Bird identification / Black Kite vs Eurasian Buzzard

While birding in Geneva canton this week, I have been asked how to distinguish the Black Kite (Milvus migrans) from the Eurasian Buzzard (Buteo buteo), two of the most common raptors of Switzerland. Even though an experienced birder would never be confused, it is true that they can look pretty similar at first sight. So I thought I would do a post about it explaining the main differences.

First of all, when and where did you see the bird? Whereas Eurasian Buzzards are here all year long, you can only see Black Kites in Switzerland between March and September. These long distance migrators arrive in Switzerland in spring for the breeding season, and leave at the end of summer to Africa where they have their wintering grounds. So no chance to see a Black Kite in Switzerland in winter.

Then, let me remind here that when identifying birds, colors can never be the only identification criteria if you want to be 100% sure of the species. Depending on light, distance, reflections, shadows... colors can change a lot.

The plumage of the Eurasian Buzzard can vary immensely, with patterns ranging from dark brown to white. This is why the bird is called "Buse variable" in french. On the contrary, the Black Kite has a more uniform dark brown plumage (its greyish head is easily noticeable only if seen close, perched, or with binoculars). So if you see the bird perched and notice white patches of plumage on the chest, it is an Eurasian Buzzard.

 Eurasian Buzzard (Buteo buteo) perched on a post. The white plumage on the chest tells us it is not a Black Kite.

Eurasian Buzzard (Buteo buteo) perched on a post. The white plumage on the chest tells us it is not a Black Kite.

In flight, the most important feature to look at is the tail. The Black Kite's tail is forked (or flat if completely open), whereas the Eurasian Buzzard's is shorter, wider and rounded. And adults have a wide black bar at the end of the tail. Also, Black kites have a larger wingspan, and their wings are slightly angled.

 Black Kites have a forked tail.

Black Kites have a forked tail.

 Eurasian Buzzards have a rounded tail.

Eurasian Buzzards have a rounded tail.

Besides your eyes, you can use your ears to recognize these 2 birds: Eurasian Buzzard’s call sounds like a high-pitched mewing, often repeated. Black Kites are quite vociferous. They have a distinctive shrill whistle followed by a rapid whinnying call.

I hope these simple clues will help you identify correctly these two amazing birds of prey when you go birding. We are lucky to see them pretty easily in our region. If you have any additional question, or if you need id confirmation on a picture, please feel free to leave me a comment here :)

Love Nature.
Jonathan