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Raptor Vocalizations

We’ve all seen and heard it. In commercials for an all-American truck, in movies about the wild, wild West. All too often producers depict a soaring bird, frequently an eagle or even a vulture, and tracked over the shot is the call of a Red-tailed Hawk.


Image by Larry Rimer

Raptors are thought of as strong and tenacious animals, but that doesn’t always mean they have the vocalizations to match—the ubiquitous cries of the Red-tailed Hawk being the exception. Most raptors in fact have a weaker, high-pitched call. For example, here is a common vocalization of the fierce Bald Eagle:

Image by Doug Brown

Image by Doug Brown

You may think that, if the Bald Eagle doesn’t have a sharp, robust cry, then surely the Golden Eagle does. However, you may not find this to be true either. Take a listen:

Most of the studies done on bird vocalizations emphasize, unsurprisingly, songbirds. Oscine birds (a subset of Passeriformes) include the Brown Thrasher, Hermit Thrushes, and Starlings who illustrate great range with their complex voice boxes. These birds often emit sounds ranging from buzzes and clicks to trilling and warbling.

Birds of prey’s calls don’t tend toward the musicality displayed by songbirds, but are still interesting, varied, and quite often beautiful. Take for example this lovely, common call from the Red-shouldered Hawk:

Frequently film makers will even use a shot of circling Turkey Vultures paired with the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk. However, Turkey Vultures are largely silent birds, and vocalize primarily when very agitated and then it sounds a great deal more like a hiss, even a roar, then a cry.

Image by Doug Brown

Image by Doug Brown


Surely no one expects a Hollywood movie to truly reflect reality, and the objective of truth in advertising is often overlooked. A quick review of raptor vocalizations illustrates these points in a simple, often funny way. The next time you hear the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk emitting from a television or movie screen, take a moment to quietly fact-check the content of what you’re seeing, or better yet, head outside to find the authentic music of raptors and songbirds across New Mexico.

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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft 

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