Birds of prey are top predators, often with no natural predators of their own in their adult lives. They rule the skies and remain at the apex of the food chain thanks to a series of important adaptations. But what is it about these birds that makes them so well equipped for hunting?
Birds of prey can see up to 8x better than humans and use this and their keen hearing to find prey. They are excellent flyers and can use their sharp talons to catch, pierce, and carry fish, birds, and small mammals.
Why are owls able to pounce on small mammals in the night, falcons able to take large pigeons out of the sky, and eagles able to take pretty much anything they can get their talons on?
When looking at the physiology and tactics of the best avian hunters, we have to look at different adaptations and how they help various species. For example, the bald eagle, the red-tailed hawk, and the barn owl are all at the top of their respective food chains. But, they all look very different and have skills that make them perfect for their environment. While sight and a sharp set of talon help, that alone won’t be enough for many birds.
Let’s start with those talons, as this is what many of us think of when we consider a bird like the bald eagle’s power and success. The talons are the sharp claws in the feet of these birds. Once they grab hold of their prey and sink in, there isn’t much that the prey can do. However, there is more to this action than just the grip of the claw. The strength and size of the foot play their part too. Large eagles have powerful feet to carry sizeable prey. Raptors that hunt small mammals can exert pressure through theirs.
Then there are the large sharp beaks. However, these do little when hunting prey and make it much easier to tear into their food. Instead, a skilled avian hunter needs to rely more on their senses and their flight skills.
Birds of prey have to make every hunt count with as little wasted effort as possible. They will scout around for potential targets and wait until the right moment. The tactics can vary. Some larger species with broad wings can soar in thermals without exerting much energy at all. They can survey the scene from this great height. Kestrels stay closer to the ground and hover in the wind, staying steady over potential prey before it is time to swoop in. You will also find eagles and falcons waiting on their high perches for the perfect moment.
Owls have evolved in a different direction. It isn’t uncommon to see them swooping over a field on the hunt for prey around dawn or dusk. You will see them, but you won’t hear them. There are special adaptations to the feathers that make them practically silent. They could be right above an unsuspecting rodent before they are detected.
Birds of prey tend to have keen vision. Their sight is much better than our own, with eagles capable of seeing up to 8 times better. This means a greater range and precision in what they can see. They also have large eyes relative to their head size to process all this information – with eyes around the same size as our own – and they are forward-facing for depth perception. Some raptors even can see UV to help with prey detection. They can spot trails and footprints covered in urine, which can point them in the right direction.
When it comes to owls, eyesight is less important in nocturnal or crepuscular species. They rely more on hearing with special ear and skull adaptations to pinpoints sounds. The barn owl and great gray owl, although very different, are great examples of this facial structure. They have big round faces with a structure likened to a satellite dish. This draws the sound into their ears, which are positioned asymmetrically on their face. This combination of features makes it easier to hone in on small creatures in the undergrowth.
The success of many birds of prey also comes down to taking a range of prey within their niche. Species that hunt for different prey can co-exist within the same territory pretty well. In New York, for example, the red-tailed hawk may search for a reach of birds and rodents in the green spaces. The peregrine falcon, meanwhile, can head higher up the skyscrapers and feed on pigeons. They are also known to eat bats.
Out in rural areas, the peregrine falcon may rely on cliff-top positions or quarries and watch over scrapes and shorelines with waders and waterfowl. These birds flock together to confuse the falcon, but a fast and deadly strike can pay off. Then there are the physical differences between the small species that aerodynamically dart around trees after songbirds and the larger species soaring over open country.
Finally, when talking about birds of prey and their hunting and feeding strategies, we can’t overlook the fact that many will steal food and take carrion where possible. These birds are opportunists and won’t pass up the opportunity of an easy meal, especially if they have young. Some falcons will attempt to swoop in and take the kill of eagles, while some species will monitor highways for roadkill. The turkey vulture survives purely on carrion and is nature’s disposal expert.
Masters Of Their Habitat
It is all about evolving the right adaptations for their habitat and survival needs. If all birds of prey acted and looked the same we wouldn’t have such biodiversity. Sharp talons and keen eyes are great for a lot of species, but super-fast flight, exceptional hearing, and adaptive diets play their role too.