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:
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:
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
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
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.
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.
Updated: Aug 30, 2018