Birds of prey come in various sizes and shapes, and in Galveston, they especially come in the winter time. Most birds of prey don’t leave the continent in fall, they just move to the southern edge, and that brings us some majestic species chasing rats and other kinds of vertebrates. Let’s look over several more common species.

Osprey are unique raptors, placed in their own family and odd in their picivorous diet. Largely a northern nester, they float south in the fall on long, crooked wings. Following the disastrous bout with DDT in the 1960s, they have increased slowly, but steadily. Now, they are often seen atop telephone poles, frequently with fresh fish in their talons.

Osprey in the air are told from eagles or caracaras by the white underside, and their dark stripe through the eye that cuts down on the water’s glare. Amazingly, they dive into the bay feet first and snag surface-feeding fish with huge talons, specially arranged for a wider grasp. If successful, they turn the fish forward and take it to their favorite perch.

A smaller hawk, but no less specialized, is the Northern Harrier. They are usually seen hunting low over fields and pastures, tilting their V-shaped wings, and showing off their white rump patch against brown plumage. Confirmed rat eaters, upon spotting a rodent below them, they twist in the air and pounce with deadly accuracy.

Occasionally, an adult male harrier appears, and their ghostly gray color contrasts to the females and immatures. Galveston has even been host to nesting harriers through the years, probably many hundreds of miles from the rest of their breeding population. The odd, flat face actually picks up sounds from rodents hiding in the grasses, acoustically hunting as much as visually.

Anyone who watches for birds has seen the mighty red-tailed hawks sitting atop the telephone poles along FM 3005. They also take advantage of the burgeoning rat population on Galveston, but they hunt by floating down from on high. They, and harriers, grab and kill rats with their talons, careful not to be injured by the rodent teeth.

Adult red-tails are easily identified by the tail color, but, while immatures lack the red, they are just as massive and share the dark belly band seen on most of their species. Red-tails range all over North America in open country, and even south through the tropics to South America. They are quite variable, with some being very light and others quite dark.

American Kestrels are small falcons that are commonly seen on wires along FM 3005 and other open areas.

They are quite colorful, especially the males, and that sexual dimorphism on them and harriers is quite rare in the raptor world. Kestrels are largely reddish, but males also have blue, making them a very colorful raptor.

Kestrels are falcons, capable of great speed while diving, using their pointed wings. In summer they breed up North, feeding largely on insects, but in Galveston — you guessed it! — they hunt rats from the wires. These also range down into South America as residents, actually becoming tame and easily photographed!

Raptors such as caracara and white-tailed kites are year-round residents, broad-winged hawks, some other kites and accipiters are spring-fall migrants, and two falcons are more scarce winter residents. So, Galveston gets a ton of raptors making birding really interesting. Anyone wishing to receive free bird pictures twice a week from the island can email

Jim Stevenson is executive director of the Galveston Ornithological Society. He is happy to receive bird questions at

(3) comments

Kelly Naschke

Being somewhat of an armchair ornithologist I enjoyed the article, but I do find myself wondering why it’s the lead story on the SPORTS page???

Gary Miller

A pair of large Buteo's fledged two from the top of a tree across my street. That tree was isolated and the fledglings walked/hopped across the pasture while learning to fly. Ma & Pa were on protective patrol while kids made practice flights.

Charles Hughes

Wanna see some raptors;Come over here to texas city.My neighborhood is full of them. Large,small you name it.And they don't just eat rats.Some are so big they will startle the heck out of you

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