21 Types Of BIRDS OF PREY In North Carolina (Guide With Photos)
Did you recently come across a bird of prey in North Carolina, and want to know what species it was?
Identifying raptors in the Old North State is not as easy as it might seem, since there are many birds of prey that regularly occur in North Carolina.
To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the most common birds of prey of North Carolina in this article.
What are the types of birds of prey in North Carolina?
The 21 types of birds of prey found in North Carolina are:
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Sharp-shinned Hawk
- Cooper’s Hawk
- Red-shouldered Hawk
- Broad-winged Hawk
- Rough-legged Hawk
- Northern Harrier
- Swallow-tailed Kite
- Bald Eagle
- Golden Eagle
- American Kestrel
- Peregrine Falcon
- Turkey Vulture
- Black Vulture
- Great Horned Owl
- Barn Owl
- Long-eared Owl
- Short-eared Owl
- Barred Owl
- Eastern Screech-owl
- Northern Saw-whet Owl
Note that this list includes both diurnal birds of prey (hawks, eagles, falcons, harriers, and vultures), as well as nocturnal birds of prey (owls).
While many of these birds of prey are found all year in North Carolina, a number of them only occur in the state only during the breeding season in summer.
Yet other raptor species are winter visitors to North Carolina, and a few are vagrants that only rarely occur in the state (more on that below).
Now let’s dive into the details, and take a closer look at each of these raptors in North Carolina:
Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
With a wingspan of up to 52 in (4.5 ft), the Red-tailed Hawk is one of the larger types of hawks in North Carolina.
It has variable coloration, ranging from dark brown to almost entirely white, but can be readily recognized by its rusty red tail.
This large hawk is common in open grassland and also in cities. It is most often seen perched on roadside posts or fences, waiting for prey.
The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most common hawk species in North Carolina, and this hawk can be found year-round throughout the Old North State.
This bird of prey feeds on rodents and other small animals that it catches by swooping down from its perch when they venture out into the open.
Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
From the largest to the smallest hawk on the list, the sharp-shinned hawk is most commonly seen stalking song birds, making them a regular sight in backyards in the state.
With blue-gray wings and back, and with orange feather patterns on their chests, these hawks are recognizable by their small size, agility, and long tail.
Sharp-Shinned Hawks are common breeding birds in western North Carolina, and during winter they are joined by individuals that migrate south from Canada, which can be seen all over the state.
Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
This little North Carolina hawk is agile and skillful when it comes to catching small birds in flight. Sometimes it will even take species that are larger than itself.
Male Cooper’s Hawks have reddish-orange bars on their underside, while their upperparts are grayish-blue. The piercing eyes are vermillion red.
You’re most likely to notice the orange coloration on the chest and underside of a Cooper’s Hawk if you can observe it perched on a branch.
The long banded tail and small, rounded wings of the Cooper’s Hawk make it possible for this bird of prey to perform sharp turns and quick maneuvers in the thick foliage of dense forests and shrubs.
While Cooper’s Hawks were originally shy woodland raptors, they are now commonly found in urban areas such as Raleigh and Durham, where they hunt doves and songbirds.
It is not unusual for a Cooper’s Hawk to show up around bird feeders, where it tries to surprise and ambush feeding songbirds with a lightning fast dash from a hidden perch.
It is a summer visitor in the northern parts of North Carolina, but it can be found year-round in southern North Carolina.
Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
The Red-shouldered Hawk has two distinct populations – one in the eastern US, and another in California and Mexico.
The two populations are separated by more than 1000 miles, and thus rarely mix.
In North Carolina the Red-shouldered Hawk is found in lowland forests throughout the state. It favors mature woods interspersed with water.
The northern North Carolina population of the Red-shouldered Hawk is migratory, while the southern population is non-migratory.
In fact, adult hawks stay in their nesting territories all year round in south North Carolina.
Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
The Broad-winged Hawk is a long distance migratory species that spends the winter in South America.
During fall migration, it’s not uncommon to see flocks (also known as “kettles”) of Broad-winged Hawks soaring together to take advantage of thermal currents on their way south.
The Broad-winged Hawk is a common breeding bird throughout North Carolina.
The preferred habitats of these medium-sized birds are extended forests, where the best way to detect them is by listening to their whistling call.
Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
The Rough-legged Hawk breed in the arctic tundra in northern Canada and Alaska, but can be seen wintering in large parts of the USA during the cold months.
This hawk is a rare winter visitor in North Carolina, where it can be seen from October through March, and favors open habitats such as farmland, pastures and marshland.
Its preferred foraging tactic is to hunt from a perch, such as a fence post or telephone pole, though it also hovers on occasion, similar to a kestrel.
This is a large buteo hawk (which is also called Rough-legged Buzzard), and is best identified by its dark brown belly, which contrasts with the white underside of its wings and tail.
Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
The Northern Harrier has its breeding grounds in the northern parts of North America, but spends the winter in the southern USA and Central America.
