By Kristen Swanberg
Senior Director of Education, Audubon Society of Rhode Island
From Glocester to Block Island, raptors can be spotted soaring across our state. These amazing birds eat meat and use their feet, instead of their beak, to capture prey. In fact, the word “raptor” comes from Latin meaning to “seize and carry away”. Hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls are all examples of raptors. Also called “birds of prey,” raptors have exceptionally good vision, a sharp hooked beak, and powerful feet with curved, sharp talons.
Raptors share common traits with all birds, such as feathers, wings, laying eggs, and being warm-blooded. But it is their special adaptations that make them so amazing. Let’s take a closer look….
The raptor’s sharp talons truly set them apart from all other birds – they are perfectly designed to catch, hold, and carry prey. Most have three toes pointing forward and one pointing backward. These toes have an extremely powerful grip. Osprey and owls have one hinged toe that can be held in a forward or backward position. Many owls even have feathers on their legs and feet while other raptors do not. It is thought that these feathers help to keep them warm when they hunt on cold nights in the forest.
The hooked beak is like a raptor’s knife and fork. The beak is curved at the tip with sharp cutting edges to rip and tear apart their prey. Falcons are the only raptor that actually uses their beak to kill prey. All others use their talons.
Raptors have binocular vision (eyes facing forward) and can see extremely well. A raptor’s vision is at least eight times better than humans. So what we can see at 20 feet a raptor can see at 160 feet. Golden Eagles can see a rabbit from a mile away! Owls have the added advantage of remarkable night vision. Their eyes are more sensitive and can see quite well with very little light.
Raptors have three eyelids! They have a top and bottom just like us – but they also have a third, transparent eyelid that closes across the eye. This special eyelid is called a nictitating membrane and is used to protect their eyes during flight and feeding.
Owls can hear sounds 10 times lower than humans can detect. Large ear openings, surrounded by deep, soft feathers funnel the sound to each ear. Owls’ facial feathers are arranged like a dish, which directs sounds into their ears. Their ears are also lopsided, making it easier for them to pinpoint where noise is coming from.
Here are some cool ways you can learn more about these amazing creatures:
• You can help by building a raptor nest box for your neighborhood. Note that each species of raptor needs a different size nest box. Audubon can help you determine which is best for your location and provide you with the building plans.
• Check out the autumn raptor migration! Audubon schedules day trips to observe this amazing event each fall. (Wachusett Mountain and Pack Manadnock Mountain in Massachusetts are two locations to check out.). Visit www.asri.org to view a full calendar of programs and events for families.
• Get up close with many amazing birds of prey at Audubon’s Raptor Weekend event, September 13-14, 2008, at the Audubon Environmental Education center in Bristol, Rhode Island.
• Or simply watch for hawks at a local Audubon wildlife refuge, in your backyard, or while traveling along the highway this summer.
Here are some great raptor books you might want to check out:
• Birds of Prey (Peterson Field Guides for Young Naturalists)
• Raptor! A Kid’s Guide to Birds of Prey by Christyna M. and Rene Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith
• Eagles and Other Hunters of the Sky by Anne C. Cooper
• Awesome Ospreys: Fishing Birds of the World by Donna Love
• Owls: Whoo Are They? by Kila Jarvis and Denver W. Holt
• Our World Series: Owls, Eagles, Falcons, Hawks
Amazing Raptor Facts:
• The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest bird on earth. While diving after prey, they can reach speeds of over 100 mph. Did you know there are peregrine falcons nesting in Providence and on the Newport Bridge?
• Research done with Barn Owls show that when put in a totally dark room, they can catch a mouse 100% of the time by hearing alone.
• Ospreys have spiny scales on their feet that help them hold slippery fish more securely. Check out the ospreys in Jamestown on www.conanicutraptors.com.
• Great horned owls are the most powerful owl in North America. Their grip easily rivals the strength of 3 adult men.
• Why doesn’t a bird fall off its perch while sleeping? As the bird lowers its body into a resting position, the Achilles tendon automatically curls the toes inward, tightening the grip which allows the bird to sleep or rest without the need for the muscles to remain contracted. This same tendon also allows a raptor’s foot to tighten and hold its prey securely.
• Remember all birds, including raptors, are protected by federal laws. That means it is illegal to possess a raptor or any parts of a raptor, even a feather! Special federal and state permits are required.
Photos used courtesy of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island