The common names for various birds of prey are based on structure, but many of the traditional names do not reflect the evolutionary relationships between the groups.
Variations in shape and size
- Eagles tend to be large birds with long, broad wings and massive feet. Booted eagles have legs and feet feathered to the toes and build very large stick nests. The bald eagle has become a symbol for the USA.
- Ospreys, a single species found worldwide that specializes in catching fish and builds large stick nests.
- Kites have long wings and relatively weak legs. They spend much of their time soaring. They will take live vertebrate prey, but mostly feed on insects or even carrion.
- The true hawks are medium-sized birds of prey that usually belong to the genus Accipiter (see below). They are mainly woodland birds that hunt by sudden dashes from a concealed perch. They usually have long tails for tight steering.
- Buzzards are medium-large raptors with robust bodies and broad wings, or, alternatively, any bird of the genus Buteo (also commonly known as "hawks" in North America, while "buzzard" is colloquially used for vultures).
- Harriers are large, slender hawk-like birds with long tails and long thin legs. Most use a combination of keen eyesight and hearing to hunt small vertebrates, gliding on their long broad wings and circling low over grasslands and marshes.
- Vultures are carrion-eating raptors of two distinct biological families: the Accipitridae, which occurs only in the Eastern Hemisphere; and the Cathartidae, which occurs only in the Western Hemisphere. Members of both groups have heads either partly or fully devoid of feathers.
- Falcons are medium-size birds of prey with long pointed wings. They belong to the Falconidae family, rather than the Accipitridae (accipiters). Many are particularly swift flyers.
- Caracaras are a distinct subgroup of the Falconidae unique to the New World, and most common in the Neotropics – their broad wings, naked faces and appetites of a generalist suggest some level of convergence with either the Buteos or the vulturine birds, or both.
- Owls are variable-sized, typically night-specialized hunting birds. They fly almost silently due to their special feather structure that reduces turbulence. They have particularly acute hearing.
Many of these English language group names originally referred to particular species encountered in Britain. As English-speaking people travelled further, the familiar names were applied to new birds with similar characteristics. Names that have generalised this way include: kite (Milvus milvus), sparrow-hawk or sparhawk (Accipiter nisus), goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), kestrel (Falco tinninculus), hobby (Falco subbuteo), harrier (simplified from "hen-harrier", Circus cyaneus), buzzard (Buteo buteo).
Some names have not generalised, and refer to single species (or groups of closely related (sub)species): merlin (Falco columbarius), osprey (Pandion haliaetus).