21 Birds of Prey in North Carolina (+ Photo Guides)
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Birds of prey in North Carolina are a diverse group of raptors that inhabit the region. These powerful and often majestic birds play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance. They exhibit a range of sizes, from the large and impressive Bald Eagle to smaller species like the American Kestrel. These birds are top predators in the food chain and are vital indicators of the health of the ecosystem.
Coastal areas, Jordan Lake, Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge
Coastal areas, large rivers and lakes
Spring – Summer
Throughout North Carolina
Spring – Fall
Throughout North Carolina
Spring – Fall
Throughout North Carolina
Spring – Fall
Blue Ridge Parkway, Appalachian Mountains
Spring – Fall
Urban and suburban areas
Spring – Fall
Spring – Fall
Spring – Fall
Great Horned Owl
Throughout North Carolina
Northern Outer Banks during irruption years
American Barn Owl
Spring – Fall
Eastern North Carolina in winter
Spring – Fall
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Throughout North Carolina
Open countryside, especially western North Carolina
Spring – Fall
North Carolina’s Birds of Prey Photo Guides
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Bald Eagle Sound
Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Length: 28–40 in
Wingspan: 5 ft 11 in and 7 ft 7 in
Weight: 6.6 -13.9 lb
The Bald Eagle, primarily found in Canada and Alaska, is instantly identifiable by its white head, dark brown body, yellow beak, and a piercing cry. Its sharp, orange-yellow eyes aid in efficient night hunting.
Predominantly residing in North America, occasionally venturing into Asia and Europe, it thrives near water bodies. It perches atop trees, providing a bird’s-eye view of its prey. It feeds on fish, carrion, small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, and reptiles. Hunting involves a swift downward swoop to seize the prey, carrying it back to the nest.
Bald Eagles are monogamous, forming lifelong pairings. They construct vast nests from sticks, lined with moss or grasses. They typically lay 1-3 eggs annually, which hatch around 35 days later. The fledglings leave the nest roughly 6 weeks after hatching, but continue to rely on their parents for nourishment for a further 5-6 months, until they become proficient hunters.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Peregrine Falcon Sound
Scientific Name: Falco peregrinus
Length: 14.2-19.3 in
Wingspan: 39.4-43.3 in
Weight: 530-1600 g
Known for its blue-gray plumage and unique cheek bars, the Peregrine Falcon stands as a beacon of power and swiftness. Despite its modest size, it reigns as the world’s fastest creature, reaching staggering speeds up to 240 mph during hunting dives.
Its diet mainly includes birds, occasionally bats, caught in an enthralling aerial display of agility and precision. Adapting to diverse habitats, this bird graces every continent except Antarctica, finding home in environments from city skyscrapers to towering cliffs.
Peregrine Falcons, monogamous in nature, often pair for life, expressing their bonds through complex courtship flights filled with intricate aerial maneuvers. They construct simple scrape nests on high ledges, often without adding materials.
Their parenting duties are shared, from egg incubation to feeding and caring for the chicks, ensuring their offspring are ready to take on the skies in their own time.
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
The Red-tailed Hawk is a large bird of prey that is commonly found across North America. This species is part of the genus Buteo, which is often referred to as the “true hawks,” and includes more than two dozen species of raptors.
Red-tailed Hawks have a robust size, ranging from 18 to 26 inches in length and sporting a wingspan that can exceed 4 feet. They have a broad, rounded set of wings and a short, wide red tail. This species is most easily recognized by its rich, rust-colored tail, which gives it its common name. However, juvenile hawks might not yet have this distinctive feature.
Their feathers are generally dark brown on their dorsal side (back) with a lighter, often speckled, ventral side (front). The intensity and pattern of their plumage can vary significantly based on their age and geographic location, as there are about 14 recognized subspecies of Red-tailed Hawks.
As for their diet, Red-tailed Hawks are carnivores and have a broad diet that includes rodents, ground rabbits, reptiles, and other birds. They are skilled hunters that typically sit on high perches and use their keen eyesight to spot potential prey. Once they have identified a target, they swoop down to capture it with their powerful talons.
