Documenting Raptors in the City

We’ve just returned, sweaty and tired, from retrieving our wildlife cameras positioned throughout Chicago as part of the Wildlife Biodiversity Monitoring Project.

Trying to build the most thorough collection of urban wildlife data ever means that our Urban Wildlife Institute team is always out in the field—rain or shine, heat wave or snowstorm. Every season, we visit more than 100 different sites around Chicago to put up cameras, check on their batteries and memory cards and, after about a month, bring them back to the zoo so we can see what animals wandered by. As you might imagine, we cross paths with a lot of Chicago’s wildlife while we’re out and about.

Raptors (meat-eating birds like hawks, owls and falcons) tend to do pretty well in urban areas. There are lots of small animals for them to eat, they can perch on tall buildings or telephone poles to take a look around, and if things get tough they can always fly somewhere else.

This summer, we stopped for several minutes to watch a red-tailed hawk hunting for food at one of Chicago’s most urban golf courses. We didn’t want to leave until we saw it nab some breakfast, but luck wasn’t on the hawk’s side, and eventually we had to move on. Red-tailed hawks are a very common raptor in urban areas, and can be found throughout the United States.

For the last two years, we have also been fortunate to observe an osprey nest near one of our camera locations. These birds build large nests out of sticks and branches atop tall structures. We are excited when spring field season arrives and we can watch for the return of the breeding pair. In the summer, we count the chicks and observe them testing out their fishing skills. It’s a treat to be able to observe these once rare birds in the wild.

Here’s a picture of an American kestrel, taken at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo:

Kestrels are the smallest raptor found throughout North America, and are easily identified by the unique patterns on their face. If you would like to try and spot one of these tiny raptors, your best bet is to head out to Nature Boardwalk in the early morning or evening, which is when they’ll be most likely to hunt during this time of the year. Photos like this give you a sense of how beautiful—and urban-adapted—these animals can be! Seeing them around also gives us a sign that Nature Boardwalk is a healthy urban ecosystem for a wide variety of animals.

Of course, some birds are more active at night. This image of an owl (either a barred or a screech owl) was captured by one of our motion-triggered cameras:

While we mostly see mammals on the cameras, sometimes birds do set them off as well.

Now we begin the process of adding all the new photos to our database, which contains more than 100,000 images. The hot, dry summer made our fieldwork dusty and exhausting, but it was worth it, because now we can see how all that heat impacted our wildlife neighbors.

Seth Magle

Seth Magle, Ph.D., is the director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute.


The smallest hawk in north america is the sharp-shinned hawk. While the amercan kestrel also goes by the name sparrow hawk for its inclusion of small bids in its prey base, this is a misnomer. The kestrel is a falcon .

Thank you for the comment, Mary. You are correct. It was a simple typo: we meant to write “raptor” and, instead, initially wrote “hawk.” We’ve corrected the error.

I was very fortunate to walk into my living room, in early spring, and find a juvenile Kestrel sitting on my air conditioner. I live across the street from the Zoo, on the 9th floor, of my building. It was very exciting - I took many photos!

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