Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Follow a bird’s gaze to find overhead raptors

ON THE LOOKOUT: Mourning Doves tilt their heads skyward in search of a potential predator. Art by David Sibley

Predatory birds like hawks are always scarce — much less numerous than their prey species — and they often move through an area quickly and stealthily. To us, spotting a raptor is fun, but to birds like doves and sparrows, it is a matter of life or death. They will almost always find a bird of prey before we do, so if we can learn to recognize the signs that they’ve spotted one, it can help us see more raptors.

Anyone who has a bird feeder will learn the sounds of a raptor attack: the bustling “conversation” of birds at the feeder suddenly switches to a flurry of wings and a few urgent-sounding calls from chickadees and finches, then silence. It’s time to scan for an accipiter. More distant hawks can be revealed by the glances of birds such as doves or waterfowl.

Be alert to the things that are attracting the attention of the birds you are watching. Any flock of birds in an open setting — geese, ducks, gulls, shorebirds, doves — will be watching the sky, and their vision differs from ours. Where we see a single point of detail straight in front of us, all of these species see a narrow horizontal band of detail in each eye, more or less along the horizon. Their peripheral vision covers the sky over them, but if they want to get a detailed look at something in the sky, they have to tilt their head and look up with one eye.

This motion is very common, you’ll see birds do it at least every minute or two. Usually their attention has been attracted by something insignificant — a bumblebee, a dandelion seed, a harmless bird like a robin flying by. In those cases, they quickly settle back to a resting position.

If you see a bird repeatedly tilting its head and holding its gaze on the sky for a few seconds at a time, and especially if other birds in the flock are looking in the same direction, it’s time to turn in that direction yourself and look for a distant hawk in the sky.

If the birds suddenly become tense — with body feathers compressed, head down and forward, and holding very still — it means they feel they are in imminent danger, and a hawk is probably very close. Check for a hawk in flight and then scan nearby trees to see if one has perched there. In this way, and many others, being attuned to bird behavior can help you find more birds.

This article was first published in the March/April 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe now.

Enter our contest to win David Sibley’s book “What It’s Like to Be a Bird”

Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up for Free
David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

David Sibley on social media