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Buteos, Buzzards and Hawks (What’s the Difference?)

In the realm of birdwatching and ornithology, the terms “buteos,” “buzzards,” and “hawks” are often sources of confusion. Birds like the Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, and the Rough-legged Hawk frequently find themselves at the center of this terminological mix-up.

Most people see the word “hawk” in a name and immediately think it’s a hawk, and they’re not wrong. However, there’s a bit more to it than that. This article seeks to demystify these terms, explaining why these birds are sometimes called buzzards, though they are commonly referred to as hawks, and why ‘hawk’ is part of their common names.

Are Buteos Actually Buzzards?

The distinction between buteos and buzzards hinges largely on geographical terminology. In Europe, ‘buzzard’ commonly refers to birds known as ‘buteos’ in the United States. This is akin to how ‘chips’ in the UK are ‘french fries’ in the US. Thus, a bird known as a ‘hawk’ in North America could be called a ‘buzzard’ in Europe.

In the United States, ‘buzzard’ is often incorrectly used interchangeably with ‘vulture.’ However, there are only three vulture species in the U.S.: the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture, and the California Condor. Notably, none of these are buteos or closely related to the Old World buzzards.

black vultures
3 black vultures (commonly called buzzards, but are not buteos) | credit: birdfeederhub

Buteos in the U.S., characterized by their broad wings and sturdy bodies, are indeed a type of hawk. Notable examples include the Red-tailed Hawk, the Broad-winged Hawk, and the Rough-legged Hawk. These birds, though technically buteos, are widely known as hawks in birdwatching and ornithological circles.

Buteo Hawks: Understanding Their Place in the Buzzard Family

A buteo is a type of hawk known for its broad wings and robust body, making it well-suited for soaring. Buteos form a subgroup within the larger hawk family.

Their classification as buteos, and subsequently in the buzzard family in Europe, is due to their shared physical traits and behaviors. In Europe, these birds are referred to as buzzards, aligning with their classification in the Accipitridae family, which includes true hawks, eagles, and kites.

The Evolution of Bird Terminology: Old World vs. New World

The divergence in bird terminology between the Old World and the New World likely stemmed from the era of exploration and colonization. As European naturalists encountered new bird species in the Americas, they applied familiar names to these unfamiliar birds, leading to some persistent naming conventions.

Red-tailed Hawks: Hawks or Buzzards?

red tailed hawk in forest
credit: Jill Rogan

Experienced birders, particularly those with a European ornithological background, might refer to Red-tailed Hawks as buzzards. This perspective, rooted in European bird classification traditions, isn’t incorrect but reflects a different naming convention. In America, the term ‘hawk’ is more commonly used for these birds, consistent with regional ornithological practices.

Cultural and Regional Differences in Bird Naming

The variation in bird names across different regions underscores the cultural and regional influences on ornithological terminology. Recognizing these differences is vital for global communication in birdwatching and ornithological studies, adding depth and diversity to the field.

Conclusion

The terms buteos, buzzards, and hawks, while often used interchangeably, reflect distinct regional and cultural differences in bird naming. Understanding these differences clarifies the confusion and fosters a deeper appreciation of bird nomenclature’s diversity. Regardless of whether they’re called a buteo, a buzzard, or a hawk, these birds remain a source of fascination and wonder for birdwatchers globally.

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