19 Birds of Prey Found in North Carolina! (2024)

What kinds of birds of prey can you find in North Carolina?

Types of birds of prey in North Carolina

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, there are many different species in all sorts of habitats.

19 Birds of Prey IN North Carolina:


Here is how the below list is organized. Click the link to jump straight to that section!


HAWKS


#1. Red-tailed Hawk

  • Buteo jamaicensis

Types of birds of prey in North Carolina

  • Length: 18-26 in / 45-65 cm
  • Weight: 1.5-3.5 lbs. / 700-1600 g
  • Wingspan: 43-55 in / 110-140 cm

Red-tailed Hawks are probably the type of hawk that people are most familiar with. These birds of prey are often seen in North Carolina on drives in the countryside, either soaring in the sky or perched on a fence post.

The plumage color of Red-tailed Hawks 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

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 backpacking in the deep wilderness 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. Listen below to these intimidating sounds below.


#2. Sharp-shinned Hawk

  • Accipiter striatus

Types of birds of prey in North Carolina

  • Length: 9-13.5 inches / 23-37 cm
  • Weight: 3-8 oz / 82-220 g
  • Wingspan: 16.5-26.5 inches / 42-68 cm

Sharp-shinned Hawks are one of the smallest birds of prey in North Carolina.

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 fade towards the belly and blue-gray back and wings. When flying, their wings are relatively short and rounded but with a long tail. Females are considerably bigger than males.

Sharp-shinned Hawk Range Map

Sharp-shinned Hawk Range Map

These raptors are common in forested areas in North Carolina. 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.

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.


#3. Cooper’s Hawk

  • Accipiter cooperii

Types of birds of prey in North Carolina

  • Length: 13.5-20 in / 35-50 cm
  • Weight: 8-24 oz / 220-680 g
  • Wingspan: 24.5-35.5 in / 62-90 cm

These large raptors are commonly found in North Carolina in the 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

Cooper's Hawk Range Map

Because of their incredible flying abilities, these hawks primarily eat songbirds and are common in backyards around bird feeders. At my feeding station, I have observed these hawks preying on Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, and Mourning Doves.

The most common sound a Cooper’s Hawk emits is an alarm call that sounds like “kuck, kuck, kuc” or “cak-cak-cak.”

Visually, a Cooper’s Hawk looks incredibly similar to the Sharp-shinned Hawk. 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!

Types of birds of prey in North Carolina


#4. Northern Harrier

  • Circus hudsonius

northern harrier

Northern Harriers are one of the most unique birds of prey you will find in the USA!

First, most hawks rely on their incredible eyesight to find and capture prey. But Northern Harriers also use their hearing to find food, similar to owls. Even their disc-shaped face resembles an owl. 🙂

Northern Harrier Range Map

The best places to find a Northern Harrier are open grasslands, fields, or marshes. Look for a slim, long-tailed raptor that flies low and has a white rump. Watch an example below!


#5. Red-shouldered Hawk

  • Buteo lineatus

large birds of prey and raptors

  • Length: 15-19 in / 38-48 cm
  • Weight: 1.1-1.9 lbs. / 500-860 g
  • Wingspan: 38-42 in / 96-107 cm

Distinctly marked, Red-shouldered Hawks have a barred rufous chest, mostly white underwings, a strongly banded tail, and, of course, red shoulders that are visible when perched.

Red-shouldered Hawks are primarily forest dwellers. Their favorite places are woods with an open upper canopy since this extra space allows them to hunt more efficiently. These raptors are also common in suburban areas where houses have been mixed into woodlands.

I see Red-shouldered Hawks frequently, especially in winter, hunting in my backyard for squirrels.

Red-shouldered Hawk Range Map

Red-shouldered Hawk Range Map

Speaking of food, these hawks primarily eat small mammals but will feast on snakes, lizards, and amphibians when available. When hunting, these raptors drop onto their prey directly from overhead, making their hunting style unique.

