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Large Hawks & Eagles

Size and shape comparison of buteo and accipiter hawks, and falcon


Raptor families

Alberta's hawks and eagles belong to one family of raptors, or birds of prey, named Accipitridae. Within this family, biologists recognize three groups of species occurring in Alberta:

  • Heavy-bodied hawks (buteos) and eagles
  • Northern harriers
  • Woodland hawks (accipiters)

The buteos, eagles and the northern harrier are presented here along with birds from the following two families:

  • Family Cathartidae – turkey vultures
  • Family Pandionidae – ospreys

The Accipiters, or woodland hawks, are presented with the falcons at:

Species characteristics

All raptors have strong, hooked beaks for tearing flesh, and strong feet and talons for grasping and holding prey. In most species, females are larger than males.

Buteos: the large hawks

Buteos are large hawks with broad, rounded wings and tails. They are adapted for flying over open areas, and are often seen soaring above fields and woods. Most large hawks spend much of their time perched on tall trees or poles.

Large hawk species found in Alberta include:


Eagles are larger than buteo hawks, with some having wingspreads up to 2.5 metres (8 feet). Wide color variation in each species of hawk and eagle often makes identification difficult. Juvenile plumages often differ from those of adults.

Eagle species found in Alberta include:

Northern harriers

The northern harrier is the only North American representative of a group of hawks called 'harriers.' This hawk is similar in size to many buteos but is distinguished by its long tail and long, narrow wings. It is often seen gliding low over the ground.

Turkey vultures

The turkey vulture is a large raptor with long wings and a bare, unfeathered head. It is the only member of the American vulture family (Cathartidae) that occurs in Canada . While soaring, it is distinguished from the eagle by its V-shaped wing placement.


The osprey is the only member of the fish hawk family (Pandionidae) in the world. It has long legs and talons, as well as tiny spines on the bottom of its feet for holding slippery fish.

Lifestyle and Habits

Large hawks and eagles

Large hawks and eagles are generally more visible to an observer than are accipiters, or woodland hawks. They hunt from high in the air, swooping down on prey in open areas. Their broad wings enable them to soar for long periods of time, using thermal updrafts of air.

In addition, their keen eyesight allows them to hunt over large areas from great heights. Hawks and eagles kill and carry their prey with their large feet and talons.


The fish-eating osprey hunts over areas of shallow water. It watches for movement in the water, suddenly dives and returns with a fish in its talons. The fish is carried with its head forward to reduce air resistance in flight.

Turkey vultures

Unlike hawks and eagles, the turkey vulture does not usually kill its own food. It is a carrion eater that feeds on the carcasses of animals killed by predators or found dead from other causes. Vultures, therefore, do not possess the long, sharp talons of hunting birds.


Like many other species of birds that breed in Alberta, most species of large hawks and eagles migrate in winter to areas where food is more easily obtained. Most species migrate out of Alberta in winter. However, bald and golden eagles occasionally overwinter in areas of the province.

Unlike most migratory birds, hawks and eagles are not designed for prolonged, flapping flight. Their wide wings and broad tails are adapted for soaring on rising air currents. For this reason, migration routes of many hawks and eagles generally follow mountain ridges where such updrafts are common.

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Updated: Aug 30, 2018