Birds of prey are top predators, often with no natural predators in their adult lives. They rule the skies and remain at the apex of the food chain thanks to a series of essential adaptations. But what about these birds 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 handle pretty much anything they can get their talons on?
When looking at the physiology and tactics of the best avian hunters, we must look at different adaptations and how they help various species. For example, the bald eagle, the red-tailed hawk, and the barn owl are 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 talons 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 target can do. However, there is more to this action than just the claw’s grip. The strength and size of the foot play their part too. Giant 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, making it much easier to tear into their food. Instead, skilled avian hunters must rely more on their senses and flight skills.
Birds of prey must 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. 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. Eagles and falcons will also be 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 particular 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 ours, 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 ours – 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, pointing them in the right direction.
Regarding owls, eyesight is less critical in nocturnal or crepuscular species. They rely more on hearing with remarkable ear and skull adaptations to pinpoint sounds. The barn owl and great gray owl, although very different, are great examples of this facial structure. They have big round faces 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 eating a range of animals within their niche. Species that hunt for different prey can co-exist within the same territory. In New York, for example, the red-tailed hawk may search for a reach of birds and rodents in the green spaces. Meanwhile, the peregrine falcon can head higher up skyscrapers and feed on pigeons. They are also known to eat bats.
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 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 about evolving suitable 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 many species, but super-fast flight, exceptional hearing, and adaptive diets play their role too.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.