Red-tailed Hawks mate for life and build nests high off the ground, often in tall trees or on cliff edges. Their nests are made of sticks and can be quite large. They typically lay 1-3 eggs per year, which are incubated by both parents.
Red-tailed Hawk Sound
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
Length: 50–66 cm (19+1⁄2–26 in)
Wingspan: 127–180 cm (50–71 in)
Weight: 0.9–2.1 kg (2 lb 0 oz – 4 lb 10 oz)
The Osprey, a fascinating bird of prey, is universally known for its exceptional hunting prowess and striking physical characteristics. Osprey are dark brown hawks on the upperparts, contrasting beautifully with the predominantly white underparts, and a distinctive dark band that stretches across the eyes towards the sides of its head.
Equipped with specialized talons and a reversible outer toe, the Osprey’s hunting strategy involves a spectacular plunge-dive into bodies of water, often emerging with a fish securely gripped in its claws.
Found on every continent except Antarctica, the Osprey is a cosmopolitan species favoring habitats near water bodies such as lakes, rivers, and coastal areas, reflecting its piscivorous diet. This bird has a diet almost exclusively of fish, making it a unique member of the raptor family and often referred to as the sea hawk or fish hawk. They locate their prey from the air, often hovering before plunging feet-first to capture a fish. When it comes to breeding, Ospreys are monogamous, often mating for life.
They construct large, bulky nests made of sticks, lined with softer materials, and prefer elevated or isolated areas such as treetops or artificial structures like utility poles. Both parents share the responsibility of incubating the eggs and rearing the chicks.
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
The Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey native to North America. Known for its agility and speed, it is part of the Accipitridae hawk species, which also includes other hawks, eagles, and kites.
Cooper’s Hawks are typically about 14 to 20 inches in length, with a wingspan ranging from 27 to 36 inches. They are known for their distinctive long, rounded tails and short, rounded wings. They have a steely blue gray top, with rusty bars on their underparts and thick, dark bands on their tails.
The Cooper’s Hawk is a skilled predator, primarily hunting birds and small mammals. They are adept at hunting in both dense forests and open areas, often catching prey mid-air in high-speed pursuits. They have also been known to visit the backyard bird feeder, not for the seed, but to prey on the smaller birds that gather there.
Cooper’s Hawks often build nests in dense tree canopies where they are well concealed. The female usually lays 3 to 5 eggs, and both parents share incubation duties. The young hawks fledge after about a month but will stay close to the nest, relying on their parents for food as they learn to hunt.
Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
The red-shouldered hawk are medium sized birds of prey, part of the buteo hawks family. It can be distinguished from other hawks by its reddish iris and pale legs.
The adult has rusty red upperparts, white underparts, a black chin and throat, and a reddish brown stripe over each eye, reddish brown heads and a strongly banded tail. The tail is reddish brown with two paler bands across it and they have white checkered wings. Juveniles are brown with dark barring and have pale fringes on the feathers of their wings.
Red-shouldered hawks nest in trees, though they also inhabit manmade structures including barns, bridges, and buildings. They prefer wooded areas with an open canopy but will use other places as well for nesting such as shrubs and hedges if needed.
The red-shouldered hawk’s diet – they eat small mammals such as ground squirrels, rabbits, voles, mice and rats. They also eat birds such as quail, pigeons and doves; reptiles including snakes; amphibians; fish; crustaceans; insects; and carrion (dead animals).
Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)
Broad-winged Hawk Sound
The Broad-winged Hawk holds a commanding presence as one of the largest hawks in the world, known for its broad wings. Its formidable size is a testament to its prowess as a bird of prey, effortlessly navigating the open skies in search of food.
Their distinctive appearance sets them apart. The adults exhibit a striking black and white pattern, complemented by a rusty breast and buff underparts and brown wings. In contrast, juveniles are adorned with a brown plumage, marked by pale edges on their feathers, adding to their distinctive youthful charm.
These hawks are most commonly found in open areas, such as farmlands or grasslands interspersed with scattered trees, which provide optimal conditions for when hawks hunt.
When it comes to their diet, Broad-winged Hawks feed on small rodents like mice, rats, squirrels, rabbits, and voles. Broad winged hawks breed during the spring and summer months then migrate to central and south America.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Great Horned Owl Sound
Scientific Name:Bubo virginianus
Length: 18.1-24.8 in
Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in
Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
The Great Horned Owl is a large owl with long wings and a large head. It’s one of the most common owls in North America.
Great Horned Owls are large, stocky birds with soft feathers that are gray to brown on their backs and white on their chests. Their faces are characterized by two black “ear” tufts, which can be raised or flattened depending on the owl’s mood. The eyes are yellow, orange, or red in color.
The habitat of the Great Horned Owl is a variety of different environments such as forests and deserts. They also live near water sources such as lakes, streams and rivers where they can hunt for fish.
The diet of the Great Horned Owl consists primarily of small mammals such as mice and rats; however they will also eat other rodents such as squirrels, rabbits and porcupines. They have been known to eat skunks too.
Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Barred Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Strix varia
Length: 40 to 63 cm (16 to 25 in)
Wingspan: 96 to 125 cm (38 to 49 in)
Weight: 468 to 1,150 g
The Barred Owl is a medium-sized owl with a barred pattern on its chest and belly. They have large yellow eyes that allow them to see well in low light conditions. Their ears are not very large which means they do not hear very well but they have excellent hearing abilities which allow them to detect sounds up to 1 mile away. Their feathers are brown and streaked with white, and they have black bars on their chests and wings.
Their habitats include forests, woodlands, orchards, parks, farmland and suburban backyards.
Barred Owls (also known as hoot owl) eat small mammals such as mice, rats and squirrels. They also eat insects such as beetles or grasshoppers. These owls hunt during the day when it is light out so that they can see their prey better than at night when they would be using senses other than sight like sound or smell to find their food source.
Barred owls are monogamous birds which means they mate for life. They build nests in trees or cavities on the ground and lay 2-4 eggs per year. The incubation period for these eggs lasts about 28 days before hatching takes place.
Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Snowy owl Sound
Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
Length: 20.7 to 28 in
Wingspan: 3 ft 10 in to 6 ft 0 in
Weight: 3.2lb to 5.3lb
The Snowy Owl, is of the most well-known species of owls, the Snowy Owl is renowned for its striking appearance and adaptations to its extreme environment.
Snowy Owls are medium sized birds that possess a rounded head, yellow eyes, and a black beak. The most distinctive feature of the Snowy Owl is its white plumage, which provides effective camouflage in its snowy habitat. Male Snowy Owls are often almost completely white, while females and younger owls have more extensive dark barring on their plumage.
Unlike many owl species, Snowy Owls are primarily diurnal, which means they are active during the day. This is an adaptation to life in the Arctic, where there can be 24 hours of daylight in the summer. Their diet mainly consists of small mammals, particularly lemmings, but they are known to eat a variety of animals including birds, fish, and even carrion when necessary.
Snowy Owls nest on the ground, usually on a mound or boulder. Their breeding success is closely tied to the availability of food, and in good years a single pair of owls can raise a large brood of chicks.
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
American Kestrel Sound
Scientific Name: Falco sparverius
Length: 8.7 to 12.2 in
Wingspan: 20–24 in
Weight: 3.0–5.8 oz
The American Kestrel, often recognized as the smallest and most brightly colored falcon in North America, exhibits a stunning array of rufous, blue and gray hues in its plumage. This bird, ranging in size from a mere 22 to 31 cm, carries distinct black facial markings that contrast with its white cheeks and has blue gray wings. Despite its small stature, the American Kestrel is a formidable predator, employing a unique hunting strategy that involves hovering at a height before swooping down on prey, primarily consisting of insects, small mammals, and occasionally small birds.
