They are characterised by their sharp talons, keen eyesight and hooked bills and they make for a breath-taking sight as they soar over the landscape and swoop in on their quarry.
Birds of prey have lived on British shores for millennia, though their numbers have been decimated in recent centuries due to hunting, habit displacement and a variety of other factors. However, concerted efforts have been made to re-establish them in the wild, meaning that today the UK boasts an enviable number of different species.
Have you spotted a bird of prey near you recently? With so many out there, it can be difficult to know exactly which species you’ve seen. This handy guide should give you a bit of background knowledge to some of the more common birds in Britain (and some of the rarer ones, too!) to help you confidently identify them in the future.
Common birds of prey
As the name suggests, the common buzzard is the most widespread bird of prey found in the UK. They can be spotted across the whole of the nation, soaring above moorlands and pastures or even posing for pictures atop fence posts in small villages and towns, though their populations are most densely concentrated in the Lake District, Scotland, southwest England and Wales.
They can be identified by their medium to large size, broad wingspan and short, fanned tail feathers. Although they’re invariably brown in colour, the exact shade can differ quite significantly, though their wingtips are always a darker hue and their legs are yellow, while their black beaks have a yellow cere as well. Their call is mewling and plaintive and can be mistaken for that of a cat.
Their favoured food consists of small mammals, such as mice, rabbits and voles, but they’re far from fussy – they’ll also gobble up amphibians, insects, reptiles and even their fellow birds. They usually nest between March and May, with each female laying up to five eggs at a time.
The Eurasian sparrowhawk is the bird of prey most likely to pay a visit to your back garden. Despite their roving tendencies, however, these diminutive raptors still keep themselves to themselves and can be difficult to spot in amongst the foliage.
The male and the female vary dramatically in their appearance. The former has blue or grey feathers on their upper body, while their underbelly is white flecked with reddish-brown. The latter, on the other hand, have dark brown wings and backs, with a white breast barred by brown. Both have yellow feet and eyes, with black beaks fringed with a yellow cere.
They feed mainly on songbirds, with up to 120 different species recorded as their prey, but will also eat small mammals such as hares, rabbits and rodents. Their nests generally contain between two and seven eggs and they reach full maturity in as little as a year.
These small birds have adapted remarkably well to the urbanisation of the UK and can be spotted frequently even in larger towns and cities. Having said that, they are still most comfortable in grasslands and heathlands and can be seen hovering by roadside verges.
Their lengthy tail and pointed wings are probably their most distinguishing feature, but the males can also be identified by their grey heads and chestnut-coloured plumage speckled with dark brown. The females are slightly larger and darker, with bars and streaks instead of spots and a darker crown.
The diet of a kestrel consists primarily of small mammals like mice, shrews and voles, but they also eat invertebrates such as beetles, grasshoppers and worms, as well as other small birds.
Perhaps the most graceful and eye-catching birds of prey in Britain, the red kite was on the brink of extinction before being saved by one of the longest-running conservation programmes in the world. It has now been successfully reintroduced into both England and Scotland, as well as having significant populations in Wales.
Easily identifiable, the red kite has reddish-brown feathers with a white head and dark streaks throughout. Their underside is a paler version of their back and their wings have large swathes of white, fading into dark tips. Their most distinctive feature is their forked tail.
Red kites eat a wide variety of other species, including mammals such as mice, shrews and weasels, birds including pigeons and magpies and amphibians such as frogs and lizards, as well as fish and worms (especially in the springtime). They mate for life, return to the same nest each spring and lay between one and four eggs at a time.
The most widespread owl in the UK, the barn owl is frequently spotted in the countryside, near farmlands and grasslands. For the best chance of seeing one, head out at dusk and keep your eyes fixed on the horizon, since barn owls hover over the earth while scouring for prey, before diving sharply to catch it.
Their white, heart-shaped faces make them instantly recognisable, while their dazzling white undersides and pale upper plumage complete the impressive aesthetic. They’re smaller than tawny owls in size and have black eyes and talons, with pink or grey feet.
The vast majority of a barn owl’s diet will consist of woodland rodents, including mice, rats and voles, but they also devour small birds and amphibians. They swallow their prey whole and regurgitate what cannot be digested in black pellets. They breed in April and lay up to seven eggs at a time in one or two clutches per year.
Another common owl species, tawnies can be found throughout the British Isles, although they do not enjoy flying over water which means that some islands do not have any populations. They are larger than barn owls and have stocky bodies topped by round heads.
In terms of plumage, tawny owls are far darker than barn owls. They are characterised by reddish-brown (and sometimes grey) feathers, with a lighter colouring on their face and mottled brown on their upperparts. They have dark eyes, pale yellow bills and grey feet.
Tawny owls are mainly nocturnal animals, hunting small mammals such as rabbits, rodents and shrews at night-time, as well as some fish, insects, reptiles and amphibians. They often nest in the abandoned nests of other birds or otherwise in the natural hollow of a tree trunk, laying up to six eggs at a time. Their young fend for themselves after as little as three months.
