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Weather Facts

What Makes a Bird a Bird? | What Makes a Bird a Raptor?
Types of Raptors | Raptor Silhouettes | Threats To Birds Of Prey

Definition

The word raptor is derived from "rapere", a Latin word, which means to seize or capture. More specifically, a raptor is a bird of prey. A bird of prey is a carnivore (meat eater) that kills and eats mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, rodents, and other birds.

Many birds hunt, kill, and eat meat, but they may not be a raptor. There are three distinguishing traits that make raptors different from other birds:

  • hooked beaks with sharp edges
  • feet with sharp, curved claws or talons
  • keen eyesight

Orders and Groups

Raptors belong to two scientific orders, the Strigiformes and Falconiformes. The orders are divided into six groups with a total of about 446 species worldwide. They include:

  • secretary bird (1 specie in Africa)
  • falcons (63 species)
  • osprey (1 specie)
  • hawks and eagles (226 species)
  • vultures (7 species)
  • owls (148 species)

HUNTERS BY DAY OR BY NIGHT

Raptors also fit into two basic groupings as hunters. They are either diurnal or nocturnal hunters.

Diurnal (daytime) hunters

Nocturnal (nighttime) hunters

  • include the order Falconiformes such as hawks, eagles, kites, vultures, harriers, osprey, falcons, etc.
  • traits shared include the hooked beak, sharp talons, and keen vision; a fleshy cere at the base of the beak; a hind toe which opposes the other toes, and powerful flight
  • include the order Strigiformes, which includes all owls
  • traits shared include rounded heads with large, forward-directed eyes set in feathered disks, asymmetrical ear openings, and soft-edged flight feathers that allow silent flight

Types of Raptors

The raptors that live in or visit our State include owls, vultures, and hawks (falcons, eagles, kites, buteos, accipiters, harriers, and osprey). Below is a list of the raptors representing each group. Check out the different kinds of Raptors with these Raptor Silhouettes!

Falconiformes

Falconiformes
(Diurnal)

Owl

Strigiformes
(Nocturnal)

Vultures

Turkey vulture

Buteos . . .

Broad-winged hawks*
Ferruginous hawk
Red-tailed hawk
Rough-legged hawk
Swainson's hawk

Hawks
Falcons . . .

American kestrel
Gyrfalcon*
Merlin*
Peregrine falcon
Prairie falcon

Harriers . . .

Northern harrier

Accipiters . . .

Cooper's hawk
Northern goshawk
Sharp-shinned hawk

Eagles . . .

Bald eagle
Golden eagle

Kites . . .

White-tailed kite*

Osprey . . .

Osprey

Owls

Barn owl
Barred owl
Burrowing owl
Flammulated owl
Great gray owl
Great horned owl
Long-eared owl
Northern pygmy owl
Northern saw-whet owl
Short-eared owl
Snowy owl
Western screech-owl

* Uncommon or rarely seen in our region.

Learn About Vultures

Vultures are large black raptors with a long wingspan that are often seen soaring in groups in high wide circles, rocking and tilting in flight, usually gliding in a strong "V" shape. Vultures usually have bare, featherless heads, which helps reduce infection when feeding on rotten meat.

  • There are 3 species of vultures in North America, the turkey vulture, black vulture, and the California condor. The only one of these species to be found in our area is the turkey vulture.

  • These raptors are known to gather by the hundreds or even thousands to roost together!Vulture perching

  • A vulture's diet consists mostly of carrion (dead meat!), which they spot from the air by sight and smell! But, they are known as "honest" foragers, meaning they scavenge for their food, using a refined sense of smell.

  • Studies reveal that vultures won't find carrion on the day that it is killed, but almost always find it on the second or third day when it has begun to rot, and will rarely visit a kill on the fourth day when it is in a state of full-blown foul smell! Phewy! Scientists believe that the carrion is too fresh on the first day and doesn't stink enough to be located by vultures. On the second and third days there is enough decay to give it a pretty strong odor and by the fourth day the meat is just too rotten!

