There are four general categories of birds of prey; eagles, hawks, falcons and owls. They occupy every terrestrial ecosystem on Earth except for the Antarctic. Without raptors, our world would quickly become overrun with rodents and other prey items. In many cases, individual species have evolved to eat specific kinds of prey. In places where certain species have become endangered, farmers and others who make their living from the land have felt the loss.
Eagles are the largest of the raptors and there are some 75 species. That number is debated since birds are often reclassified. Eagles feed on a large number of prey species from monkeys, to rabbits, ducks, fish and even deer in some ranges. Like most raptors eagles are extremely opportunistic and will eat carrion when they find it. They’ll also steal from other predators.
In North America, we have two species of eagles, the Bald eagle and the golden. When people say eagle, the Bald eagle comes to mind.. It is most commonly found near water since a large portion of its diet consists of fish and ducks. During the salmon runs along the Pacific coast, it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of eagles in one area competing for food. The Bald eagle was nearly lost to us thanks to the pesticide DDT back in the 1960s, but thanks to the hard work of a lot of people, using captive breeding techniques developed by falconers to help save the Peregrine falcon from a similar fate, there are now more Bald eagles in North America than there were in the past 75 years.
Golden eagles are often mistaken for Bald eagles, particularly since immature Bald eagles and immature Golden eagles look a lot alike. Neither one gets their distinctive head coloring until their fifth year. Golden eagles are large brown and golden birds that hunt mostly land-based prey such as rabbits, hares, deer and pronghorn antelope. They occur throughout the western part of the continent, and unlike the Bald eagle, have never been in danger of extinction. The sight of a magnificent Golden eagle swooping down to grab a rabbit or prairie dog is a wonderful thing to behold.
Across our world, there are 37 species of falcons, with seven of those species occurring in North America. Falcons are the true masters of flight. The Peregrine falcon has been clocked flying at over 200 miles an hour when flying down prey. For the most part, falcons hunt other flying prey, from geese for the large Arctic Gyrfalcon to grasshoppers for the tiny American Kestrel. Like the Bald eagle, several falcon species across the world have been impacted by pesticide use, and have been returned from the brink of extinction through dedicated captive-breeding programs. Currently only one species of falcon is in danger in North America, the Aplomado falcon. Through a lot of hard work over the past 40 years, the Peregrine falcon was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999 and currently is found in areas where it never was before, having adapted to using the ledges of skyscrapers for nesting when no cliff faces are available. Falcons have had a close relationship with man for several thousand years since they were the first wild raptors to be used in the sport of falconry. They are highly cherished by many falconers as the ultimate in hunting partners.
Hawk is a term that is used loosely for several classes of birds, and at one time, even falcons were referred to as hawks. The two main classes of hawks are buteos or soaring hawks, and accipiters or forest hawks. Buteos are the hawks we see most frequently in North America. Of the several buteo species, the Red-Tailed hawk is the most abundant. We see a lot of redtails as we go about our daily lives and often don’t even realize that we see them. Redtails are one of the most adaptable birds on the planet and thrive in our cities and farmlands. They love to hunt from a tall perch and phone poles and billboards are perfect perches. They can sit there for hours waiting for prey to wander past.
The largest North American buteo, the Ferruginous hawk, is currently a species of concern in several western states. Being a large and highly intelligent bird, it’s sensitive to human encroachment of its territory. Combined with being hard hit by West Nile virus a few years ago, its numbers are struggling in some regions.
Accipiters are, for the most part, forest-dwelling birds. Some like the goshawk, prefer dense old-growth forest where they are seldom seen, but their presence is often felt. They are stealth hunters, relying on the element of surprise to catch their prey off guard, feeding on everything from other birds to squirrels and mice. A mid-sized accipiter, the Cooper’s hawk, is a frequent visitor to many a back-yard bird feeders as is the smallest accipiter, the sharp-shinned hawk that is smaller than the Cooper’s but nearly identical. Although they don’t eat seeds, the birds that congregate at the feeders, making tempting and nutritious buffet.
Like their hawk cousins, owls occupy every terrestrial ecosystem other than the South Pole. There are around 200 species of owls worldwide, ranging in size from the diminutive Elf owl of the great American desert being only about five inches and just over an ounce, to the Eurasian Eagle owl coming in at nearly 27 in and can weigh as much as 10 pounds. Most owls are never seen, being primarily nocturnal hunters. The two best exceptions are the Hawk owl and the Burrowing owl that are active during the day. Owls have evolved to be the masters of silent flight. Different from any other bird, the trailing edge of their flight feathers are designed to cut through the air in such a way that an owl can pass inches away and most creatures won’t hear them. Being such masters of silence, and active at night, most owls hunt by sound, not sight. They have developed binocular hearing. Some, like barn owls, can hunt in complete darkness, hearing prey like mice and rats moving around in the forest or barn floor at great distances. Barn owls are so good at what they do, that a family of barn owls can eat between 200 and 300 pounds of rodents over the course of a year. Unfortunately, barn owls have been impacted by modern buildings where there aren’t as many places for them to nest as old-style wooden barns provided.
All over the world, for as long as man has been around, birds of prey have been feared, worshiped and revered. These magnificent masters of the air inspire all of us with a sense of awe and wonder whenever they happen to fly through our lives. If you would like to find out more about the birds of prey in your area, please visit a local wild bird rehabilitation center or nature center.
A.M. Burns is a writer of urban fantasy novels. His latest book is “Blood Moon, Yellow Sky” Blurb: Tal O’Duirwood, dragon, enjoys his quiet life of solitude in the Colorado mountains. He never realized what was missing until his gets an assignment to travel to Yellow Sky, Texas and help a witch and her students there stop a vampire invasion. Once there, he finds that things were not as he was told. The witch is actually a werecoyote, and one of her students has eyes for Tal. Can Tal help stop the vampires in time to save his blossoming love? Will his heart, so long closed off from the world be able to open to the touch of the handsome young mage? Visit website www.amburns.com