What kinds of birds of prey can you find in Montana?
This question is common, both for birders and non-birders alike. Raptors are popular animals that tend to catch people’s interest more than most other species. Luckily, in Montana, there are many species in all sorts of different habitats.
Today, you will learn about 26 types of raptors that live in Montana!
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Here is how the below list is organized. Click the link to jump straight to that section!
#1. Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawks are one of the most prevalent birds of prey in Montana.
These large raptors are often seen on long drives in the countryside, soaring in the sky, or perched on a fence post. The color of a Red-tailed Hawk’s plumage can be anything from nearly white to virtually black, so coloration is not a reliable indicator. The best way to identify them is by looking for their characteristic red tail. 🙂
Red-tailed Hawk Range Map
These hawks are highly adaptable, and there is no real description of their preferred habitats because they seem to be comfortable everywhere. I have seen Red-tailed Hawks in numerous places, from the deep backcountry in Yellowstone National Park to urban cities to my own suburban backyard! Pick a habitat, such as pastures, parks, deserts, roadsides, rainforests, woodlands, fields, or scrublands, and you’ll find them thriving.
Red-tailed Hawks have impressive calls that are easily identified.
In fact, people are so enamored with their screams, it’s common for directors to use the sounds of a Red-tailed Hawk to replace Bald Eagles that appear in movies. In case you have never heard one, Bald Eagles don’t make sounds that live up to their appearance (putting it nicely!)
Length: 18-26 inches / 45-65 cm
Weight: 1.5-3.5 lbs. / 700-1600 gm
Wingspan: 43-55 inches/ 110-140 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis
#2. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawks are one of the smallest birds of prey in Montana, and they are incredibly athletic and acrobatic. It’s common to see these raptors zipping through the woods or by your bird feeders in a blur of motion!
To identify these birds, look for bars of orange on their upper chest that fades towards the belly and blue-gray back and wings. When they are flying, their wings are relatively short and rounded, but with a long tail. Females are considerably bigger than males.
Sharp-shinned Hawk Range Map
These raptors are common in forested areas in Montana. They are most often seen around bird feeders, hunting and preying on the songbirds that come to visit. These raptors are ambush predators, sitting patiently and then dashing out from cover at high speed to chase birds, which make up 90% of their diet.
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In my backyard, I see them catching Mourning Doves the most.
Press PLAY below to hear a Sharp-shinned Hawk!
One way to verify you have seen a Sharp-shinned Hawk is to listen for their sounds. Individuals give a high-pitched shrill “kik-kik-kik” which is typically repeated several times.
Length: 9-13.5 inches / 23-37 cm
Weight: 3-8 oz / 82-220 gm
Wingspan: 16.5-26.5 inches / 42-68 cm
Scientific Name: Accipiter striatus
#3. Cooper’s Hawk
These raptors are commonly found in Montana in woods or on the edge of fields. Cooper’s Hawks are known for their flying agility. I see them often at my house in high-speed chases through the canopy going after their prey.
Cooper’s Hawk Range Map
Because of their incredible flying abilities, these raptors primarily eat songbirds and are common to see in backyards around bird feeders. At my feeding station, I have observed these hawks preying on Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, and Mourning Doves.
Visually, a Cooper’s Hawk looks incredibly similar to the Sharp-shinned Hawk (#2). Their steely blue-gray appearance is nearly identical to the Sharp-shinned hawk, right down to the little black cap that both wear and the rufous colored chest.
The BEST way to tell these hawks apart is to look at the size difference. Cooper’s are larger than Sharp-shinneds. But if they are airborne, good luck figuring out which one you are observing!
Press PLAY below to hear a Cooper’s Hawk!
The most common sound a Cooper’s Hawk emits is an alarm call that sounds like “kuck, kuck, kuck” or “cak-cak-cak.” Listen for a bassier sound than the higher-pitched Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Length: 13½-20 inches / 35-50 cm
Weight: 8-24 oz / 220-680 gm
Wingspan: 24½-35½ inches / 62-90 cm
Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii
#4. Ferruginous Hawk
Ferruginous Hawks are beautiful raptors that live in the open deserts and prairies of the West. One of the largest birds of prey in Montana, they have long broad wings and a wide gray, rusty, or white tail.
