Birds of Prey

Built to Hunt

Birds that hunt for mammals, fish or other birds are called “birds of prey” or “raptors.” They have strong legs, toes with sharp talons and curved beaks that make it easy to catch, carry and eat their meals.

Hawks, falcons and owls are common birds of prey that call DuPage forest preserves home, and while they're all hunters, they do have differences that place them in separate groups.

Hawks

Ecologists divide hawks into two groups: accipiters and buteos.

Accipiters — Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks — have long tails and short, rounded wings, which let them maneuver through the woods as they hunt smaller birds. (But both will look for prey at backyard feeders, too!) Northern goshawks are also accipiters, but DuPage birders only see them during migration.

Buteos are larger than accipiters and have wide, rounded tails and broad wings, which help them soar in circles. They mainly eat small mammals but also dine on snakes, birds, amphibians and insects. Red-tailed hawks are DuPage County’s most common buteos. Broad-winged and red-shouldered hawks live here year-round but are less common, and rough-legged hawks only stop by during migration.

 

Falcons

Falcons are more slender than hawks and have pointy wings, which help them reach 200 mph when power-diving toward prey. They mainly eat birds but also hunt insects, small rodents and bats. The county has one year-round falcon, the American kestrel, but state-threatened peregrine falcons and merlins sometimes use the forest preserves as migration stopovers. 

 

Harriers

The county's only harrier, the state-endangered northern harrier, is slim with long wings and a long tail. Harriers nest and roost on the ground, so their diet consists of mice, frogs, snakes, and sometimes insects, birds, and dead animals.

 

Eagles

Eagles are about twice the size of most hawks and have proportionally larger wings and bills. Bald and golden eagles — the only two that live in North America — both use DuPage forest preserves during migration, but bald eagles are now common summer nesters in the Chicagoland area. Bald eagles mainly eat fish but will also take injured ducks, carrion and small mammals. Golden eagles prey on small mammals, insects, snakes and birds.

 

Osprey

Osprey are smaller than bald eagles but live in similar habitats and also primarily eat fish. Several pairs of these state-endangered birds with white heads and large black cheek patches spend summers nesting in DuPage forest preserves.

 

Vultures

Although not necessarily impressive-looking on the ground, with a wingspan nearing 6 feet a circling turkey vulture is a striking sight overhead. They use their strong sense of smell to sniff out food, even food below a dense canopy of trees. Although they do eat some live prey, their primary diet is carrion (aka dead animals).

Owls

Owls are the county's nocturnal, or nighttime, birds of prey. They typically live in woodlands and thickets and along wooded streams but are common in backyards. People may spot them during the day, but they're most likely to hear them at night between late winter and early spring during the breeding season.

Three common owls live here year-round: the eastern screech, great horned and barred. Eastern screech owls are about the size of a pint glass, but great horned owls can be up to 2 feet tall. The prominent tufts on their heads look like horns or ears, but they're just feathers. Barred owls are about the same size as great horned owls but have more rounded faces without the tufts.

Long-eared and state-endangered short-eared owls are far less common, but birders have spotted both overwintering in forest preserve grasslands and marshes, often in groups. Northern saw-whet owls are also uncommon, possibly because these 6-inch-tall secretive birds only call during the breeding season.

Snowy owls may overwinter this far south if prey is scare further north, but state-endangered barn owls have not been spotted in DuPage for several years.