You can see this behavior below, as a Red-shouldered Hawk tries to catch a squirrel in my backyard! Don’t worry; the hawk is unsuccessful.

Red-shouldered Hawk hunting in my backyard!


#6. Broad-winged Hawk

  • Buteo platypterus

birds of prey species

  • Length: 13.5-17.5 inches / 34-44 cm
  • Weight: 16 oz / 450 g
  • Wingspan: 33 inches / 84 cm

The bodies of Broad-winged Hawks are short and stocky, which makes them perfectly adapted to life in the forest. These birds of prey live in North Carolina and are fairly common, but they are not often seen because they prefer spending their time in the deep woods away from humans.

Broad-winged Hawk Range Map

Broad-winged Hawk Range Map

While these raptors spend their summers here in North Carolina, they fly south for the winters to Central America and South America. Broad-winged Hawks are probably best known for their epic migrations each fall.

It’s estimated that the average bird travels over 4,000 miles (6,400 km) total, and that is just ONE WAY, and they have to complete this trip twice per year.

These long-distance flyers often travel south together, soaring on air currents by the thousands! Getting the chance to watch a “kettle” of Broad Winged Hawks is genuinely awe-inspiring, as you can see in the video above!


#7. Osprey

  • Pandion haliaetus

osprey

  • Length: 20-25.5 inches / 50-65 cm
  • Weight: 3-4.4 lb. / 1.4-2 kg
  • Wingspan: 59-71 inches / 150-180 cm

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 a hawk.

Osprey Range Map

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. Because of their specialized diet, you will almost always find these birds of prey living, breeding, and raising their young around water in North Carolina.

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.


OWLS


#8. Great Horned Owl

  • Bubo virginianus

birds of prey

  • Length: 17-25 in (43 – 64 cm)
  • Weight: 2.5 to 4 lbs (1134 – 1814 g)
  • Wingspan: 3 – 5 feet (91-153 cm)

Great Horned Owls are common birds of prey in North Carolina.

In fact, these raptors can actually be found almost anywhere in North America, from the Arctic to the tropics. Its habitat is practically unlimited as long as there are trees and rocky nesting sites available. It is hard to find a bird that can adapt better than a Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl Range Map

great horned owl range map

These owls are large and look fierce! To identify them, 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!

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’s another owl species that does hooting better than a Great Horned Owl!


#9. Barred Owl

  • Strix varia

barred owl

  • Length: 16–25 in (40–63 cm)
  • Weight: 1–2.75 lbs (500–1250 g)
  • Wingspan: 38–49 in (96–125 cm)

Barred Owls are a common raptor found in North Carolina. The name “barred” derives from the horizontal stripes of alternating light brown and dark brown on the wings, back, and tail.

Barred Owls are the type of owl I have observed the most in the wild. They are inquisitive and will often stay and watch as you walk past them. Even if they get nervous as you approach, they typically fly off to another nearby tree to continue observing.

Barred Owl Range Map

barred owl range map

Barred Owls rely on mice and other small rodents but eat almost anything made of meat! They will readily grab rats, rabbits, bats, squirrels, moles, minks, weasels, opossums, a variety of birds, frogs, snakes, fish, and turtles, and will even hunt around your nightly campfire to catch some sweet, juicy insects.

And speaking of classical noises, their hoots are the classic sounds featured in movies and scary Halloween tales. It is easy to recognize their call as it sounds like they are asking, “Who cooks for you.” Barred Owls will sound off during daylight hours, too, and they mate for life.


#10. Eastern Screech-Owl

  • Megascops asio

types of owls

  • Length: 6.3– 9.8 in (16–25 cm)
  • Weight: 4.2–8.6 oz. (120–244 g)
  • Wingspan: 18–24 in (46–61 cm)

Screech-owls may remind you of professional wrestlers since they are short, stocky, and have no necks! These owls can either be grey or red, with about a third of all individuals being red.