These hawks have two color forms you may observe.
- The light morph birds have a rusty brown back and pale underparts.
- The dark morph individuals are dark brown and chestnut-colored on both their back, chest, and belly. Dark morph birds are much rarer to see than light ones.
Ferruginous Hawk Range Map
Ferruginous Hawks have a fairly limited diet and rely mostly upon small mammals for food. Interestingly, they have multiple hunting strategies they deploy. My favorite being their technique of running or hopping on the ground after their prey!
Their alarm call sounds like “kree-a” or “kaah,” and is typically given when defending territory or frightened. Some people think it sounds similar to a gull.
Length: 20-27 inches / 51-69 cm
Weight: 2-5 lbs. / 900-2270 gm
Wingspan: 47-60 inches / 1.2-1.5 meters
Scientific Name: Buteo regalis
#5. Swainson’s Hawk
Swainson’s Hawks are a raptor of the west and can often be spotted soaring or perched on fence posts, telephone poles, or trees in open areas.
These birds of prey arrive each April in Montana and spend their summers breeding and raising their young here. Towards the end of August or beginning of September, they begin a LONG distance journey to Argentina! If you’re keeping score, that is around 6,000 miles and takes up to two months. And remember, they make this trip twice per year.
Swainson’s Hawk Range Map
As they are migrating, Swainson’s Hawks often form large “kettles,” where they join with other species such as Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures. In certain spots where natural funnels occur, it’s possible to see THOUSANDS of raptors soaring together at once, which resembles an actual river of birds.
The call of the Swainson’s Hawk is a harsh alarm call that sounds like “kreeeeer,” which often lasts 2-3 seconds.
Length: 18-22 inches / 46-56 cm
Weight: 24-48 oz / 680-1360 gm
Wingspan: 46-54 inches / 117-137 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo swainsoni
#6. Rough Legged Hawk
Rough-legged Hawks, which are also called Rough-legged Buzzards and Rough-legged Falcons, spend their summers living and breeding on the Arctic tundra. You can only see these large raptors in Montana during winter when they migrate south. Unlike most hawks, this species has feathers all the way down to their feet, which helps keep them warm in the cold environments they choose to live.
Rough-legged Hawk Range Map
Look for these chunky, large raptors in open areas. They have a unique hunting style where they hover while facing the wind looking for food. In fact, they are one of the few birds of prey that truly hovers in place.
These raptors are typically silent, except they make a mewing sound near the nest. (Listen below!)
Length: 18.5-23.5 inches / 46-59 cm
Weight: 25-49 oz / 715-1400 gm
Wingspan: 52-54 inches / 132-138 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo lagopus
The first thing you need to know about Ospreys is they are NOT hawks! They are not eagles either and, scientifically speaking, have been given their own Family (Pandionidae) and Genus (Pandion), separate from all other birds of prey.
Even though Ospreys are not hawks, they certainly look similar to one. These raptors have also been given nicknames, such as Sea Hawk, River Hawk, and Fish Hawk, which hint at the association between an Osprey and hawk.
Osprey Range Map
When you think of an Osprey, you should think of fish, because that is what these birds eat 99% of the time. Even an Osprey’s talons are perfectly adapted for catching fish. If you take a close look, you will see they are extremely curved and even intersect when fully closed, which makes them perfectly designed for holding onto slippery fish!
Because of their specialized diet, you will almost always find Ospreys living, breeding, and raising their young around water in Montana. Mating for life, it’s common for them to use human-made nesting platforms. If you live near a large body of water, I recommend installing one to see if you can attract a nesting pair!
Listen for Ospreys next time you are around a large body of water. Their alarm call is a series of short high-pitched whistles that descend in pitch. The noise has been compared to a teapot taken off a stove.
