Birds of prey are not only defined by their physical characteristics, but also by their carnivorous diets. While it is widely assumed that the primary prey for raptors is small mammals, these birds actually have a varied diet that can include many different types of game.
Different types of birds of prey eat a wide range of different animals. In general, the larger the bird the larger the prey, but many medium and large raptors will also choose easier, smaller meals. The most common prey of raptors includes:
- Large Insects: Grasshoppers, praying mantises and other large insects are the preferred prey of small raptors such as American kestrels, merlins and Mississippi kites. Raptors that spend a large amount of time on the ground, such as burrowing owls, also eat a lot of insects.
- Fish: Birds of prey that live along coastlines or near large bodies of water often hunt fish, in some cases poaching it from other predators such as bears, raccoons and mountain lions. Fish is the majority of the diet for bald eagles and osprey, and the snowy owl will also occasionally eat fish.
- Small Mammals: Small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews and gophers are the most popular prey for medium and large raptors. Red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, Cooper’s hawks, barn owls, merlins and many other species hunt small mammals, either by perching and scanning fields or by soaring to spot prey.
- Small Birds: Many small birds, including finches, sparrows and songbirds are prey for larger birds. Depending on the raptor species, they may surprise the smaller birds on the ground or catch them in mid-flight, either through diving or after an acrobatic aerial chase.
- Large Birds: Larger birds such as pigeons, doves, ducks and grouse often become prey for larger raptors. Fierce predators such as the northern goshawk and the swift diving peregrine falcon feed frequently on larger birds.
- Medium Mammals: Medium-sized mammals such as rabbits, raccoons and large squirrels are regular parts of the diet of large birds of prey. Red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, northern goshawks and golden eagles hunt these bigger mammals.
- Carrion: Dead animals and rotting carcasses are the primary diet of scavenging raptors such as the turkey vulture and the California condor. Other large raptors, including golden and bald eagles, will also choose an easy meal like carrion if it is available.
- Reptiles: Snakes and lizards are popular prey for desert dwelling raptors such as the crested caracara. The barred owl is also known to feed frequently on reptiles.
- Amphibians: Smaller birds of prey and those that prefer habitats near water often feed on amphibians such as frogs and salamanders. Red-shouldered hawks and American kestrels often include amphibians in their diet.