These small raptors are found in wooded areas in North Carolina.

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-owl Range Map

eastern screech-owl range map

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!


#11. American Barn Owl

  • Tyto furcata

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 that they can locate small animals under dense brush or snow with ease, and they even hunt bats!

Barn Owl Range Map

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 sometimes clap their wings together a couple of times while flying.


#12. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Aegolius acadicus

northern saw whet owl

  • Length: 6.5–9 inches (17–23 cm)
  • Weight: 1.9–5.3 oz. (54–151 grams)
  • Wingspan: 16.5–22.2 inches (42–56.3 cm)

This species is one of the smallest raptors in North Carolina, and they are cute as a button.

Their favorite foods are 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 owl range map

Northern Saw-whet Owls 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.


#13. Short-eared Owl

  • Asio flammeus

short eared owl

  • Length: 13–17 inches (34–43 cm)
  • Weight: 7.3–16.8 oz (206–475 grams)
  • Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches (85–103 cm)

This mid-sized tawny-brown mottled owl has false ears that are not always visible. Short-eared Owls typically only erect them when they want to look intimidating.

Your best chance to spot these birds of prey in North Carolina is at dusk or dawn in open fields, grasslands, meadows, or airports.

Short-eared Owl Range Map

short ear owl range map

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. Like a Kildeer, Short-eared Owls also lure predators away from their nest by hopping away and pretending to be injured.

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


#14. Peregrine Falcon

  • Falco peregrinus

raptors common

  • Length: 13-23 in / 34-58 cm
  • Weight: 12-53 oz. / 330-1500 g
  • Wingspan: 29-47 in / 74-120 cm

These large birds of prey are commonly found in North Carolina in urban areas.

Because of their fondness for nesting on the sides of tall buildings, these falcons are common in cities where they often become local celebrities!

Peregrine Falcon Range Map

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 (915 m), so it cruises at these high speeds for a considerable distance.

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO BELOW TO SEE THE INCREDIBLE DIVING ABILITIES OF THE PEREGRINE FALCON.


#15. American Kestrel

  • Falco sparverius

common falcons

  • Length: 9-12 inches / 22-31 cm
  • Weight: 2.8-5.8 oz. / 80-165 g
  • Wingspan: 20-24 inches / 51-61 cm

The American Kestrel is the smallest raptor in North Carolina 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 kestrel range map

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 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!


#16. Bald Eagle

  • Haliaeetus leucocephalus

common raptors” /></p>
<ul>
<li><strong>Length:</strong> 28-40 in / 70-102 cm</li>
<li><strong>Weight:</strong> 6.5-15 lbs / 3-7 kg</li>
<li><strong>Wingspan:</strong> 71-91 in / 1.8-2.3 m</li>
</ul>
<p>The Bald Eagle has been the national symbol of the United States since 1782 and is one of the most recognizable birds in the world!</p>
<h3><strong>These large birds of prey are now quite prevalent in North Carolina, but that wasn’t always the case.</strong></h3>
<p>Bald Eagles almost went extinct in the mid-20th century due to DDT poisoning. After years of dedicated conservation work, they have recovered and are a true success story. <strong>They </strong><strong>are most commonly seen around bodies of water.</strong></p>
<h4 style=Bald Eagle Range Map

The reason that Bald Eagles are found around water 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.

Below, you can hear what a Bald Eagle sounds like. 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.

Press PLAY above to hear a Bald Eagle!


#17. Merlin

  • Falco columbarius

types of raptors

Length: 9-13 inches / 23-33 cm

Weight: 4.4-10.6 oz. / 125-300 g

Wingspan: 21-23 inches / 53-58 cm

Merlins are small, fierce raptors found in North Carolina.

With that being said, they are not that common to observe and are unpredictable in regard to their range. They are a bit larger than the American Kestrel, with a stockier build, sharply pointed wings, and medium-length tails. You can always identify a Merlin by its rapid wingbeats and because it is so small.

