What are Birds of Prey?

what are birds of preyThe term birds of prey is a common term used by ornithologists and birders for the scientific avian Orders Falconiformes and Strigiformes. All of these birds, despite being placed in different scientific orders for having very different anatomical features, do share some basic physical features and hunting behaviors. These similarities even had them placed in a single scientific order, the Falconiformes, for over 100 years. They all have hooked beaks for tearing meat, long sharp talons with exceptionally strong leg and foot muscles and tendons to grab, hang on to, and kill large prey most are obligate carnivores. Typically males are smaller than the females. Birds of prey and raptor are synonymous terms.

Essentially, the answer to what are birds of prey is that they are birds that hunt prey from the air and capture and kill the prey with their feet.


Falconiformes include osprey, hawks, falcons, vultures, eagles, caracaras, and several other similar birds. These are diurnal birds with great variation in size, wing shape, and diets. For example, falcons have sharply tapered wings for fast flight, a needed adaptation as many falcons eat equally fast insects and birds. Hawks have broader wings and tend to favor rodents and rabbits.


Stigiformes include all owls. All are nocturnal or crepuscular, preferring to hunt at night or at dawn and dusk. All have soft feathers the make no sound when flying. Their superpower is found in their ears. Most owls’ ears are asymmetrical, meaning one ear is slightly higher than the other ear. This, combined with a well developed sense of hearing, facial disk that directs sound to the ears, and silent flight gives them to ability to hunt by just listening to a small mammal running across a field. The barn owl may be the king of hunting by ear. If that mammal is hidden under snow or plants, the barn owl will find it and capture it without ever seeing it.

Smallest Bird of Prey

Falcons come in as record holders for the smallest birds of prey. The Philippine falconet (Microhierax erythrogenys), native to the Philippines and surrounding islands, is about the size of a parakeet. At about 5 to 6 inches long and 1.5 ounces, it’s the smallest bird of prey in the world. The American kestrel, found in all parts of the U.S., Mexico, and most of Canada, at nearly three times the weight of the Philippine falconet is the U.S.’s smallest bird of prey.

Biggest Bird of Prey

Biggest bird of prey

A male Andean condor

The award for biggest bird of prey goes to the Andean condor with a wingspan of 9.5 feet reports Ornithology and length from beak to tail of 47 inches. This bird can weigh up to 31 pounds. The Andean condor’s native range extends along most of the coast of South America. The biggest bird of prey in the U.S. is the California condor, a 23 pound bird with a length of 46 inches reports The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, making it a close second to the Andean condor.

What are Birds of Prey Jobs

There are a number of jobs in wildlife that would allow you to focus on raptors. Ornithologists, those that research only birds, biologists, and zoologists make the study and conservation of raptors the focus of their career. Become a zookeeper and you can care for birds of prey hands-on while educating the public about their natural history and conservation issues. Falconry and hawking, historically a sport involving hunting with raptors, has been turned into a career by many master falconers.


  1. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web
  2. The Auk: Philippine Birds of Prey: Interrelations Among Habitat, Morphology, and Behavior, 1998

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