HAWKS AND EAGLES – Accipitridae



This large family includes raptors (RAP-ters), birds of prey, of many shapes and sizes. One of the smallest species is the South American pearl kite that weighs less than 3.5 ounces (100 grams). At the other end is the Himalayan vulture weighing 26 pounds (12.5 kilograms). Raptors have keen eyesight and strong flight feathers.

Most of these raptors hunt during the day, and they kill the animals they eat. They can grab and kill prey with their curved talons (TAL-unz), claws, and tear meat with their hooked beaks. The Old World vultures from Europe, Asia, and Africa are the exception—they have weaker feet than the other birds in this family, and most of them are not able to kill the animals they eat.

Male and female raptors usually look alike, but the females are larger than the males. The birds’ feathers are mostly gray, brown, or black, and some have lighter-colored chests, often with brown spots or streaks.


Hawks and eagles are found on all continents except Antarctica.


Sea eagles catch fish along coasts, but most raptors are land birds. They live in every kind of land habitat, including the tundra of the Far North, forests, wetlands, deserts, grasslands, mountains, and farmlands. They can also live in towns and cities with parks.


All hawks and eagles are carnivorous, meat eaters, and, except for vultures, they eat only freshly caught prey. Most of them eat any animal they can catch, but some have very special diets. For example, crab hawks eat crabs found in mangrove forests, snail kites eat snails, and ospreys eat fish.


The hawks with short wings and long tails are good at flying among the trees. Those with long, broad wings and broad tails are soaring birds that ride the air current to great heights. Some hawks, especially those that breed in cool climates, migrate long distances in fall and spring. Others live year round in their breeding areas.

Most raptors defend a breeding territory from other birds of their species, and they usually build their nests out of sticks. Large hawks and eagles lay one or two eggs, and the smaller species lay three or more. After the chicks can fly, they depend on their parents for several more weeks while they gradually learn to hunt.


Thousands of years ago, hawks and eagles were admired for their hunting skills and were even thought of as messengers of the gods. As early as 4,000 years ago, captive hawks were used as hunters to catch rabbits and other animals for their trainers. In modern times, some people kill hawks that are suspected of harming farm animals, but many other people enjoy watching them in their local habitats and on their long migrations.


Of the 236 species of Accipitridae, nine are listed as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, and four as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. Another forty-five are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, or Near Threatened, close to being threatened with extinction. Habitat loss is the main reason these birds are in trouble. In many countries, hawks and eagles are protected by law, and conservationists are doing what they can to preserve the habitats that these birds need.