But despite its diminutive stature, this falcon is an incredibly fierce bird and uses surprise attacks to bring down its prey. It is so bold that it has been seen attacking trains and cars that enter its territory.

The Merlin is one bird you don’t want to annoy or make nervous!

Merlin Range Map

merlin range map

While generally silent, it’s possible to hear a loud, high cackle that sounds like “klee-klee-klee.” Typically, these calls are made during courtship or when showing aggression. Press the PLAY button above to hear an example.


#18. Turkey Vulture

  • Cathartes aura

common vultures

  • Length: 25-32 in / 64-81 cm
  • Weight: 2-5 lbs / 0.8-2.4 kg
  • Wingspan: 63-72 in / 160-183 cm

The Turkey Vulture is an incredibly common bird of prey in North Carolina.

In fact, it is 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.

Turkey Vultures 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 prefer to eat fresh food, and they try to get to animals as quickly as possible after their death.

Turkey Vulture Range Map

These birds are dark, and they absorb heat easily. To cool themselves off, they defecate on their legs to cool the blood and help them moderate their body temperature. Let’s collectively say “Ewww” and move on!

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. If they target the predator’s face, the material can be blinding.


#19. Black Vulture

  • Coragyps atratus

black vulture - common vulture species

  • Length: 22 – 29 in / 56 – 74 cm
  • Weight: 3.5 – 6.5 lbs / 1.6-3 kg
  • Wingspan: 51 – 66 in / 1.3 – 1.7 m

Black Vultures primarily eat carrion, but unlike most other vultures, they are known to kill animals to feed on fresh meat. It is not uncommon for them to prey on living skunks, opossums, and livestock, such as baby pigs, calves, and lambs.

Black Vultures are monogamous and will stay with their mate for many years. The loyal pair are excellent parents and will defend their nest, eggs, and young vigorously. Interestingly, these vultures build their nests on the ground in stumps, caves, thickets, brush piles, or hollow trees. No nesting material is used either!

Black Vulture Range Map

Look for Black Vultures in North Carolina in both forested and open areas. They prefer to roost and nest in dense forests but forage for food along roads, fields, and other open spaces. Black Vultures are commonly seen hanging around Turkey Vultures, and it’s not because they are best friends.

Between the two species, Turkey Vultures have a MUCH better sense of smell. Black Vultures use this fact to their advantage and follow Turkey Vultures to a carcass. Often, the more aggressive Black Vultures will chase away their vulture cousins to have the food all to themselves. I wonder if Turkey Vultures ever feel used? 🙂


Do you need help identifying raptors in North Carolina?

Here are a few books and resources you can purchase that will assist!


To learn more about other birds in North Carolina, check out these guides!


Which of these birds of prey have you seen before in North Carolina?

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!

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6 Comments

  1. I live in Walkertown, nc Twice a day at my home here, a Red Tail Hawk comes to my back yard only ten feet from porch. He seems to be young. He finds food in the grass. He jumps on a part of the ground and starts eating. About 40 acres of farmland behind me and I have seen his parents soaring over the fields with him. Vultures everywhere here doing road kill cleanup.

  2. Red hawks, coopers hawk (I think vs. sharp shinned but cannot be 100%), 90% sure we have a juvenile bald eagle on our ponds, and black vultures. We seem to be in a little bird aviary ecosystem here with woods, open fields, large ponds for all kinds of birds to come to while migrating or settling in. We’ve even had a flock of seagulls and some cattle egrets blow in with bad weather although we are far from their normal areas. I’ve seen many types of small birds that migrate through as well.

  3. RE: Re-Tailed Hawk video. I have seen and heard red Tailed Hawks in Washington NC where I have been staying for the past few months I have enjoyed three sightings, The most recent was this morning I heard it before I saw it. I think it was after one of the many sparrows in the garden