Missouri's Raptors

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2009

Last revision: Dec. 10, 2010

they hunt, and descend feet first to capture rodents, birds, insects, snakes and other prey.

Males and females differ dramatically in appearance: Mature males are gray above and white below while females are brown and streaked below. Harriers have a disc-shaped face, which helps them locate prey by sound, much like owls. Harriers also are one of few raptors to nest on the ground, laying a clutch of four to seven eggs.


The buteo group of hawks are stocky birds with broad wings, making them well adapted for soaring in open country. Buteos seen in Missouri have relatively short, broad tails, which are fan-shaped in flight.

Swainson’s Hawk

Buteo swainsoni
Length—21 inches
Wingspan—52 inches

The Swainson’s hawk winters in South America and summers in the western U.S., occasionally residing in western Missouri during the warm months. They nest in and around Springfield, Mo. and into the Osage Plains, and a few are in northwestern Missouri. A Swainson’s hawk can be distinguished from a red-tailed hawk by its relatively slim body, its dark chestnut breast and all-brown back feathers. From underneath, it has white wing linings that contrast with its darker, barred wings. It hunts for rodents, birds, snakes, insects and other prey over prairies or crop field stubble by circling like a vulture.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis
Length—22 inches
Wingspan—50 inches

Due to its aggressive hunting abilities, great variety of prey and ability to adapt to many different habitats, the redtailed hawk is the most abundant hawk in North America. Its high-pitched scream is familiar too, as it is the typical raptor call played in movies. Adult birds usually are easy to identify. They are brown from above, nearly uniformly white/light streaked below, with a brown band of feathers at the belly, and they have a reddish tail. Immatures can be harder to identify. They are similar to adults, but the tail is brown with narrow dark bars.

Darker and lighter color variations exist in red-tailed hawks (color morphs), but they do have reddish tails. During the winter, red-tailed hawk subspecies (dark Harlan’s hawk and the pale Krider’s red-tailed hawk) can be present, too, so carefully study bird field guides for correct identification. There are also several individuals of partial or completely albino red-tailed hawks in Missouri.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Buteo lineatus
Length—19 inches
Wingspan—40 inches

If you hear a high-pitched KEyar-KEyar-KEyar call, look up. You are likely hearing a red-shouldered hawk, or a blue jay, which imitates hawk calls. Red-shouldered hawks nest

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