Most birds fly in a straight line, flapping in a constant rhythm, but certain bird groups have characteristic flight patterns that can help identify them. Birds of prey may be identified by the characteristic way they hold their wings when viewed flying toward you. Here are some useful identification tips:
Up-and-down Flight Pattern
Finches exhibit a steep, roller-coaster flight, whereas woodpeckers generally fly in a pattern of moderate rises and falls.
Flapping Versus Gliding
Flying accipiters such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, and Northern Goshawks typically make several wing flaps followed by a glide. Buteos, such as the Red-tailed Hawk, are usually seen soaring. Dashed lines indicate flapping, solid lines soaring.
Crow Versus Raven
Flight patterns can sometime distinguish similar species. The American Crow, for instance, flies with deliberate, flapping wingbeats. The similar Common Raven often alternates flapping with hawk-like soaring.
Head-on Flight Profiles
Head-on flight profiles may also give identity clues. Soaring Turkey Vultures may look like hawks, but they hold their wings in a shallow V-shape, whereas most hawks and eagles hold their wings out flat. Black Vultures also have a flatter, more hawk-like profile. Northern Harriers hold their wings in more of a V-shape, but their slow, flapping flight near the ground generally gives away their identity. Notice how the Bald Eagle's profile is even more flat than that of a typical hawk, such as the Red-tailed Hawk.