All 12 Birds of Prey in Montana! (Species ID Guide) (2024)

All 12 Birds of Prey in Montana-template

Thanks to its diverse landscape, there are 37 birds of prey in Montana.

Many raptors in Montana may migrate south for the winter, but several are found in the state all year round.

So, if you want to go birdwatching, Montana is the place to go!

From open country sites to coastal areas and dense forests to inland lakes, you will spot many birds of prey in different habitats.

In this article, we will discuss 12 birds of prey in Montana, their features, and their habitats!

Before you scroll further down this guide, check out these other bird-related articles: Best Bird Rescues in New York and Best Bird Rescues in New Jersey.

1. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Circus cyaneus
  • Length: 18.1-19.7 in (46-50 cm)
  • Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz (300-750 g)
  • Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in (102-118 cm)

Also known as the Marsh Hawk or Ring-Tailed Hawk, the Northern Harrier is a medium-sized hawk with a flat face resembling an owl. It has a hooked bill, yellow legs, and broad wings.

Males are usually gray from the top and white underneath with black wingtips, whereas females have white undersides with brown streaking.

Northern Harriers are found in dry and wet open terrains, wherever they can find decent ground cover. You’ll also likely find Harriers in fields, prairies, and marshes.

They usually hunt for their prey by hovering over fields or grounds or trying to drive them out in the open.

Their flying technique largely resembles that of a Turkey Vulture.

Because of their long wings and narrow tails, they rock in the wind like the vulture and hold their wings in a ’V‘ shape above their backs.

2. Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Buteo Swainsoni
  • Length: 18.9-22.1 in (48-56 cm)
  • Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz (693-1367 g)
  • Wingspan: 46-54 in (117-137cm)

Since the Swainson’s Hawk is a Buteo, it is a relatively large bird.

It is gray, white, and brown and has a slimmer body than other Buteos. Moreover, it has broad, pointed wings and a short tail.

Although the Swainson’s Hawk prefers desert-like habitats and open grasslands, you can also look for this bird in ranch country, plains, farmland, savannas, and cultivated lands.

They’re also known to nest in river bottom forests.

When in flight, this elegant raptor will hold its wings like a dihedral or a “V,”; usually rocking back and forth while soaring.

However, they may also engage in transect-glide when hunting for their prey.

The Swainson’s Hawk has a unique hunting technique; they usually swoop down from perches to catch their prey by surprise and may even hunt in teams with other Swainson’s Hawks.

3. Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Buteo regalis
  • Length: 22.1-27.2 in (56-69 cm)
  • Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz (977-2074 g)
  • Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in (133-142 cm)

The Ferruginous Hawk belongs to the broad-winged Buteo hawks.

The biggest hawk in North America, this hawk has a large body, a big gray head, and broad wings. The tail is also wide and is gray, rust-colored, or white.

A Ferruginous Hawk’s underparts are also white with reddish brown marks.

Their shoulders and legs are rust-colored. The rust-colored plumage and the pure white chest make it easily identifiable.

Ferruginous Hawks usually inhabit sagebrush plains, lowlands, valleys, steppe, and plowed fields.

They hunt from lone trees, high skies, or rock outcrops.

They may catch prey in different styles by pouncing on it with a hop, surprising it by swooping down from above, or hunting from the ground.

The Ferruginous Hawk is often misunderstood as an eagle because of its looks and behavior.

When in flight, they soar their wings with slow wing beats, similar to the flight of a small eagle. They also teeter back and forth on the wing.

4. Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Accipiter gentilis
  • Length: 20.9-25.2 in (53-64 cm)
  • Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz (631-1364 g)

Bulky and large, the Northern Goshawk is a diurnal raptor. Its wings are broad yet short, with a relatively long tail.

It has a dark head with a distinctive wide white stripe over the eye. Overall, it is dark gray from the top, with its underparts being pale gray with spotting.

It is white from underneath its tail-coverts with a gray belly and breast.

The Northern Goshawk inhibits coniferous and mixed forests. It may even nest in maple, oak, and aspen trees.

When in flight, it follows a strict “flap, flap, glide” pattern, but it may even soar while migrating from one habitat to another.

However, its hunting style is rather hasty, frequently jumping head-first onto its prey from bushes or tree branches.

The Northern Goshawk may even analyze its prey sitting patiently on tree foliage, from perches, or by hovering closely over the ground.

5. Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Ictinia mississippiensis
  • Length: 13.4-14.6 in (34-37 cm)
  • Weight: 7.6-9.5 oz (216-269 g)

Mississippi Kites are considered accidental birds of prey in Montana and are fairly rare.