This harrier is a regular winter bird in North Carolina from October through April, and frequents open grassland and marshes as its habitat of choice.
Harriers are easily identified by their behavior. Their foraging tactic is to fly slowly close to the ground, in order to pounce on any rodent caught in the open outside its burrow.
Scientific name: Elanoides forficatus
The Swallow-tailed Kite is a rare summer visitor in North Carolina, and most of the individuals observed in the state are non-breeding birds.
However, in recent years, Swallow-tailed Kites have been found nesting in North Carolina on several occasions, and local birdwatchers hope that they will become regular breeding birds in the near future.
This elegant raptor is easy to identify in flight, due to the combination of its bright white underparts with its deeply forked tail.
The rear margins of the wings and the tail are black. When perched on a tree, its white head and chest contrast with the dark grayish black upperside.
Similar to other kites, this bird is a skilled aerial hunter and capable of catching insects in flight. Its preferred food are small snakes, lizards, rodents, and insects.
This beautiful bird of prey migrates south to Central and South America to spend the winter.
Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, the Bald Eagle is a very large raptor in the Old North State, and this eagle is impossible to miss if you spot it soaring overhead.
Apart from its size, the Bald Eagle is also one of the most easily recognizable birds in North Carolina, due to its white head and tail, which contrast sharply with the uniformly dark brown body.
Juvenile Bald Eagles are dark brown all over, with light irregular streaks all over the body, as well as a buff white belly.
This huge bird of prey breeds near large bodies of water in North Carolina, and also winters throughout the state outside of the breeding season.
Bald Eagles spend a lot of their time soaring on thermal currents with their wings held flat. They eat small mammals, fish, and birds, although a big part of their diet consists of carrion.
Scientific name: Aquila chrysaetos
The Golden Eagle is one the most impressive eagle species in North America, and is a breeding bird in the western states of the USA.
In North Carolina state, the Golden Eagle is a rare visitor that can be seen during spring or fall migration.
Golden Eagles can be distinguished from Bald Eagles by their lack of white coloration on their heads.
The Golden Eagle is one of several circumglobal raptor species, and can be found in both the New World and the Old World.
Scientific name: Pandion haliaetus
While the Osprey is technically not an eagle, it has a wingspan of up to 69 in (5.5 ft), and resembles an eagle in size.
It is usually easy to identify the Osprey due white belly and chest, which contrast with its blackish gray upperparts and black wrist patches on its lower wings.
This large North Carolina bird is the only bird of prey species that plunges into water in order to catch fish, often becoming entirely submerged as it attempts to grab a fish with its feet.
Due to their style of hunting, Ospreys are almost always found close to a body of water, except during migration, when they will cross areas without water.
The Osprey is a regular breeding bird in North Carolina,where it can be seen from April through late September. It is most common along the shores of lakes in northern North Carolina.
Scientific name: Falco sparverius
The American Kestrel is not only the smallest falcon in North America, but also one of the most common raptors.
Male American Kestrels are very colorful, and sport rufous orange upperparts and and tail, as well as blue gray wings with dark pointed tips.
The male also has a reddish orange cap on its crown, as well as a dark mustache and dark bar behind the eye.
Female American Kestrels are more pale in their coloration, but also have rufous orange upperparts.
When foraging for food, it likes to hover over open fields and meadows, or to hunt small animals from a perch such as a telephone pole or tree branch.
After it spots a rodent or other small animal, the American Kestrel dives down to grab it with its talons.
The most commonly taken prey during the spring and summer months are insects and worms, while rodents and small birds predominate during the colder months.
It likes to nest in abandoned Woodpecker holes, as well as crevices in buildings. Also accepts nesting boxes installed by humans.
The American Kestrel is a migratory raptor in the northern parts of its range, while it is a year-round resident in more southern parts. In North Carolina, it is a summer visitor.
Scientific name: Falco peregrinus
The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal in the world. Unbelievably, this falcon can dive from the sky at speeds reaching more than 200 mph.
This makes it perhaps the most accomplished North Carolina bird of prey on this list. However, unlike other raptors, Peregrine Falcons feed almost exclusively on birds.
This dietary preference made them highly susceptible to the eggshell-thinning effects of the pesticide DDT, leading to a catastrophic population decline of peregrines in the 1960s and 70s.
But since DDT was made illegal, the Peregrine Falcon population has recovered from its previous decline, and this beautiful raptor is once again a regular sight in North Carolina, especially in the eastern parts.
Scientific name: Cathartes aura
The Turkey Vulture is the largest vulture species that lives in North Carolina, and can reach a wingspan of up to 6 feet.
It is a big black raptor with a red-colored head, and dark gray rear margins on their wings, which can be seen in flight.
A soaring Turkey Vulture is easily identifiable due to the fact that it holds its wings in an upright V shape, and has light wingtips.
This big raptor is a summer visitor and breeding bird in North Carolina, where it favors open country interspersed with woodland.
