Birds of Prey: Hunters of the Air

Quick! Look out the car window.
What’s that big hawk perched on the lamppost? Its rust-colored tail gives it away. It’s a red-tailed hawk. Suddenly the hawk jumps into the air. Strong flaps of its wings carry it high into the sky. Soon it is soaring a hundred feet above the field. From a hundred feet up, the hawk scans for field mice - only three or four inches long - scurrying among the grasses and wildflowers. Red-tails are hawk-eyed, after all! What you can see from 50 feet away, a hawk can see just as clearly from 150 feet away. Spotting a mouse, the hawk suddenly swoops downward. As the hawk nears the ground, it lowers its feet. To mice and other prey, these are deadly weapons. To the hawk, they are hunting tools. Not only are the hawk’s feet strong crushers, but on the end of each of its eight toes are long, sharp, curved talons. Unlike claws, talons are made of bone and are built into a hawk’s powerful feet. The red-tail lands feetfirst on its prey, killing the mouse. Now the red-tail hawk has a meal. But unlike a cat or a coyote, it has no teeth. This is where the hawk’s strong hooked beak comes in. Clutching the mouse with its talons, the hawk uses its beak to tear off strips of flesh small enough to swallow. Once the sun sets, a different kind of bird of prey patrols the meadow. A great horned owl heads out at dusk to hunt. Most owls are nocturnal, or nighttime hunters. Their large eyes help them see in dim light. But it’s their excellent ears that allow owls to hunt in total darkness. They can zero in on scurrying mice or loping rabbits by sound alone. This great horned owl swoops down and, with powerful feet and talons, quickly catches a rabbit nibbling dandelions. The rabbit had no warning of the danger! Owls have wing feathers that muffle the sounds of flight, making them able to silently approach prey. Like the hawk, the owl uses its beak to shred the rabbit into bite-size bits. Birds of prey like this hawk and owl are an important part of a healthy ecosystem. By eating mice, rabbits, and other prey, birds of prey also called raptors - keep populations of those animals from growing out of control. A single barn owl eats more than a thousand mice a year. Hawks, owls, and other raptors benefit humans by controlling pests.

What is a Raptor?
Many kinds of birds are predators. Robins hunt worms, swallows eat insects, pelicans catch fish, and herons hunt frogs. But only hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls are considered birds of prey, or raptors. Raptors vary in size from sparrow-size owls to enormous eagles. Like other birds, they live in snowy mountains, dry deserts, forests, and open prairies. But all raptors have three adaptations in common: great eyesight, strong grasping feet with talons, and a hooked shredding beak. The eyes, feet, and beak of a raptor are its tools for hunting, catching, and eating prey. These tools help different kinds of raptors feed on everything from tiny insects and snails to mice and skunks.

Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary & Audubon Center 134 Cove Road Oyster Bay, New York 11771 • Tel. (516) 92-3200 • Fax (516) 922-6734

Raptor Adaptations
All animals have adaptations that help them survive in their environment. Raptors are no exception. Look at the picture below and think about the raptor’s lifestyle. Remember, they are efficient predators, and have the body features to prove it.

The Supraorbital Ridge Eyes
Raptors have sharp vision, in some cases three times better than humans. They can see fine detail as far away as one mile! A raptor’s eyes cannot move or roll in their sockets like ours can. Instead, their necks are more flexible, allowing them to see in every direction, including behind them. Hawks, falcons, and eagles have a bony shield, called a supraorbital ridge, over their eyes. This ridge has the same function as a baseball cap: it protects the raptor’s eyes from the sun.

All raptors can hear, but owls have the best sense of hearing. Their ears are larger and positioned in a way that allows them to pinpoint the exact distance and direction of their prey. The owl’s flattened face captures sound waves, much like a satellite dish. On dark, moonless nights, owls can locate prey by sound alone.

All raptors have a sharp, hooked beak that allows them to tear apart their prey. Remember, they don’t have teeth!

Raptors have long, sharp talons, which help them capture, hold, and carry prey. Their powerful feet can crush prey to death, and the long sharp talons can pierce a vulnerable spot, such as the neck or spine, instantly killing the prey.
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Feathers help keep a bird warm and dry, they are important for flight, and their coloration helps camouflage. Owls have soft feathers with fine, comb-like edges that allows them to “sneak up” on their prey in the dark.

People and N at ure: Sharing t he Eart h

Raptor or not a Raptor?
Look at these silhouettes. Some of them are raptors, but others are not. Cross out the silhouettes that are not raptors. Can you guess what each bird is?

Humans build cities and towns, invent machines, and have figured out all kinds of ways to make it easier and more comfortable to live on Earth. But that doesn’t mean people don’t need the natural world. We share the Earth with all other living things. We are connected to the great cycles and systems that keep the Earth working the way it should. No matter where we live, we can help keep the Earth healthy for all. Raptors play an important part in the ecosystems they share with humans and other living things. When raptors in a habitat are in trouble, the habitat itself is usually in trouble. And when you understand how raptors fit into the web of life, you are better prepared to do your part in helping to protect the natural world for all living things.

Generous support for the Road Raptors program is provided by Keyspan Foundation.

Mary Kay Carson, Karl Brummert, writers Elaine O’Sullivan, managing editor Cataleno & Co., Inc., design Audubon Adventures is a registered trademark of National Audubon Society. All rights reserved. C 2005 For a class subscription please call: (800) 340-6546

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