The Mississippi Kite is a mesmerizing bird with a mix of dull gray and black. Its tail is dark gray, with its outer wings, head, and neck a shade of light gray.

The kite’s tail is long and has small, pointed wings with a small, hooked bill.

Mississippi Kites inhabit lower elevations and can be found in diverse habitats, from riparian forests, woodlands, swamps, and trees along rivers.

These birds are also excellent fliers; they fly floating their wingbeats and can often be seen sailing in the wind.

When hunting for its meals, it often catches flying insects in the air, be it small or large.

It even consumes most of its prey while soaring up in the air. The Mississippi Kite is graceful when in flight and when hunting.

Occasionally, it flies from perch to perch to grab flying insects.

6. Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Buteo lagopus
  • Length: 18.5-20.5 in (47-52 cm)
  • Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz (715-1400 g)
  • Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in (132-138 cm)

Large and heavily built, the Rough-Legged Hawk, also called the Rough-Legged Buzzard, is the most common Buteo hawk in the US.

Resembling an eagle in appearance; its head and throat and a shade of pale yellow, with its belly being pure black.

Moreover, the buzzard’s under-wings are pale with largely visible dark spots. Its wings are longer with a black-tipped white tail.

Rough-Legged Hawks prefer open country and agricultural lands or areas as habitats, but you can also expect to find this specie in boreal forests, cliffs, outcroppings, and upland regions.

When hunting, it looks for its meal from perches or hovering in the air. The Rough-Legged Buzzard is known for using rodent scents when searching for prey.

When in flight, it hovers regularly, with its wings flapping repeatedly. It’s also common for the buzzard to glide.

7. Crested Caracara 

Crested Caracara 

Crested Caracara Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Caracara plancus
  • Length: 19.3-22.8 in (49-58 cm)
  • Weight: 37.0-45.9 oz (1050-1300 g)
  • Wingspan: 48.0-49.2 in (122-125 cm)

Although the Crested Caracara is an accidental species in Montana, you may spot it occasionally, especially during the migration season.

The Crested Caracara, belonging to the family of Falconidae, is a strikingly patterned black and white bird with yellow-orange skin around its bill and yellow legs.

Its wings are broad, with its tail appearing diamond-shaped in flight.

The bird may even resemble a hawk from afar because of its heavy and sharp bill and talons. However, its behavior is similar to a hawk’s.

Crested Caracaras nest and inhabit open areas; you’re likely to spot this bird in rangelands, prairies, and agricultural lands.

When this bird is in flight, you will spot its white under tail and flight features.

Their wings open and appear to be in a diamond-like shape while they’re in the air. They often fly with powerful wingbeats and also fly close to the ground.

The Crested Caracaras is one of the few birds of prey that prefers to hunt on foot.

It’s known to walk on the ground searching for its prey and will eat almost anything that comes its way.

The Caracaras can also occasionally be aggressive, often chasing vultures away from road kills.

8. Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Caracara plancus
  • Length: 14.2-19.3 in (36-49 cm)
  • Weight: 18.7-56.4 oz (530-1600 g)
  • Wingspan: 39.4-43.3 in (100-110 cm)

The Peregrine Falcon resembles a large and extensively barred Anatum.

One of the largest falcons of the bird kingdom, the Peregrine Falcon is strongly-built with dark gray upperparts, with a grey belly that has black barring on it.

However, its underparts are white.

Its tail has a gorgeous barring of grey and white along with black and white markings on its long, pointed wings. The Peregrine Falcon’s feet and legs are yellow.

For its habitat, it usually prefers water bodies. So, you can try visiting lakes, rivers, and ponds to spot a Peregrine Falcon.

Apart from water bodies, it is also commonly found in open habitats such as valleys, mountains, and forests.

This falcon will either fall into a dashing nose dive to catch its delicious meals or bend speedily to catch its quarry.

It’s known to chase its prey and occasionally even strike it with its foot, killing it immediately.

Its pointed wings enable it to fly at extreme speed because of more flapping power.

9. Merlin


Merlin Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Falco columbarius
  • Length: 9.4-11.8 in (24-30 cm)
  • Weight: 5.6-8.5 oz (160-240 g)
  • Wingspan: 20.9-26.8 in (53-68 cm)

The Merlin is a small falcon with a broad chest, broad-based pointed wings, and a tail that is medium in length.

The male Merlin has a gray head and upperparts, including the tail. However, the tail has a black strip and white tips and is banded towards the end.

