I had this email conversation with my friend Kerry (she likes birding). It made me giggle a bunch of times. I didn’t want to lose it.
Me: You know that sound in movies when vultures are swarming around in the desert and it makes you feel like something bad is going to or has happened? Well, I here that outside my window at work. It freaks me out.
Kerry: That’s probably a red tail hawk! They use that for everything in movies. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-tailed_Hawk/sounds
M: Yes, that’s it. Did you know these hawks lived around here?
K: Yes, they live around everywhere. They are quite common. If you see a hawk, it’s almost certainly a red-tailed. They’re still totally awesome, though. They are BIG. They eat squirrels, not engineers, so you should be safe.
M: How do you tell the difference between hawks and other big birds?
K: You can tell a lot from how they fly. Turkey vultures form a “V” with their wings, and they hardly flap at all, they just float around on updrafts. They wobble in the air. Red-tailed hawks form more of a straight line, and they have to flap their wings a lot to keep their altitude. Grown-up males have a bright red tail. If you see a big bird in the sky, it’s going to be one of those two, nine times out of ten.
Bald eagles are easy to spot because they have a white head and white at the tail (and are BIG.) Bald eagles eat fish from rivers. Ospreys I’m usually like “what is THAT?? Is that a bald eagle??” because they look sort of like a bald eagle but not quite and then I’m like “oh it’s an osprey.” But they’re only near water. They eat fish too, but at the ocean or tidal areas. They have tiny heads.
Sometimes you’ll see a smaller bird flying fast, the size of a mourning dove, but you can tell it’s a hawk just from how it’s flying — sort of zooming instead of moseying. Can’t describe it really, you just get used to it after watching twelve million doves in your backyard all the time. A small hawk is usually a sharp-shinned hawk.
The other ones you might see around are Coopers hawks. There are a few that I see out back of the office sometimes. They have coloring similar to sharpies (gray on the back, white with mottled red/brown on the front, striped tail,) but they are bigger. They zoom *through* trees, they don’t hover around looking for prey I don’t think, so you mostly see them near the ground and can identify them that way. They eat songbirds.
Medium-sized black ones are crows probably (we don’t get many ravens around here.)
Those are most of the big birds we get around here that aren’t shorebirds/waterfowl. Canada geese are … well, Canada geese, I think you know what they look like. If you see a flock of geese REALLY high up and there are HUNDREDS or thousands of them, those are snow geese. If you see a dark bird flying with big wings and looong legs sticking out the back, that’s a great blue heron. If it’s white that’s a great egret. If you see a duck it’s probably a mallard.
Turkeys look like bowling pins when they fly. I’ve never seen one fly for real though, just hop fences.
Those are all the big birds I could think of that you might see around here. Aren’t you glad you asked??