Similar to other vulture species, this raptor is specialized in feeding on carrion, and will often congregate in flocks around roadkill.
While Turkey Vultures look superficially similar to Black Vultures, the latter are only rarely observed in North Carolina.
Scientific name: Coragyps atratus
Scientific name: Coragyps atratus
Black Vultures are regular breeding birds in North Carolina (though not as common as Turkey Vultures), where they can be seen all year round.
These vultures are almost entirely black, except for white wing tips that can be seen from below. They have a naked head with wrinkled, dark skin.
Adult Black Vulture pairs remain in their breeding territories year-round.
In contrast to Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures don’t have a keen sense of smell. Because of this, they often use Turkey Vultures as “scouts” to find roadkill, and then intimidate the smaller vulture species to chase away from the carrion.
Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
With a wingspan up to 4 feet, the Great Horned Owl is the largest owl species breeding in North Carolina.
It is a large brown-colored bird with two ear tufts (also called horns) and big yellow eyes.
In North Carolina, this owl starts its nesting very early in the year, laying its eggs in January or February.
It is almost entirely nocturnal, and can hunt in complete darkness by relying on its keen sense of hearing.
The Great Horned Owl doesn’t build its own nest, but instead occupies the nests of other large birds, such as North Carolina herons or raptors.
It can be seen in North Carolina year-round, and can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from woodlands to suburban areas.
This owl is a fierce hunter, catching birds up to the size of ducks, and mammals up to the size of squirrels, rabbits, and even young foxes.
Scientific name: Tyto alba
Somewhat softer and less intense-looking than the Great Horned Owl, Barn Owls are characterized by their white coat of feathers, and their “friendlier” appearance.
Armed with exceptional night vision, Barn Owls are strictly nocturnal raptors and therefore hard to spot. However, they can be readily identified by their characteristic screeching calls.
And if you do spot one flying overhead by the light of the moon, you may be able to see the glow of their white underside.
These owls are present in North Carolina all year round, and favor open areas and farmland as their hunting grounds.
Scientific name: Asio otus
These well-camouflaged, elusive owls are smaller than the aforementioned species. They are winter visitors in North Carolina that can be seen in the state from October through March.
They use their favored habitat of dense wooded areas to prey on the small rodents and animals that call the nearby grasslands their home.
Similar to other owl species, Long-eared Owls can fly completely silently due to fringes on their flight feathers.
Together with their keen sense of hearing, this enables them to catch prey by surprising it in the dark of the night.
But despite their best efforts to remain hidden, these owls can be identified by their long, low hoots.
Another great characteristic for identifying these owls is by their elongated tufts of feathers on the ears, and their droppings found underneath conifer trees close to grassy areas.
Scientific name: Asio flammeus
The Short-eared Owl is a highly migratory owl species that breeds in northern states and Canada, but spends the winter in southern states, including North Carolina.
Short-eared Owls are more often observed hunting in daylight than other owls species.
Together with their hunting tactic of flying low over the ground in open areas, this makes them relatively easy to spot.
You can encounter these owls in North Carolina in any kind of open landscapes, including farmland, airports, and fallow land.
Scientific name: Strix varia
The Barred Owl was originally a bird of eastern North America, but it steadily expanded its range westwards over the past century.
This owl now has breeding populations in the Pacific Northwest. In North Carolina, it can be encountered throughout the state where there are suitable habitats.
Similar to other owls, the Barred Owl is easiest to find by listening for its characteristic hooting call.
Their preferred habitat is mature forest and forests bordering swamps. They readily accept nest boxes that are set up in old trees.
Scientific name: Megascops asio
Originally birds of open woodlands, Eastern Screech-Owls have adapted very well to urban habitats, and are regularly found in parks, large gardens, and golf courses.
They breed in tree cavities, and are best identified by their characteristic series of accelerating hoots.
These North Carolina owls are common throughout the state, and can be seen all year round.
They have a very varied diet, which includes any type of small animal ranging from worms to insects, rodents, and reptiles.
Eastern Screech-Owls readily accept artificial nesting cavities, which means you can attract them to your backyard by setting up nest boxes.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
This is another small owl species that’s hardly larger than a pint. The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a winter visitor in North Carolina, and is more commonly found in the northern counties.
These owls are hard to see, but they are easy to detect if you listen for their characteristic too-too-too call at night.
They build their nest in tree cavities, but also readily accept man made nest boxes. So if you have a large garden with mature trees, it’s worth putting up a nest box well before the nesting season.
And there we have the most common raptors in North Carolina.
The varied habitats of North Carolina are home to more than 400 different species of birds, and birds of prey make up a significant proportion of this rich avifauna.
Ranging from hawks to eagles, vultures, falcons, and owls, these birds of prey play a vital role as apex predators.
Raptors are paramount to maintaining balanced rodent and small wildlife populations, as well as helping to dispose of animal carcasses with scavenging.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the yellow birds in North Carolina.