diet of the American Kestrel consist largely of insects, but they will also feed on small mammals, birds, and reptiles.
More information about American Kestrels can be found here: Wikipedia – American Kestrel
The Merlin (Falco columbarius) is also sometimes seen in the metroplex. These small falcons—only slightly larger than the American Kestrel—can be found in North Texas during the winter months, and may be more evident during the fall and spring migrations.
More information about Merlins can be found here: Wikipedia – Merlin
A few other species of falcon may sometimes wander into the metroplex. The Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) is a rare winter visitor. It is typically only seen in our western most counties.
More information about Prairie Falcons can be found here: Wikipedia – Prairie Falcon
The well know Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) also makes it into the metroplex from time to time. A rarely seen vagrant, Peregrine Falcons are only likely to be seen during their fall and spring migrations.
More information about Peregrine Falcons can be found here: Wikipedia – Peregrine Falcon
Kites – Small raptors known for their graceful flight
The Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis) is the most commonly seen kite in North Texas. These uniformly gray birds are the raptor world’s analog to an Air Force fighter jet.
The breeding range of Mississippi Kites has only recently expanded into North Texas. They now readily nest here, preferring bottomland forests near rivers and creeks for their breeding grounds. They are locally abundant in some places and large congregations may form in late summer as their young begin to leave the nest.
These birds feed primarily upon insects like dragonflies and grasshoppers, and they can frequently be seen feeding while in flight.
More information about Mississippi Kites can be found here: Wikipedia – Mississippi Kite
Seeing a Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) in the metroplex is an exciting occasion. They are seldom seen here, but they seem to be expanding their range, and may even be breeding in certain areas in our most southeastern counties. Swallow-tailed Kites are beautiful raptors dressed in a plumages of white, gray, and black feathers. The Swallow-tailed Kite’s most notable trait is long forked “swallow tail”. Only slightly larger than the more common Mississippi Kite, the Swallow-tailed Kite is unmistakable for anything else when seen in flight.
More information about Swallow-tailed Kites can be found here: Wikipedia – Swallow-tailed Kite
White-tailed Kites (Elanus leucurus) are almost never seen in the DFW Metroplex. Year round populations exist in far south Texas. Occasionally one will make it way into the metroplex. In 2013 a White-tailed Kite was photographed in North Texas near Lewisville Lake. You can read about that account on this Facebook page: White-tailed Kite at LLELA Lewisville Lake.
More information about White-tailed Kites can be found here: Wikipedia – White-tailed Kite
Eagles – Large, powerfully built birds of prey
When it comes to raptors the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) may be the first bird to come to mind for most people in the United States. Our national symbol, the Bald Eagle has a power and grace that is nothing short of awe inspiring. These large birds of prey are uniformly dark brown in color except for their distinctive white heads and tails. Bright yellow beaks, eyes, and talons round out the Bald Eagle’s distinctive appearance. Juveniles sport a blotchy brown plumage and take up to five years to develop the more familiar look of the adult birds.
Bald Eagles have recently been removed from the endangered species list. The are becoming more abundance and they are expanding their range. Bald Eagles can frequently be seen in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, especially in the winter when many migratory eagles arrive in North Texas. These eagles feed primarily on fish and water fowl, making area lakes and rivers great places to try and see one. We even have some year round resident eagles in the metroplex, and a few breeding pairs. Some of theses eagles finding new ways to adapt to the presence of people.
More information about Bald Eagles can be found here: Wikipedia – Bald Eagle
The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) will not be frequently seen in the North Texas area. This powerful bird of prey is native to the western most part of the continent, and may only occasionally roam into the DFW Metroplex in the winter. Adult birds can somewhat resemble juvenile Bald Eagles, so great care must be taken when identifying this rare vagrant.
More information about Golden Eagles can be found here: Wikipedia – Golden Eagle
Others – Caracaras, Ospreys, and Harriers
Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) are very distinctive looking birds. The caracara is covered in a dark plumage. Its head is colored white with a dark crown. Wing tips and tail feathers are white with fine black striping. The caracara’s legs are long and yellow, and its beak is a pale red tipped with gray. They superficially resemble Bald Eagles and can be mistaken as such under certain viewing conditions.
The Crested Caracaras is becoming more common in the metroplex, as native populations in the south expand their range. Our southern counties provide the best opportunity for seeing a Crested Caracara.
These birds will feed on carrion and can often be found congregating with Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures around the carcass of a dead animal.
More information about Crested Caracaras can be found here: Wikipedia – Crested Caracara
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) are superbly adapted for catching fish. This large raptor also goes by the names sea hawk, fish eagle, river hawk, or fish hawk. These birds become common in the winter around our larger lakes and rivers as northern populations migrate south. We even have a small resident population that can be found in certain locations year round.
As you might suspect, the Osprey’s diet consist almost exclusively of fish. These birds have several special adapations to help them catch fish—long curved talons being the most obvious of these. Further, the Osprey’s outer toe is reversible, which allows these raptors to grasp their slippery prey with two toes in the front and two in the back.
More information about Ospreys can be found here: Wikipedia – Osprey
Northern Harriers are unique raptors with the body of a hawk or falcon and dish-shaped face of owl. Northern Harriers make their way into North Texas during the winter months. Once here they can often be seen hunting low over marshy wetland areas. Harriers feed on any small animal that might be found in habitats like these. Small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are all likely prey for the Northern Harrier.
Males and females of these medium-sized raptors differ in appearance. Females are brown with light undersides. Males also have lightly colored undersides but are slate gray on top and have dark wing tips. Both males and females sport a distinctive white stripe at the base of their tail that is an unmistakeable identifier. Both sexes also have an owlish face which is thought to help funnel sounds to their ears to help them pinpoint prey animals hidden beneath vegetation.
More information about Northern Harriers can be found here: Wikipedia – Northern Harrier