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Eagles, and Hawks, and Owls! Oh My!

By Kristen Swanberg, Senior Director of Education

Kidoinfo Giveaway: Win 4 tickets for your family to attend Audubon’s Raptor Weekend event on September 11th or 12th, 2010.  Tell us your favorite raptor in the comments below. One answer will be selected at random. Deadline to enter is Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at Midnight EST.

Snowy_Owl-webFrom 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….

Sharp Talons

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.

Hooked Beak

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:

  • Get up close with many amazing birds of prey at Audubon’s Raptor Weekend event, September 11 and 12, 2010, at the Audubon Environmental Education center in Bristol, Rhode Island. Visit www.asri.org for a complete listing of presenters and weekend events.
  • 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.)*
  • Go on an evening owl prowl this fall with an Audubon naturalist as your guide.*
  • Or simply watch for hawks at a local Audubon wildlife refuge, in your backyard, or while traveling along the highway this summer.

* Visit www.asri.org to view a full calendar of programs and events for families.

Here are some great raptor books you might want to check out:

  • Peterson Young Naturalists Birds of Prey Field Guide
  • Raptor! A Kid’s Guide to Birds of Prey by Christyna M. and Rene Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith
  • Eagles: Hunters of the Sky by Anne C. Cooper
  • Awesome Ospreys by Donna Love
  • Owls: Who 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.
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  • Ospreys. Outside grandparents house on the Rappahanock river, they (the grandparents & neighbors) built a stand for a pair of Ospreys (who mate for life and come back to the same grounds year after year) to nest on. They built the stand so that the Ospreys wouldn’t go back to a neighbor’s dock. This year, there were three young Osprey who were learning to fish for themselves when we were there. We would hear the young birds asking for food. We could see them try to dive for fish, and we’d see them go after their parents or brothers who had fish. It was fascinating and served as a daily watching ritual for my little ones and for us adults. and they were so close!

  • My family loves Ospreys! My dad has a few platforms for them to nest on at our farm. I always loved watching them for hours growing up. Now my daughter gets excited when we get a chance to visit!

  • My 6 year daughter loves owls, any owls. They learned about nocturnal animals last year in school and now she is obsessed with them

  • My children love owls. They stay up late at night on weekends with their grandmother listening for “owl talk”.