Ruminations on Raptors

If you’ve ever had the joy of watching a large bird soaring overhead, chances are you’ve been observing a raptor. