Nature Bulletin No. 166-A October 24, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
The birds of prey that fly and hunt in daytime are classified in eight
distinctive families: the Vultures, popularly known as "buzzards" in
this country; the Kites; the Accipiters or "bird hawks"; the Buteos or
"buzzard hawks"; the Eagles; the Harriers; the Osprey or "fish hawk";
and the Falcons.
Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds observes that in
England the only species called "hawks" are the short-winged long-
tailed Accipiters such as our goshawk, Cooper's hawk and sharp-
shinned hawk -- swift fliers that prey largely on birds, The English
have special names for the streamlined Falcons: the duck hawk is a
Peregrine, the pigeon hawk is a Merlin, and the sparrow hawk is a
Kestrel. The broad-winged Buteos that habitually soar in wide circles,
as vultures do, are commonly called "buzzards".
Unfortunately, the American colonists abandoned most of those
English names. They continued to call the Accipiters "hawks", but
used that word also in their names for the Falcons and, most
regrettably, for several highly beneficial species. Our Harrier became
the marsh hawk and those "flying mousetraps", the Buteos, likewise
became hawks with descriptive names such as red-tailed and red-
Some of them, however, were better known as "hen hawks" or"
chicken hawks" and had a bad reputation. They were unjustly blamed
for many depredations upon poultry, upland game birds and
waterfowl, which, actually, had been made by Accipiters and the duck
hawk. Now Buteos are properly protected but until then they were
remorselessly killed by farmers and hunters.
The Buteos are bigger than other hawks and the females are usually
much larger than the males. They have broad wings which enable
them to take advantage of updrafts or favorable winds and soar in wide
drifting circles. Their tails are shorter, broader and more rounded than
those of other hawks. Like all birds of prey, they have heavy hooked
beaks for tearing flesh apart, and telescopic vision so keen that they
can discover food, far below, when high in the air. Like all birds of
prey except the vultures, they have strong curved talons for grasping a
The Red-tailed Hawk is the one most commonly seen here in the
summer months, high in the air, sailing slowly on set wings. It is a
large heavy bird -- chunkier, with wider wings and a shorter, more
rounded tail than the Red-shouldered Hawk. The tail is whitish
underneath and reddish above. Apparently they mate for life. The nest,
used and added to year after year, is built high in a tall tree. Their food
is principally mice, gophers, rabbits, snakes and large insects such as
grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.
The Red-shouldered Hawk has similar habits of soaring, mating and
nesting. They differ underneath in having dark bands across the tail
and, usually, a whitish patch or "window" near the wing tips. The
adults have rufous shoulders. Of all hawks, this is rated as the most
valuable destroyer of mice, other rodents, and injurious insects.
The Broad-winged hawk is chunky but considerably smaller than those
two species. Its stubby tail has alternating white and black bands
underneath. This hawk is partial to deep woods and seldom soars.
They feed on small mammals, snakes and large insects -- especially
The Rough-legged Hawk is a winter visitant from Arctic regions. It is
larger than most hawks, with longer wings and a longer tail that is
white except for a black band on the end.
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Update: June 2012