Length: 20-25.5 inches / 50-65 cm
Weight: 3-4.4 lb. / 1.4-2 kg
Wingspan: 59-71 inches / 150-180 cm
Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
#8. Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl is often colored with an orangey face with black and white contrasting lines that resemble a tiger. Since the objective of most predators is not to be seen, it has horizontal bars on its underside to look like tree branches when you’re looking up, and mottles of “tree colors” on top to look “leafy” if you’re looking from above.
These raptors are quite large and look fierce! To identify, look for their long tufts of feathers that resemble ears on their head. Also, check out their intimidating eyes. I know I would not want to have a staring contest with one!
Great Horned Owl Range Map
Great Horned Owls are common birds of prey in Montana.
Both sexes hoot, but males are lower-pitched than females. Males give territorial calls that can be heard a few miles away at night. I don’t think there is another owl species that does hooting better than a Great Horned Owl!
A Great Horned Owls’ sense of smell is so weak that they even attack and eat skunks. It’s not uncommon for them, along with their nests and pellets, to smell of skunk.
#9. Eastern Screech-Owl
Screech-owls may remind you of professional wrestlers since they are short, stocky, and have no necks! They weigh in at 4.2–8.6 oz. (120–244 g), 6.3– 9.8 in (16–25 cm) in length, and have a wingspan of 18–24 in (46–61 cm). These owls can either be grey or red, with about a third of all individuals being red.
Eastern Screech-owl Range Map
These small raptors are found in wooded areas in North America. They don’t seem to mind people too much as they are comfortable nesting on top of streetlamps, next to busy roadways/highways, or inside spaces in populated buildings.
Eastern Screech-owls make a variety of hoots, calls, and songs, but their most popular is an even pitched trill, often called a tremolo. The tremolo is used by pairs to keep in contact with each other and lasts between 3 to 6 seconds. I think this tremolo call sounds a lot like mating toads, and I sometimes get the two confused!
#10. Western Screech-Owl
Once upon a time, Western Screech-owls were thought to be the same bird as the Eastern Screech-owl, but research has determined that they are two distinct species. The Western variety ranges in weight from 3.5–11 oz. (100–300 grams), with a body length of 7.5–10 inches (19–28 cm), and a wingspan of 22–24 inches (55–62 cm).
Western Screech-owl Range Map
Western Screech-owls can be found in forests, but you’ll also find them in suburban parkland, deserts, farm fields, and any basic shrubland. They are a relatively common bird of prey in Montana
The primary foods of a Western Screech-owl include rats, mice, and birds. But they are opportunistic hunters and will also eat fish, amphibians, and invertebrates, such as crayfish, insects, earthworms, and slugs. Interestingly, they have been known to occasionally pluck a trout out of the water at night, or take on something as large as a duck or rabbit.
Western Screech-owl calls are not “screechy,” as the name suggests. The most common sound is a rather quiet, pleasant trill (“hoo-hoo-hoo” or “cr-r-oo-oo-oo”), which speeds up at the end but maintains a constant pitch.
#11. Snowy Owl
Snowy Owls get my vote for the most beautiful raptor in Montana! Their stunning white plumage stops almost everyone in their tracks, both birders and non-birders alike!
Now, this is one big bird at 20.7–25.2 inches (52.5–64 cm) tall, a wingspan of 48–60 inches (1.2–1.5 meters), and with weights in the 3.2–4 lb. (1,465–1,800 gram) range. Snowy Owls are mostly white, but they do have horizontal dark lines all over their bodies except the face and breast. Interestingly, individuals seem to get whiter with age.
Snowy Owl Range Map
Snowy Owls migrate with the changing seasons. During summer, they mate and breed in the arctic tundra. But when winter arrives, these birds go south.
You never know how far south Snowy Owls will travel. Most winters, Snowy Owls only appear as far down as the northern USA. But some years, there is an “irruption” of Snowy Owls, and many more birds than normal migrate south.
When defending their territory or searching for a mate, males make a loud “hoo, hoo.” This hoot is so loud that it can be heard up to 7 miles away on the tundra! Females rarely hoot, but other noises (for both sexes) include cackles, shrieks, hissing, and bill snapping.