Rarer species in the UK
One of the largest birds of prey in the UK, the golden eagle is sight to behold when it’s in full flight – especially on the rare occasions that it chases another bird in the air. You’ll be lucky enough to see one at any time, though, with the most common sightings occurring in Scotland or isolated parts of the northwest of England.
You’ll most likely recognise a golden eagle due to the sheer size of the bird – its broad wings can reach over two metres when fully extended. Its body is various shades of dark brown, with a paler grey hue to the middle of its wings succumbing to a dark brown or black at the tips. Its face is generally a slightly lighter shade of brown (especially on the crown), while the yellow feet have strong, curved talons.
Golden eagles will feed on all manner of creatures, from mice, rabbits and foxes to snakes and wildfowl. They are also carrion feeders when an opportunity presents itself. They breed from the beginning of May, using the same nest each year and furnishing it with new material every time, creating eyries of up to 3m in diameter. Two eggs is the normal yield, though they can lay up to four, with the youngest often being killed by its older siblings.
Famously the fastest animal on the planet, the peregrine falcon can exceed 200mph when diving to catch its prey. It favours coastal cliffs areas and although it used to be found exclusively in Scotland and other northern regions of the UK, it can be spotted in more south-westerly locations in recent years, as well as even in the spires of some churches!
The peregrine falcon has a black head with a black beak and eyes rimmed by yellow, as well as yellow feet. The area around its neck and upper breast is a cream or slate-grey colour, while its underbelly is white or light grey flecked with black and its upperparts are darker, generally with black and white barring on their pointed wings. On occasion, you may find specimens with blue-grey plumage instead of dark brown.
Using their incredible speed, peregrine falcons hunt smaller birds at dawn and dusk, plucking them clean of all feathers before devouring them. They lay three to five eggs in the same nest each year and their young become fully independent when six months old.
Western marsh harrier
The largest of all European harriers, the Western marsh harrier is found mainly in the east and southeast of England. They can be spotted year-round over ground near water sources, such as wetlands, reed beds or marshy areas.
Bodily, they are quite large in size and have a chestnut underbelly, flecked with white. Their heads are rust-coloured, their necks are streaked with dark brown and they have bluey-grey wings. They have yellow eyes and talons, with a black beak ringed by a yellow cere.
Their favoured habitats supply marsh harriers with plenty of frogs, lizards and snakes to feed upon, while their diet also includes smaller birds and mammals. They breed at the beginning of April, laying up to eight eggs in a nest crafted atop a reed bed.
Hen harriers are smaller and rarer than their Western marsh counterparts, preferring open upland moorland with little vegetation. During breeding season (i.e. the warmer months) they can be found on heathlands in all four home nations, but they migrate to the coast when winter arrives.
The males and females differ quite strongly in appearance. Males have dark grey heads, bluish-grey upper feathers and whitish-grey under ones, while their grey wings are tipped with black. The females have brown heads, golden brown upper feathers and paler undercarriages, while the underside of their feathers is checked in brown and grey. Both have yellow eyes, beaks and feet.
Interestingly, hen harriers are one of the only birds of prey to practice polygyny, meaning that one male may have several female mates. They feed on mostly small mammals but will also eat eggs, birds, insects and reptiles. They lay up to eight eggs at a time and fledge after five weeks, but don’t reach sexual maturity for around two years.
European honey buzzard
Similar in size to the common buzzard, the European honey buzzard is far trickier to spot. They can be found in the extremes of the country – either in the north of the Scotland, the east or south of England or the western periphery of Wales.
Their plumage varies hugely depending on the age of the bird in question, but adults are reddish-brown in colour with dark barring on their tails and lighter barring on their wings. The females can be distinguished from the males by their darker crowns and upperparts, while both have yellow feet, eyes and ceres on a black beak.
As the name suggests, the honey buzzard feasts upon bees, wasps and their larvae and have a special chemical coating to their plumage which prevents them from being stung. They supplement their diet with spiders, worms, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians and will even eat berries and other fruit. They nest in the same tree each year and lay up to three eggs at once.
The Latin name for goshawk means “gentle hawk”, but spot one up close and you might have second thoughts about such a moniker. That’s because its distinctive red eyes and imperious expression suggests it’s perhaps anything but gentle.
Of course, you’ll be very lucky to get such an intimate audience with one and it’s far more likely you’ll spot a goshawk flying over wooded areas in any part of the country. They can be identified by the strong dark barring which covers the pale grey plumage of their undersides. Their backs are brownish grey, while their black heads have a distinctive white stripe. The females have eyes that are more yellow than the bright red of their male counterparts.
They largely feed on smaller birds, but are also happy to eat lizards, hares, rabbits and rats. They will alternate between different nests in the same territory year to year, laying as many as four eggs at one time. Their young are generally independent within 12 weeks of hatching.