The term birds of prey is a common catch-all for all raptors and other predatory birds at the top of the food chain. It is understandable why we call them birds of prey because they rely on prey species and their hunting skills. However, we often take the skills of these birds for granted. So, what about these creatures makes them such incredible predators?
Birds of prey rely on their sensory perception of the world to hunt. Falcons and eagles have far better eyesight than humans, and owls have hearing skills superior to most animals. Birds of prey are skilled in the air, allowing them to pursue game and pinpoint opportunities on the ground below.
Birds of prey are fascinating, and the way they hunt is fantastic. For more information, please read on.
The eyes of birds of prey are forward-facing for depth perception. This is also true of predatory mammals that must hone in on their game and judge the distance to strike. The raptors need to know how far away their game is to catch them and make the perfect descent.
These eyes are often prominent compared to the size of their head. Typically, eye size is an indicator of good eyesight. Ours aren’t relatively big, as we don’t rely on them as much as other animals. Creatures that lost the need for good vision have tinier eyes, such as moles.
The vision of birds of prey is acute and far better than our own. We don’t use the term eagle-eyed for anything. This allows them to see vast distances, picking up prey for miles. The Golden Eagle, for example, can spot a rabbit on moorland from two miles away, giving them eyesight that is around eight times better than our own. This strategy makes them much more efficient hunters as they can often soar on thermals and keep an eye out for possible meals without using much energy.
There is also the fact that birds can see ultraviolet. This is hard to imagine because of our eyesight limitations, but we can get an idea using UV lights. This ability can help detect prey like small mammals in the undergrowth because urine trails become more visible. A hawk might not have a precise idea of where a mouse is, but they know it is definitely in the area.
Feet and Talons
Then there are the feet. Large feet like these can grasp prey with greater effectiveness and surprising agility. Some hobbies can catch tiny dragonflies and eating them on the wing. Ospreys can hold fish so that they point ahead of them, reducing air resistance as they fly. Of course, the right feet also have to be proportionate to the body’s size and ability to help the birds perch on branches or the edge of a nest.
Of course, those feet are also equipped with nails that pierce deep into prey’s flesh. These sharp weapons, combined with the animal’s strength, mean they can take on a much larger game. Eagles, for instance, can take fox cubs and small deer.
The pressure is also exerted onto prey through those feet as birds land on them. This can be enough to kill small prey like mice and other rodents without the need for nails. The most extreme example of the force of a bird of prey’s feet is the Harpy Eagle. This incredible bird can exert 110 pounds of pressure and crush bones, which is why it can go after large mammals in South America’s forests.
We can’t overlook the importance of flight skills for ariel hunters. This doesn’t apply much to birds that target prey on the ground, but they still need to locate the right thermals and efficiently patrol the skies. Eurasian Kestrels can’t fly so high to get this bird’s eye view, but they can hover in the wind. They have a unique ability to keep their head in the same position regardless of the movement of their body. This allows them to lock onto their prey quickly, even on more turbulent days.
Other hawks and falcons will attempt to take birds from the sky. The Peregrine Falcon is possibly the most famous of all these. These birds aren’t that big, but they can still easily take pigeons – allowing for excellent pest control in major cities. They will perch high up on towerblocks, wait for a flock, and hone in on a target. Their pointed wings and a top speed of 390 kmph mean they are as sleek and powerful as fighter jets. Pigeons that end up in their nails don’t stand a chance. Other small hawks will use aerobatic skills to swoop through forests after smaller songbirds.
Owls are special
Owls must rely on different abilities and strategies as they hunt in low light. This means that vision isn’t their primary weapon. Instead, they rely more on their hearing. Many species of owl have acute hearing that allows them to detect tiny movements in the undergrowth. The snowy owl can even do so beneath the snow. Their ears aren’t symmetrical on their heads like ours are. One is higher than the other to indicate where the sound is coming from; they are also positioned within a facial structure that is more like a satellite dish focusing the sound.
Owls also have adaptations in their feathers that make them silent hunters. They can fly across a field at night, and their prey won’t hear a thing. Studies with sound-recording equipment have placed owls in competition with falcons to compare the noise made. The air’s turbulence on the falcon’s wings sounds incredibly loud with the right tech. Animals with acute hearing might pick up on it too. Owl feathers have fimbriae that create a fringe effect and stop this turbulence. As a result, there is less sound, and the owl even appears silent on high-tech equipment.
Of course, we must remember that natural selection and the survival of the fittest play a big part in creating the best hunters in the avian world. Over time, the strongest, most qualified, fastest males will win over the rugged and capable females and pass on their genes to the next generation. This eventually leads to adaptations in the species to make them perfect for their niche and actual apex predators.
On the subject of winning over females, birds of prey use courtship techniques called food to pass to secure their bonds. It takes a skilled hunter and flier to catch the game, give it to the female, and prove reliable providers.
Adapting to a niche or environment is essential for the most effective hunting strategies of all kinds of birds of prey. Some have evolved to catch fish instead of the terrestrial game as it is more readily available with less competition from other species. Harriers take a different approach from those who head high to seek food. Instead, they fly low to the ground and flush out scared birds. This is a brilliant strategy for the Marsh Harrier, which flushes out small waders and waterfowl from the cover of thick reeds. Other raptors would struggle to find food here, making the harrier the top avian predator.
In short, birds of prey are good hunters because they have evolved incredible senses and physical features that give them an edge over their game. They can see further, picking out potential meals with ease. Their flight skills allow them to pick up play from the air or water, making quick alterations to stay on target. Some can even hear games they can’t see, giving them an edge in the dark.
There are many different reasons why birds of prey are such great hunters. It is why the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Barn Owl are other creatures yet still the most feared predator in their ecosystem. It is also why we should never underestimate or undervalue them. We may have tamed some for pest control in dense populations, but they are still extraordinary predators.
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.