#12. Great Gray Owl
The Great Gray Owl is also known by many alternate names. How about Bearded Owl, Cinereous Owl, Lapland Owl, Phantom of the North, Sooty Owl, Spectral Owl, or Spruce Owl?
Whatever you call it, this species is (lengthwise) one of the largest birds of prey in Montana at 24–33 inches (61–84 cm) tall, with a wingspan of 5 feet (1.5 meters), and weighing in somewhere between 1½–4 lb (580–1,900 grams). As you’ve probably guessed, this owl is predominantly gray colored with alternating light and dark stripes.
Great Gray Owl Range Map
Grey Gray Owls NEVER build nests. They just use ones that were made by other big birds. Talk about being efficient! However, once they claim a used nest, these owls will defend it courageously, even against black bears!
Their call is reasonably distinctive, bold, and deep, which sounds like “whooooo, woo, woo, woo.” They also have a soft double hoot that is used when providing food to their babies or defending a territory.
#13. American Barn Owl
Barn Owls (aka Church Owl, Ghost Owl, and Monkey-faced Owl) have a heart-shaped face, that is sandy-colored with a dark brown edge. Interestingly, the shape of an owl’s face steers sound to their ears, which helps make them efficient hunters. Their hearing is so good, they can locate small animals under dense brush or snow with ease, and they even hunt bats!
Barn Owl Range Map
Barn Owls are non-migratory and tend to inhabit abandoned barns (hence the name). Though seriously endangered in many parts of their range, farmers love them because they keep surrounding property fairly rodent-free, protecting other animals from the diseases that mice and rats carry.
They do not “hoot” in the classical fashion of other owls. Their unique screechy-sound is far more reminiscent of a red-tailed hawk. When showing-off for a female, males will sometimes clap their wings together a couple of times while flying.
#14. Burrowing Owl
The Burrowing Owl weighs in at only 5–8.5 oz. (147–240 gr), stands a surprising 7.5–11.0 in (19–28 cm) tall, and has a 20–24 inch (51–61 cm) wingspan. They usually have distinctive white eyebrows. Their wings are a deeper brown with lighter spotting, but their chest can be plain light tan with bars, stripes, or spots.
This owl has comparatively long legs since they spend a lot of time navigating on the ground.
Burrowing Owl Range Map
Unlike other owls that spend their time in trees, Burrowing Owls live underground!
They either excavate their homes themselves or quite frequently, take over underground shelters from squirrels or prairie dogs. These underground dens provide a lot of space to gather food. They’ve been known to have hundreds of mice in storage in case of a food shortage!
While Burrowing Owls can make a wide variety of sounds, they are not especially vocal. The most common is a two-syllable that sounds like “who-who” or “coo-coo-roo,” which is primarily made by males during mating and defending territories.
#15. Northern Saw-whet Owl
This species is one of the smallest raptors in Montana, at just 6.5–9 inches (17–23 cm) tall, and cute as a button. They’re quite light at only 1.9–5.3 oz. (54–151 grams), and have a wingspan of just 16.5–22.2 inches (42–56.3 cm). Northern Saw-whet Owls are typically colored in pale browns and tans.
Their favorite foods are deer mice, voles, and shrews. But these owls will supplement their diet with small birds, insects, and invertebrates when necessary.
Northern Saw-whet Owl Range Map
Northern Saw-whet Owls seem to prefer dense coniferous or mixed hardwood forests, with a river nearby. Because of their need for mature trees, their numbers have been declining.
These owls get their name from the sound they make when alarmed, which resembles the whetting (sharpening) of a saw. But their most common call happens during the breeding season. It sounds like a “too-too-too,” emitted at about two notes per second.
#16. Short-eared Owl
This mid-sized tawny-brown mottled owl is 13–17 inches (34–43 cm) tall, with a wingspan of 33.5-40.5 inches (85–103 cm), and weighs between 7.3–16.8 oz (206–475 grams). Its false ears are not always visible as Short-eared Owls typically only erect them when they want to look intimidating.
