Leko’s Conservation Corner – Raptor Identification

(Last Updated On: November 4, 2017)

Ministry of Environment conservation officer Lindsey Leko

My family recently returned from holidays in B.C. It was a marathon trip filled with detours due to the fires and, of course, construction. I did most of the driving and enjoyed it. Now that the kids have their iPad with them, they are not as interested in helping dad pick out different birds on the highway or fields. Sure, they were impressed with a grizzly bear, a big horn sheep or mountain goat, but not by our flatland ducks and hawks.

Even when I asked my wife about a bird on top of the power pole, I got the eye roll because I interrupted an Ed Sheeran song and then get the doozy of an answer – a duck.

Well, today is your lucky day, as I know there are many out there who enjoy looking at our hawks and falcons while driving to your favourite destinations. Of course, paying attention to where you are driving is always most important, but identifying different bird species can be a great way to pass the time. So I will start with raptors.

In Saskatchewan, we have four different types of raptors. These are owls, hawks, falcons and eagles. It would be five if you included the turkey vulture. We have twelve different species of owls, five species of falcons, 10 species of hawks and two species of eagles in Saskatchewan. The more common falcons include the merlin and kestrel.

Falcons can be distinguished from hawks by their size and wing shape.

Hawks are larger than falcons and tend to glide more in flight. Many of the identification characteristics used in raptor ID require you to see the bird up close to distinguish juveniles and females. But some have characteristics that you can see at a distance.

Northern harrier – This hawk is commonly found gliding low above fields and wetlands looking for food. The distance above the ground is a pretty good clue that it’s a harrier. This bird is easy to recognize from a distance because it has a distinct white rump patch and a relatively long tail that you can see while it is flying. Up close, the harrier has a facial disk similar to an owl. These birds are also sometimes referred to as marsh hawks.

Red-Tailed Hawk – Photo credit Joanne Francis/Nipawin News

Red-tailed hawk – This is one of the larger hawks found on the prairies. Adults will have a reddish/rust-coloured tail that is visible during flight. Another key feature at a distance is the dark band across the light-coloured underbelly of the bird. Red-tailed hawks have very broad, rounded wings with a short, wide tail. They can be found perched on telephones poles, fence posts, or trees, standing alone or along the edges of fields.


Swainson’s hawk – Is another common raptor found on the prairies. An immature Swainson’s hawk can be distinguished from an immature red-tailed

Swainson’s Hawk – Photo credit Ministry of Environment

hawk by looking at the underside in flight. The outer wing feathers of Swainson’s hawk are dark and make a large dark swath along the wing edge, and the body is all pale. Red-tailed hawks have pale outer wing feathers, making a narrow dark edge along the wing and the breast has a dark belly band. Mature Swainson’s hawks have a white belly with a very noticeable brown bib/crescent shape on its breast.


Cooper’s hawk – This medium-sized hawk is commonly found in urban areas with lots of trees and song birds for it to eat. It flies through the tree canopy with ease in pursuit of its next meal. Adults are a steely blue grey with dark bars on the belly. The tail looks long in flight and is rounded at the base with wide bars across it. Cooper’s hawks fly with a “flap, flap, glide” pattern. If you get really close to one, the adults also have red eyes. This species is often confused with the sharp-shinned hawk, although overall size of the bird and shape of the tail can differentiate the two species. Cooper’s hawks are larger and have a more rounded tail.

Eagles – In Saskatchewan, we have the golden eagle and bald eagle. These two birds are about the same size. Many use the white head and tail of the bald eagle as an ID characteristic, but the truth is that many immature bald eagles have brown heads similar to the golden eagle.

There are two ways that I know of to differentiate between the two birds. One is to look at the beak. The bald eagle has a yellow beak, while the golden eagle has a yellow beak with a black tip. The other way is to get right close to it. Bald eagles have no feathers down to the tarsus (toes). Golden eagles have feathers right down to the toes. The underside of the wing can be another differentiating feature between immature bald eagles and golden eagles and consulting a field guide can help you distinguish what you may be observing.

Osprey – We also have ospreys in Saskatchewan. They are normally found in the northern parts of the province near water which provide its primary food source …. fish. Its toes are of equal length and the talons are quite rounded. The other unique thing about the osprey is that they have an outer toe which is reversible. This allows it to move so that there are two toes in the front and two in the back. This makes it easier for them to grab fish out of the water. Owls have this same characteristic.

Ospreys have a full white belly with a white crown on its head and a dark eye stripe. In flight, the wings look particularly elongated and are bowed while soaring.

Merlins – This bird is a bird lover’s least favourite raptor. These fierce little falcons make meals out of many song and shorebirds. Merlins are small, and fast-flying with relatively drab colouration (ranging from blue-gray to brown, depending on gender and geographical region).

Kestrels – These are Saskatchewan’s smallest raptor. It is the most colorful of all Saskatchewan raptors with slate blue-coloured wings and a rust-coloured back and tail. The female also has rust-coloured wings. Both the male and female have black vertical bars in front and behind the eyes. Not as much of a threat to songbirds as a merlin, kestrels often attack their prey on the ground.

In the next couple of columns, I plan to start getting into the hunting related topics as that time is coming soon.

Until next time…keep your rod tip up.

CO Lindsey Leko – Photo credit Ministry of Environment.

Ministry of Environment conservation officer Lindsey Leko has spent more than 25 years as a conservation officer in Saskatchewan. For many years, Officer Leko contributed a column to local papers on a variety of issues related to hunting, fishing, and other resource-related issues. 

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