Residing predominantly in North and South America, the American Kestrel exhibits a preference for open habitats such as meadows, grasslands, and deserts. They are also found in both urban and suburban environments, nesting in cavities in trees, cliffs, buildings, and other structures. Kestrels are monogamous, with both sexes participating in the courtship displays that involve aerial acrobatics and feeding rituals. Nesting duties are a shared responsibility, with the male initially scouting for suitable locations and the female making the final selection. Both parents contribute to the incubation of the eggs and care of the young, ensuring the perpetuation of this captivating species.
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Northern Saw-whet Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
Length: 17–22 cm (6.7–8.7 in)
Wingspan: 42–56.3 cm (16.5–22.2 in)
Weight: 54 to 151 g (1.9 to 5.3 oz)
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a tiny, speckled gray owl and it’s one of the smallest owls in North America. It’s also known as the Little Owl or Wood Owl in some areas.
Northern Saw-whet Owls have dark brown eyes, white eyebrows, and yellow beak. It has brownish-grey feathers that are spotted with white. The owl’s legs are covered in feathers and appear nearly invisible when the bird is perched on a branch or tree.
In the winter they migrate south to warmer climates. They prefer to live in dense coniferous forest with large trees but will occasionally nest in shrubs or other vegetation that can protect them from predators.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl eats mice and voles (small rodents), small birds, frogs, salamanders, moles and shrews, but unlike most owls they chop their prey up and spread over a few meals. They will also eat insects like beetles and grasshoppers if they are available. It hunts from a perch at night using its excellent hearing to locate prey items within about 30 feet (9 meters) of its nest.
These owls nest in tree cavities usually located close to water sources such as lakes or rivers where they can find their food source (insects). They lay 2-4 eggs at one time which incubate for about 30 days before hatching.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Short-eared Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
Length: 13–17 in
Wingspan: 33 to 43 in
Weight: 7.3–16.8 oz
The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl species with a wide distribution, found across North and South America, Europe, Asia, and many Pacific islands. Despite its name, the “ears” of the Short-eared Owl are not often visible, as they are small and tend to blend with the bird’s feathers.
The owls are predominantly brown with buff and white accents throughout their body and wings, and dark patches around their yellow eyes.
Short-eared Owls diet consists largely of small mammals, especially voles. However, they are opportunistic hunters and will also prey on a variety of other animals, including other birds, when available.
Their habitat is characterized by open areas like grasslands, marshes, and tundra. They nest on the ground, which is unusual for owls, and this makes them vulnerable to ground predators. As such, they often live in areas with tall grasses or other ground cover for protection.
Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio)
Eastern Screech-Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Megascops asio
Length: 6 to 10 in
Wingspan: 8 to 24 in
Weight: 4 – 8.5 oz
The Eastern Screech-Owl is a small owl species native to most wooded environments of the eastern half of North America, from the Canadian provinces to Florida and Texas.
Eastern Screech-Owls are relatively small and exhibit a complex pattern of gray or reddish-brown coloration, which provides excellent camouflage against tree bark.
These owls are known for their distinctive call, which is often described as a haunting trill or a whinny-like sound. Despite their name, they do not actually produce a “screech.”
Eastern Screech-Owls feed on a variety of prey, ranging from small mammals and birds to insects and even earthworms. It is primarily nocturnal, hunting at night from a low perch and swooping down onto prey.
Eastern Screech-Owls nest in tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker nests, but they readily adapt to nesting boxes where natural cavities are not available. They typically lay between 2 to 6 eggs, which are incubated primarily by the female.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Barn Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Tyto alba
Length: 13 to 15 in
Wingspan: 31 to 37 in
Weight: 9.2 oz
The Barn Owl is a widespread species of owl known for its distinctive heart-shaped facial disc.
Barn Owls are medium-sized owls, they are pale overall with golden-brown wings and back, contrasted by a white face, chest, and belly. Their most notable feature is their heart-shaped facial disc, which helps channel sound to their ears.
Barn Owls are typically found in open habitats, including farmland, woodland, and marshes. They are named for their habit of nesting in human structures such as barns, church towers, and in the hollows of large trees. These owls are nocturnal, hunting at night and roosting during the day.