Females tend to be darker in color as compared to their male counterparts.

They are also larger than the male Merlins. If you want to spot a Merlin in Montana, head to open country.

The bird is also commonly spotted in taiga forests, grasslands, and parks.

When in flight, the Merlin’s wingbeats are powerful and deep compared to other falcons. Their flight is often compared to that of a pigeon.

However, it flies fast but low when it’s hunting, catching its prey by surprise.

10. Osprey

Osprey Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
  • Length: 21.3-22.8 in (54-58 cm)
  • Weight: 49.4-70.5 oz (1400-2000 g)
  • Wingspan: 59.1-70.9 in (150-180 cm)

The Osprey is the second most widely distributed bird of prey globally. It is a gorgeous and large bird that has black and white plumage.

This bird is black from the top and white underneath. The Osprey has yellow eyes with a dark brown strip that differentiates the bird from the eagle.

The Osprey’s tail is relatively short, but the wings are long yet narrow.

The Osprey nestlings, however, appear different than the adults due to their white spotted back and buffy breast color.

Since the Osprey is a fish-eating bird of prey, you can find it near large lakes, reservoirs, and rivers in Montana.

Other habitats it may inhibit include dock pilings and power poles.

It is often seen flying over the water. It hovers constantly and then dives feet-first to catch the fish with its powerful, black talons.

11. Black Vultures

Black Vultures

Black Vultures Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Coragyps atratus
  • Length: 23 – 27 in (58 – 69 cm)
  • Weight: 76.8 oz (2177 g)
  • Wingspan: 54 – 60 in (137 – 152 cm)
  • Life Span: 20-25 years
  • Conservation: Least concern

Deemed as the blackest of all vultures, the Black Vulture is a bird of prey found throughout the year in Montana.

Black Vultures have dark black plumage, short and broad wings, and a hook-shaped beak.

The head is grayish and is typically bald, with almost no feathers. Their hooked beaks help them tear flesh from carrion.

Being fairly large scavengers, Black Vultures inhabit open spaces with fewer trees to locate dead animal bodies easily.

They roost in areas with an abundant availability of water.

Black Vultures feed on carrion and animal corpses but can often be seen eating eggs, dead poultry, small reptiles, snakes, and floating fish.

These birds of prey are silent and lay eggs on the ground and hollow logs.

Females lay 1-3 eggs with green-gray or white shells with dark brown or lavender spots.

12. Turkey Vultures

Turkey Vulture Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
  • Length: 26 – 32 in (66 – 81 cm)
  • Weight: 51.2 oz (1451 g)
  • Wingspan: 68 – 72 in (173 – 183 cm)
  • Life Span: 10-16 years
  • Conservation: Least concern

Last on our list of the 12 birds of prey in Montana is the Turkey Vulture.

Also known as Turkey Buzzards, Turkey Vultures are named so because of their loose resemblance to a Wild Turkey.

Turkey Vultures are fairly abundant throughout the United States, including Montana.

The Turkey Vultures are brownish-black from the top, have silvery-gray feathers underneath the top feathers, which unfurl during flight, and darker wing linings.

When in flight, their wings form a characteristic “V.”

These birds are truly bald, with little to no feathers over their pinkish-red head, and the adult head is small in proportion to its body.

The sexes exhibit no dimorphism whatsoever and are almost identical.

You can spot a vulture now and then since they are one of the most abundant raptors.

Turkey Vultures live in various habitats ranging from open country to shrublands, deserts, forests, and occasionally across the road when you are on one of your excursion rides.

They prefer tall trees across woodlands for nesting and roosting, but they can also nest in crevices in cliffs, old buildings, and hollow tree trunks.

Being notorious scavengers, Turkey Vultures commonly feed on carrion and decayed animals as long as it’s not too old.

They also feed on dead fish and roadkills (famously depicted in movies), and sometimes they may kill small animals.

All Birds of Prey in Montana

Conclusion For All Birds of Prey in Montana

Most famous for its natural beauty and diverse wildlife, Montana has plenty to offer to all bird lovers across the state.

Along with lakes and rivers, there are several other places you can head to if you’re fond of birdwatching.

We recommended trying out Lone Pine State Park.

A public recreation area that hosts an annual birds of prey festival for hundreds of people to come together, watch, and learn more about raptors found in Montana.

We must celebrate and preserve the ecological system and wildlife Montana offers us.

Therefore, we urge all treasure state citizens to participate in different activities that work towards preserving our mother nature and its wildlife.

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