Raptors: Birds of Prey

Raptors: These birds of prey include eagles, hawks and falcons. From their awesome aeronautics to their precise predatory instincts, these birds are the pinnacle of flight.

| August/September 2007

It’s only human to wish we could fly, and these amazing raptors, known as birds of prey, present the most amazing examples of aerial acrobatics.

Raptors: Birds of Prey

We are, after all, only human. That explains why we can’t fly like birds — and why we so want to. Certainly, like countless other earthbound homo sapiens since the dawn of our time, you’ve watched a bird make graceful circles high in the sky and thought, if only I could do that.

Chances are you weren’t watching just any bird, though. You were probably admiring one of the true masters of the sky — the group of agile, powerful avian hunters known as raptors, or birds of prey. Given their superior aerial abilities, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine not only any human, but any ordinary flying bird — a pigeon, a robin, whatever — also looking up from an earthly perch, thinking, if only I could do that.

Anatomy of a Raptor

“Raptor” isn’t a taxonomic classification, but a catchall term used to refer to eagles, hawks, falcons, kites and owls. Owls are nocturnal raptors, while the others are diurnal, or active during the day. All raptors are meat eaters. Their carnivorous nature doesn’t define them, however; most birds eat meat in some form or other. Rather than diet, it’s the raptors’ modus operandi and their anatomy that distinguish them. Beak to toe, raptors are built to seek out, chase down and gobble up the animal protein they need for sustenance.

The beginning of a victim’s end usually comes via the raptor’s sharp, curved claws: talons. Raptors possess strong legs and, on each foot, four powerful grasping toes, each tipped by a pointed talon. In most species, a single hind toe has the heaviest and longest talon while the other three toes face forward. Just before it strikes, a raptor swings both of its legs forward, almost to the horizontal, putting the full force of its hurtling body behind its outstretched talons.

A raptor’s grip on prey is sure and often deadly. Shorter-taloned raptors such as Cooper’s hawks may simply squeeze, rather than pierce, the life out of their victims. In any case, if the grab itself doesn’t kill, the job is finished by a sharp and distinctly pointed beak designed for cutting and tearing. On most raptors, the upper beak’s cutting edges aren’t straight, but instead have a slight S-shaped contour, like that of a scimitar. In falcons and some others, the S-curve is pronounced and forms a downward-pointing triangular “tooth” that fits into a notch on the lower beak. The tooth slips between a victim’s neck vertebrae to cleanly sever its spinal cord — instant death.

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