Short-eared Owl Range Map
Your best chance to spot these raptors in Montana is at dusk or dawn in open fields, grasslands, meadows, or airports.
These owls build their nests on the ground in open areas such as meadows, tundra, savanna, or prairies. If obliged to flee its nest to draw off a predator, the parent will poop on the eggs so the smell will keep predators away. Similar to a Kildeer, Short-eared Owls also lure predators away from their nest by hopping away and pretending to be crippled.
Short-eared Owls are not particularly vocal. But when they do make noises, these birds have a call, oddly enough, that sounds an awful lot like a cat looking for a mate.
Falcons, Eagles, & Vultures
#17. Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcons are birds of prey that can be found everywhere in Montana and are actually located on every continent except Antarctica. Because of their fondness of nesting on the sides of tall buildings, these raptors are common in cities where they can become quite the local celebrities!
There is little color differentiation amongst individual birds and sexes. Both males and females have a slate grey/bluish-black back with faint barring. Their chest is white to tan with thin dark lines. Immature birds are often much browner than adults. Like almost all species of falcons, females are larger than males.
Peregrine Falcon Range Map
Peregrine Falcons have the honor of being the FASTEST animal on the planet!
Don’t be fooled by stories that the cheetah is the fastest creature. Oh sure, they can crank it up to 75 mph (120 kph), and that is amazing for being on the ground. But when a Peregrine Falcon dives, it can reach speeds of up to 200 mph (320 kph)! And it starts its journey from as high as 3,000 feet, so it cruises at these high speeds for a considerable distance.
Peregrine Falcons primarily eat other birds. In fact, at least 450 different types of birds have been documented as their prey. They are not picky and take almost anything they can catch, including ducks, gulls, pigeons, and songbirds.
You won’t hear them make much noise, except for around its nesting site as an alarm call. It sounds like “kack-kack-kack-kack.” Press the PLAY button below to hear an example!
Length: 13-23 inches / 34-58 cm
Weight: 12-53 oz. / 330-1500 gm
Wingspan: 29-47 inches / 74-120 cm
#18. American Kestrel
The American Kestrel is the smallest raptor in Montana and is roughly the size of an American Robin. Don’t let the tiny stature fool you, though, because these birds of prey are accomplished hunters.
In fact, you may have heard of a kestrel’s alternate name, which is the Sparrow Hawk. This name was given because they will take sparrows and other birds of that size right out of the air!
American Kestrel Range Map
American Kestrels are one of the most widespread and numerous birds of prey on the continent, and common to see in Montana.
One of their favorite strategies to catch prey is to hover in the breeze from a relatively low height, looking for insects, invertebrates, small rodents, and birds. But life can be tough when you’re the smallest falcon since they are sometimes eaten as prey by larger raptors, as well as rat snakes and corn snakes!
Kestrels have a distinct call that sounds much like it’s saying “klee-klee-klee” or “killy, killy, killy,” which is usually repeated rapidly. Press the PLAY button below to hear an example!
Length: 9-12 inches / 22-31 cm
Weight: 2.8-5.8 oz. / 80-165 gm
Wingspan: 20-24 inches / 51-61 cm
#19. Prairie Falcon
Prairie Falcon Range Map
Prairie Falcons like to play!
Length: 14.5-18.5 in / 37-47 cm
Weight: 15-39 oz. / 425-1106 gm
Wingspan: 35.5-44.5 in / 90-113 cm
#20. Bald Eagle
The Bald Eagle is probably the most recognizable raptor in Montana!
But did you know that the “Bald” portion of their name has nothing to do with not having feathers on their head? As you can clearly see, these eagles have white feathers covering their entire face with no bald spots anywhere. Their name actually stems from an Old English word “piebald,” which means “white patch” and refers to their bright white heads.