The diet of Barn Owls primarily consists of small mammals, particularly rodents such as mice and rats. They are known for their silent flight, which allows them to sneak up on their prey without detection.
Barn Owls have a unique nesting behavior. They do not build nests, but instead, lay their eggs directly on the bare surface of a secluded ledge or cavity. A female typically lays 4-7 eggs, and both parents help incubate the eggs and care for the chicks.
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
The adult bird is brown on top and white underneath, with a dark brown band across its chest. It has short, rounded wings and a long tail that makes it look larger than it actually is. Adult sharp shinned hawks have black eyes, which are surrounded by white feathers. The female Sharp-shinned Hawk is browner than the male, who has darker brown markings on his back.
Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer open country for their habitat, including fields and meadows where they can hunt for mice and other small animals. They can be found throughout the United States but are most common in the east.
Sharp-shinned Hawks eat mostly small birds, such as sparrows and warblers, as well as small mammals such as mice and gophers. They catch prey by surprise using their incredible speed and agility, diving out of the sky at speeds up to 200 mph.
Sharp-shinned Hawks have an unusual hunting style for hawks—they prefer to catch their prey from perches above trees or telephone wires, rather than swooping down from above like most other hawks do and can often be seen hunting near bird feeders.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Turkey Vulture Sound
Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
Length: 24–32 in
Wingspan: 63–72 in
Weight: 1.8 to 5.3 lb
Turkey vultures are large birds that are easily recognizable by their bald heads, which are black in coloration, and by the patch of red skin below their beaks. It is white with black spots on the wings and tail. It has a bald head and a hooked beak that is black in coloration.
Turkey vultures live in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. They can be found in deserts, grasslands, forests and swamps. Turkey vultures are found throughout North America and parts of Central America and South America. In the U.S., they can be found across the country, but most commonly in the southwest region.
Turkey vultures eat carrion—dead animals’ remains such as dead deer, sheep, cows, horses and other large mammals that have been killed by other predators, such as coyotes or foxes. They do not hunt live prey.
The Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
Black Vulture Sound
Scientific Name: Coragyps atratus
Length: 22–29 in
Wingspan: 52–66 in
Weight: 3.5 to 6.6 lb
The Black Vulture is easily recognizable by their black plumage, short, square tail, and their bald black head.
These birds are scavengers and play a vital role in the ecosystem by feeding primarily on carrion (dead animals). They are known to occasionally kill smaller, weakened animals, but such behavior is not the norm. Black Vultures locate food using their excellent sense of sight and by following other vultures.
Unlike most birds, Black Vultures are not known to build traditional nests. Instead, they lay their eggs in sheltered areas like hollow trees, abandoned buildings, or thickets. They typically lay two eggs, and both parents will incubate and care for the chicks.
Black Vultures are social birds that are often seen in large groups. They roost together in large numbers and are known to even forage in groups. They can often be seen soaring on thermals during the day, hardly flapping their wings, while looking for food.
Where to Spot North Carolina’s Birds of Prey
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge: Located on the Outer Banks, this refuge offers ample opportunities to spot a variety of birds of prey, including Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, and Barred Owls especially during breeding season. The wetland habitat and vast wilderness areas make it an ideal spot for bird watching.
Pisgah National Forest: This expansive forest in the Appalachian Mountains is home to a range of raptors such as Cooper’s Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, and Northern Goshawks. Its diverse elevation range and forest types provide numerous habitats for these birds.
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area: Located near Chapel Hill, this large reservoir is an excellent place to see Bald Eagles and Ospreys, particularly near the water where they fish. Red-tailed Hawks can also often be spotted in the area.
Hanging Rock State Park: Nestled in the Sauratown Mountains, this state park provides habitats for a variety of birds of prey including Broad-winged Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Barred Owls. The park’s rocky peaks and woodland areas offer spectacular birdwatching opportunities.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, the park offers birdwatchers an opportunity to see a diverse range of raptors, including Peregrine Falcons, Broad-winged Hawks, and Northern Saw-whet Owls. The park’s varied elevations and habitats attract a wide range of species.