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The Modern Apprentice



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There are four main types of birds used in falconry today. All of these are of the same order - Falconiformes.
Taxonomic Classification:
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Falconiformes
The birds in each genus are ordered from smallest to largest to help give an idea of how they all relate. Likewise, the males of most species are smaller than the females, although the sizes may have some range of overlap. Because of the niche that the males occupy, they also tend to be a little more skittish, nervous, and on the move than the females, yet they also seem to be able to be hunted later into the spring than the females as their own biological niche is to continue hunting and not to be waited on.

Hawks, Accipiters, and Eagles are more closely related to each other than to Falcons. They are all in family Accipitridae. They all share some common features such as large, oval nostrils and incompletely ossified nostril bones. These birds all have strong feet and talons which is their main weapon. Accipiters and Buteos also start moulting the primaries with the 10th primary (the one farthest from the body). Falcons start moulting their primaries with the 7th primary from the wing tip, or the 4th from the body. Each has 10 primary feathers per wing. Falcons can be distinguished from those in family Accipitridae by the shape of their beak, their eye color, nostril shape, tail length relative to their body size, and wing relative to their body. At a distance there is a distinct difference in their flight silhouettes.

Hawks are of the family Accipitridae and the genus Buteo. They are often called "broad wings," and in the English vernacular "buzzards".
Members common to falconry:
Buteo swainsoni        Swainson's Hawk
Buteo lineatus           Red-Shouldered Hawk
Buteo jamaicensis     Red-Tailed Hawk
Buteo regalis             Ferruginous Hawk
Long, broad winged, broad, short tailed birds, these are masters at soaring and can hang motionless on the merest threads of wind. They are heavy bodied birds particularly adapted for soaring or using gravity to drop on their prey.
These birds use their powerful feet and strong talons to bind to their prey constricting it in their grasp and puncturing vitals.

Accipiters are in the family Accipitridae and the genus Accipiter. They are often called "true hawks" and "short wings" and sometimes the "yellow-eyed hawks".
Members common to falconry:
Accipiter striatus     Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Accipiter nisus         Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Accipiter cooperii    Cooper's Hawk
Accipiter gentiles     Goshawk
These birds are marked by their broad, round wings that are shorter than Buteos, short neck, and long tails. Juvenile eyes are yellow turning to red in adulthood.
The name "Accipiter" comes from the Greek meaning "swift wing" in reference to their quick wing beats. These are quick birds off their perch and will easily overtake their prey. Their typical flight pattern is a flap-flap-flap followed by a glide. Soaring isn't a preferred flight method as they are just so efficient at their flapping-glide. These birds seem to be in a constant state of motion, and almost nervous. They are prone to apoplexy and seizures, although the smaller of the species are more prone having faster metabolisms than the larger members. Accipiters are said to have an "inky mouth" since their tongue is a dark, almost blue, color.
Accipiters prefer to be stealthy hunters preferring to whip around a tree to catch their quarry off-guard or to stoop down before the target ever sees them. When they lack the element of surprise, they can be put off even a straight-forward flush. Once their prey is caught, they foot it repeatedly puncturing the vitals.

Eagles are in the family Accipitridae and the genus Aquila. There are 9 members of this genus. These birds have long, broad wings and a medium tail. Bald eagles are not used for falconry, but have an interesting iris in that it starts as brown and matures to be yellow.
Members common to falconry:
Aquila chrysaetos   Golden Eagle

Falcons are in the family Falconidae and the genus Falco. They are often called "long wings" and sometimes the "dark-eyed hawks" or "pointy wings". These are the most widespread land-bird family covering all but the high arctic and Antarctic regions.
Members common to falconry:
Falco sparverius        American Kestrel
Falco tinnunculus      European Kestrel
Falco columbarius     Merlin
Falco femoralis          Aplomado Falcon
Falco mexicanus         Prairie Falcon
Falco peregrinus         Peregrine Falcon
Falco cherrug             Saker Falcon
Falco rusticolus          Gyrfalcon
Falco biarmicus          Lanner Falcon
These birds have a much different body form than the others listed here. They have long, pointed wings due to the long second primary and third primary feathers, and a long tail. The short, hooked beak has a unique notch specifically for snapping the neck of prey. The notch is sometimes referred to as a tooth, but more completely called the tomial tooth. Their toes are long and thin with knobby nodules to help hold on to small birds when they grab them. They have less substantial talons than hawks or eagles. All falcons have 10 primary feathers and 16 secondary feathers on each wing, but may have anywhere from 12-14 tail feathers depending on the species. Smaller falcons tend to take birds as well as lizards, grasshoppers, insects, and mice.
Most known for their stoops, there are actually several very different pursuit methods employed by the members of this genus. They all also share a plumage feature called a malar stripe or facial stripe just beneath the eye. One theory regarding the presence of this stripe is that it functions similar to the blacking used under the eyes of football players to prevent glare.
While members of Accipitridae have oval nostrils, falcons also have small, circular nostrils in their cere which are formed to maintain proper respiration during stoops. Their nasal bones are also completely ossified, which is in contrast to the other raptors.
These birds do not build their own nests, but rather use ledges, hollow trees, or old nests built by others. Many require cliffs for their nest site.

Other Birds
The Harris' Hawk (Parabuteo) has been one of the most successful recently used raptors. Coming from the American SouthWest this bird works in groups and is highly social. It makes a great beginner bird (and is commonly used in Europe as such) for many reasons and is one of the more leisurely birds to fly. These are often lumped into the same category as Red-Tails as they share many attributes.
Owls (Strigiformes) have been used with various amounts of success. The Eurasian Eagle Owl is more common in Europe and used more as a display bird than as a hunting partner. Great Horned Owls have been used to catch game as well. The Strigidae family of owls have 10 primary and anywhere from 10 - 19 secondary feathers on each wing. They all have 12 tail feathers. Generally, by looking at owls you can know something about their lifestyle - black eyes indicate they are nocturnal, while yellow or orange indicate they are active during the daytime.
There are other raptors which have been used or attempted with varying degrees of success. Although Osprey are commonly asked about, we know of only a few people who have actually hunted with them. Rehabbers often struggle with Osprey as they can be challenging to interest in eating due to their preferred food being fish and their search image being live wiggling fish. Some have had success laying down on their stomach and wiggling a fish at the Osprey. Others have carefully approached (somehow) from behind to slip a fish under the bird and between its feet, touching the feet to encourage it to make a grab, then wiggle the fish so it appears to be alive. Others have had success with live fish in a small children's wading pool, or dead fish and enough water current (caused by water or an aerator) to make the fish appear alive. Sometimes a model or competitor helps and having another bird eating within sight can help.
With the new regulations there are birds that will be hunted with that have not been used in the United States since prior to the first falconry regulations going into effect. Many falconers are looking forward to being able to try hunting partnerships with owls such as the Pygmy Owl, the Snowy Owl, Harriers, Osprey, and more. There is a tradition in North American falconry of trying any and every species and many in the past have worked with species we have not seen used for decades due to regulations. These are exciting times and falconers will be doing some interesting things in the coming years.

Raptor ID - IWRC information to identify various raptor species
Internet Bird Collection - various raptor species and videos

All images and text Copyright © 2004 - 2020 - Lydia Ash