While almost everyone knows what a full-grown Bald Eagle looks like, trying to correctly identify juvenile birds is tricky. These eagles don’t get their characteristic white head and dark brown body until they are FIVE YEARS OLD. Until then, these birds have all sorts of different plumages and streaky browns and whites on their bodies. Even their beak changes color! It takes A LOT of practice and experience to identify young Bald Eagles properly!
Bald Eagle Range Map
They are most commonly seen around bodies of water. The reason for this is that they mostly eat fish! Look for them around marshes, lakes, coasts, and rivers. The BEST areas are forests near large bodies of water that provide good fishing AND tall trees for nesting sites.
The Bald Eagle probably doesn’t sound like what you think. If you imagine an intimidating eagle call, then you would be wrong. I think they sound more like a gull, with trills and little whistles. In fact, movie directors are so unimpressed with the sounds a Bald Eagle makes, it’s common for them to use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk instead for dramatic effect!
Press PLAY above to hear a Bald Eagle!
Length: 28-40 inches / 70-102 cm
Weight: 6.5-15 lbs / 3-7 kg
Wingspan: 71-91 inches / 1.8-2.3 meters
#21. Golden Eagle
Golden Eagles are incredibly fast and agile, which makes them expert hunters. Where Bald Eagles mostly eat fish, these eagles almost always eat mammals. Their favorite prey includes rabbits, hares, ground squirrels, marmots, and prairie dogs. But these raptors have been known to hunt and kill animals as large as small deer, seals, mountain goats, coyotes, and badgers!
They have even been known to snatch a bear cub for dinner. Talk about bravery (or stupidity?)! 🙂
Golden Eagles are dark brown with gold feathers on the backs of their necks, which is how they got their name. Juvenile birds have white patches on their wings and tails. Immature Bald Eagles and adult Golden Eagles look similar and can be easily confused.
The distinguishing feature between these two birds is that the Bald Eagle doesn’t mind showing a little leg, whereas the Golden Eagle has feathers all the way down to the top of their feet.
Golden Eagle Range Map
These birds of prey prefer vast open areas in Montana, such as landscapes that include cliffs, mountains, or hills. You can also spot these birds in grasslands, farmlands, shrublands, arctic tundra, and coniferous woodlands.
These eagles are not extremely noisy, and their calls sound like whistles that are weak and high. Just like Bald Eagles, for such a powerful raptor, you would think Golden Eagles would have a much more intimidating sound!
Length: 26-40 inches / 66-100 cm
Weight: 6.5-16 lbs / 3-7 kg
Wingspan: 71-91 inches / 1.8-2.3 meters
#22. Turkey Vulture
The Turkey Vulture, also known as the Turkey Buzzard, is incredibly common in Montana and the most abundant vulture in the entire country. They are relatively easy to identify, as they are all black, with a bald red head and a pinkish bill. The name derives from their loose resemblance to a Wild Turkey.
Once you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot these vultures while they are flying. Look for a large raptor soaring in the sky making wobbly circles, whose wings are raised high enough to look like the letter “V.” It’s thought that this flying style helps them glide at low altitudes, which keeps them close to the ground to smell for food.
Turkey Vulture Range Map
Look for Turkey Vultures wherever you can find dead animals.
These birds of prey use their highly developed sense of smell to locate carrion. Their sense of smell is so sensitive that they can detect dead meat from 8 miles (13 km) away. These birds actually prefer to eat fresh food, and they try to get to animals as quickly as possible after their death.
As you can imagine, they are often seen along roadsides eating animals that have been hit by cars. They are also frequently observed soaring the skies in the open countryside. When these raptors are frightened, they can be so full of meat that they cannot rapidly fly away. In this case, you may see them projectile vomit what they’ve eaten to lose weight and escape.
Length: 25-32 inches / 64-81 cm
Weight: 2-5 lbs / 0.8-2.4 kg
Wingspan: 63-72 inches / 160-183 cm
To learn more about other birds in Montana, check out these guides!
27 Types of WATER BIRDS That Live in Montana (Ducks, herons, loons, etc.)
Which of these birds of prey have you seen before in Montana?
Leave a comment below!
Some of the range maps above were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!