  • With the ability to sustain life on half-rotten meats, Vultures have extreme tolerance for microbial toxins (botulism) that exceeds the capacities of many other birds.

  • Vultures are pretty quiet unless they are cornered, then they will "hiss" or make a "low grunt" sound.

  • Vultures usually don't build a nest and will lay eggs on the ground, in caves, hollow stumps, or in swamps. They feed their young through regurgitation.

  • These raptors use their sharp, hooked beaks for tearing meat and have weaker legs and feet and small hind toes.

  • Do you know why they have weak legs and feet? It's because they eat dead meat instead of capturing their prey!

Small owlAll About Owls

Owl species vary in size, but typically have large, round heads, with forward-facing eyes framed by a feathered facial disk. They have wide wings, short tails, lightweight bodies, and unusually soft, fluffy body feathers.

Owls are typically nocturnal predators, relying on their excellent vision and hearing to catch food
Some owls have tufts of feathers on the tops of their head, often called horns or ears. They are not really horns or ears but are thought to serve as camouflage or behavioral signaling devices.

Owls have large asymmetrical ear holes located behind the eyes on each side of the face, underneath their feathers which aid in hearing and flight direction to catch prey. Each ear catches sound at a different time allowing for pinpoint accuracy of prey location.

The round face and facial disks of feathers around the eyes also help in hearing and funneling light to increase visibility

Pair of owlsOwls have binocular vision. Their eyes are fixed in sockets so they are only able to see what is in front of them.

To see the things around them, owls must use the added bones in their neck (14 total) to rotate their head. They can rotate their heads about 270° in one direction - not in a complete circle!

Owls have four toes; a permanent back toe and three front toes, one of which when the feet are spread wide apart is capable of rotating to the front or back to improve their grip on prey once captured.

Most owls have feathers down to their sharp toenails unlike most birds of prey. It's believed to help keep them warm and protect from prey bites.

Owls have soft-edged flight feathers that allow them to fly almost silently; the flight feathers of an owl are slightly spaced to allow air to move around and through them when flying which helps to keep noise down.

An owl's diet consists of rodents and small mammals. Their digestive system makes use of the nutritious portions of the prey, and the undigested parts (hair, bones, claws, teeth, etc.) are regurgitated in the form of a pellet.

HawkLearn about Hawks!

Hawks is a general term used to describe the entire group of diurnal (active by day) raptors. Worldwide there are over 200 species of meat-eating birds that comprise the order Falconiformes, the scientific name for hawk.

Some hawk species undertake long migration journeys, traveling thousands of miles each year - a testimony to their strength and stamina.

Hawks have excellent hearing and eyesight. Their vision is 8 times greater than that of a human!

In our region, hawks typically breed in early spring, and many will pair for life, unless a mate is lost to death. Some species pairs remain together year round, while others may separate after the breeding season and return to the same breeding/nesting site the next year (after the migratory season is over).

Eagles

Eagles are large bodied raptors, mostly dark brown in color with long, broad wings, and fan-shaped tails and have large, strong feet and a powerful beak.

  • EagleYou can often spot eagles soaring high and gliding in the sky.

  • There are 2 species of eagles widespread throughout North America, the bald eagle and the golden eagle; both can be observed in our region!

  • The bald eagle is America's national symbol and has been since 1782 and is unique to North America!

  • The average wingspan of an eagle can vary from six to seven feet! WOW! That's a BIG bird!

  • The mature bald eagle appears very different than its relative the golden eagle in color; it has a distinctive white head and tail, and a bright yellow beak. These distinguishing bald eagle traits do not appear until the bird reaches adulthood when they are three to four years old.

  • Bald eagles usually live near water (oceans, rivers, lakes), while golden eagles live in open, mountainous country.

  • Eagles’ nests are very large, possibly measuring up to six feet wide and weighing 100 pounds; many of the nests are used year after year.

  • Eagles may roost singly or in groups exceeding 100 birds!

Harriers

Osprey

Accipiters

There are 10 species of harriers worldwide but only 1 species in North America, the northern harrier also known as the "marsh hawk".

The marsh hawk is a medium-sized, slim raptor with long legs and tail with a white rump patch at the base of the upper tail.

Marsh hawks live in open areas, often hunting in fields, meadows, or marshes.

This raptor has a distinctive hunting flight called "coursing", where they fly low over the ground following the contours of the land and holding the wings in a V-shape.

Unlike other daytime raptors, this bird has a facial ruff which helps to focus sound toward the ears.

Marsh hawks nest on the ground and their diet consists of rodents, small birds, and insects.

Most species are sexually dimorphic - meaning that the female is larger in size and brown and white in color, and the male is smaller in size and gray and white in color.

Osprey are large eagle-like raptors that live and nest near fresh or salt water, on treetops or on the tops of man-made poles with platforms.

Ospreys eat fish; and their fishing is made easy with their long legs and sharp talons. They like to hover, and then dive into water for fish.

These raptors have long, narrow wings with a characteristic gull-like crook and dark patch at its wrist; their back is dark brown and their breast is white. They have a distinct dark eye stripe (malar stripe), and lack the protective bony ridge above the eye like other raptors.

Osprey

Accipiters are small to medium-sized raptors and have short, rounded wings and long tails, traits useful for speed and maneuvering in forested habitats!
There are three species of accipiters found in North America, the northern goshawk, the Cooper's hawk, and the sharp-shinned hawk; all of which can be observed in our region.
Adult accipiters typically have dark gray backs, barred or streaked breasts and tails, red eyes, and long toes.

Young accipters typically have brown backs, streaked breasts, and yellow eyes.

Their flight pattern includes rapid wing beats alternating with longer glides, and occasionally soaring.

Accipiters are fierce, stealthy hunters and their diet consists mostly of other birds and small mammals.

Squirrel

Falcons

KestrelFalcons are a group of hawks that vary in size from small to medium, and are identified by their large head, notched beak, dark eyes, and distinct stripe(s) below their eyes called malar stripes.

Their powerful short beaks have a tomial tooth on the upper jaw, which with the hooked tip create a notch for cutting the spinal cord of prey.

Falcons are powerful fliers and divers with long, narrow, pointed wings and long tails. Among the most aerial and acrobatic of the raptors their flight ability is legendary. Scientists say these raptors can fly at speeds of over 100 miles per hour!

These raptors do not build their own nests, but scrape out spots on cliffs or in cavities and typically live in open country.

Five falcon species can be found in our region, they are the American kestrel, merlin, prairie falcon, peregrine, falcon, and the gyrfalcon.

It is this group of birds around which the sport of "falconry" revolves.

Buteos

Kites

Buteos are medium to large, stout bodied hawks, identified by their broad wings and fan shaped tails.

Buteo

These raptors are soaring hawks, but also hover or fly low along areas where prey are thought to be.

Many species have a variety of color phases most commonly dark.

Their diet consists primarily of small mammals, but as a group they will capture a wide variety of prey.

You often can see this type of raptor perched on large limbs of trees, utility poles, or fences.

Kites are medium-sized raptors which have falcon-like flight appearance, but distinctly different tails.

Kite

These raptors have long, pointed wings and graceful, flight.

The kites that children love to fly are named after these graceful fliers.

Some species of kite have a slightly different wing and beak shape, in order to eat snails.


Many thanks to the Bureau of Land Management for their partnership and assistance with the Birds of Prey information!

All of the information, activities, figures, and diagrams gathered for this site were compiled from the following:

  • U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Lower Snake River District. 1998. Raptors In a Box Teacher Instruction Notebook. Boise, ID.

  • U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Lower Snake River District. 1998. Raptors In a Box Traveling Trunk. Boise, ID.

  • Photographic Images were provided by the Bureau of Land Management and other individuals as indicated.

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