Follow a bird’s eye to find aerial raptors


Predatory birds like hawks are always rare – far outnumbered by their prey – and they often move through an area quickly and stealthily. For us, spotting a raptor is fun, but for birds like doves and sparrows, it’s a matter of life and death. They will almost always find a bird of prey before we do, so if we can learn to recognize the signs that they’ve spotted one, it can help us see more raptors.

Anyone who owns a bird feeder will learn the sounds of a raptor attack: the lively “conversation” of the birds at the feeder suddenly turns into a flapping of wings and a few urgent calls of chickadees and finches, then silence. It’s time to search for an accipiter. More distant hawks can be revealed by the stares of birds such as doves or waterfowl.

Pay attention to things that catch the attention of the birds you observe. Any flock of birds in an open setting – geese, ducks, gulls, shorebirds, doves – will stare at the sky and their vision differs from ours. Where we see a single point of detail straight ahead, all of these species see a narrow horizontal band of detail in each eye, more or less along the horizon. Their peripheral vision covers the sky above them, but if they want to get a detailed look at something in the sky, they have to tilt their head and look out with one eye.

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This movement is very common, you will see birds doing it at least every minute or two. Usually their attention was caught by something insignificant – a bumblebee, a dandelion seed, a harmless bird like a robin flying by. In these cases, they quickly settle back into a resting position.


If you see a bird tilting its head repeatedly and holding its gaze skyward for a few seconds at a time, and especially if other birds in the group are looking in the same direction, it’s time to turn in that direction and to look for a distant falcon in the sky.

If the birds suddenly become tense – with body feathers compressed, head lowered and forward, and standing very still – it means they feel they are in imminent danger and a hawk is probably very close. Look for a falcon in flight, then scan nearby trees to see if it has perched there. This and many other ways, listening to bird behavior can help you find more birds.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe now.


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