What are ‘birds of prey’?
‘Birds of prey’ are large, predatory bird species that have hooked bills, sharp talons, strong feet, and keen eyesight and hearing. They tend to feed on small mammals, birds, insects and reptiles. The UK’s birds of prey come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes:
Hawks and eagles: medium to very large; hooked bills; rounded or broad wings; sharp talons; tend to soar
Falcons: small to medium-sized; tapered wings and tails; fast and agile; often hover
Owls: small to large; rounded heads; small, hooked bills; forward-facing eyes; mainly nocturnal
Our birds of prey live in a variety of habitats, including woodland, farmland and even in cities. Some are easy to spot, while others are much rarer or live in places that are difficult to get to. Either way, seeing a bird of prey can be an awe-inspiring experience as they soar high in the sky, or swoop down with deadly accuracy on their unsuspecting prey.
Which birds of prey am I most likely to see?
Where: Variety of habitats, including gardens, across the UK
Description: Small. Males have blue-grey backs and white underparts with orange barring. Females are brown above, with grey barring underneath.
Where: Grassland, farmland and woodland across the UK
Description: Medium. Brown plumage, broad wings and a short tail.
Where: Grassland, heathland and sometimes towns across the UK
Description: Small. Grey head, grey tail with dark banding, gingery-brown back, and a creamy, speckled underside.
Where: Southern and eastern heathlands and wetlands in summer
Description: Small. Slate-grey plumage, with black streaks on its belly, red 'trousers', a white throat, and a dark moustache and mask.
Where: Woodland and farmland mainly in Wales and South East England
Description: Large. Reddish-brown plumage, black-tipped wings with white patches underneath, and a forked tail.
Where: Woodland, parks and gardens across the UK
Description: Medium. Mottled brown plumage, a rounded head, large, dark eyes, and a dark ring around its face.
Where: Grassland and farmland across the UK
Description: Small. Mottled silver-grey and buff back, white underside, heart-shaped, white face, and black eyes.
Which rarer species can I look out for?
Where: Moorlands and coastal marshes in England, Wales and Scotland
Description: Small. Males are blue-grey above and cream with black streaks underneath. Females are grey-brown with dark streaking.
Where: Coastal cliffs and some towns in North and South West England, Wales and Scotland
Description: Medium. Slate-grey above and white below, with black bars underneath, a white throat and cheeks, and a black moustache and mask.
Where: Upland areas and glens in Scotland
Description: Very large. Mainly dark brown, with a golden head and neck.
Where: Reedbeds in East Anglia, Somerset and the South East
Description: Large. Males are brown above and ginger underneath, with grey, black-tipped wings. Females are chocolate-brown with a golden-yellow crown and throat.
Where: Wetlands in Scotland, Northumberland, Cumbria, Wales and the East Midlands in summer
Description: Large. Dark above and white below, with angled wings that show dark patches.
Where: Breeds on upland moors (rare in England); winters on coasts, heathland and farmland across the UK.
Description: Medium. Females are brown above and streaked below, with a white rump and banded tail. Males are blue-grey with black wingtips.
Where: Moorlands, saltmarshes and rough grassland.
Description: Medium. Mottled yellowy-brown above and pale below, with dark circles around its yellow eyes and short ‘ear tufts’.
Other rare species that breed in the UK include goshawk, white-tailed eagle and long-eared owl. Find out more about identifying all our birds of prey on our species explorer.
Are birds of prey under threat?
During the 20th century, many of our birds of prey were persecuted to near extinction (such as the white-tailed eagle), or severely suffered from the effects of organochlorine pesticides like DDT (such as the merlin). Today, massive conservation efforts offer them a lifeline. Not only are organisations like The Wildlife Trusts involved in reintroduction and habitat restoration programmes, we are also working towards a living landscape – a network of habitats that link urban green spaces and nature reserves with the wider countryside, enabling wildlife to thrive and move about freely.