How to identify UK animals

UK birds of prey

Birds of prey can be difficult to tell apart, not least because we often only glimpse them briefly or from a distance.

Sparrowhawk or peregrine?
Sparrowhawk and a peregrine Peregrines have a dark moustache and sparrowhawks have piercing yellow eyes

Both sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons are small bird-eating raptors.

  • Sparrowhawks have striking yellow eyes, short wings and a long tail. They are identifiable for their short sharp bursts of speed and are real sprinters. They often fly in a "beep beep glide" pattern.
  • Peregrine falcons, however, have dark eyes, long wings and a short tail. They cruise with rapid steady wing beats and drop like a bullet onto prey. They are also characterised by their moustache: black marks that reach down below the eyes. They look as if they are wearing a mask.
Hobby or kestrel?

Both hobbies and kestrels belong to the falcon genus. Falcons are characterised by their sharp, arched talons and large eyes used for hunting, and have a short hooked beak. Hobbies and kestrels can be hard to tell apart because they are very similar in size.

A hobby wing A hobby has sickle shaped wings
  • Kestrels are the most common bird of prey in Europe and are often spotted hovering at roadsides. They will stop to eat their prey 99% of the time. The males have a grey head in contrast to their red-brown plumage but the females are browner.
  • Hobbies, on the other hand, can't hover at all and eats on the wing, catching insects mid-flight. From below they look very similar to kestrels, so it is best to look out for their eating habits. Hobbies can also sometimes be spotted by their narrow sickle-shaped wings and darker plumage.
Buzzard or red kite?
Red kite and buzzard tail Red kites have longer, forked tails

Buzzards and red kites are raptors which use their broad wings for soaring; one way of telling the difference between them is by their tails.

  • Buzzards have a short rounded tail where red kites have a very long, forked tail which allows them to twist and turn in flight.
  • Red kites are the closest bird we have to a vulture in Britain and are distinguishable by their grey heads. Their wingspan is very large, from approximately 1.5-1.7m (5-5.5ft).
Barn owl or snowy owl?

Barn owls and snowy owls are similar in colour and so might be confused from a distance.

Snowy and barn owl Snowy owls are dappled grey-white and barn owls have tawny brown upperparts
  • Barn owls are frequently seen from below and so can look entirely white when in fact they have tawny brown upperparts. They also have a marked facial disk which reflects sound into their ears. Barn owls can be seen across most of Britain excluding the far northern reaches of Scotland.
  • Snowy owls are very rare in the wilds of the UK but might be spotted in the far north around the Shetland Islands or Cairngorms. They are much bigger than barn owls and the females are dappled grey on top where the males are pure white.

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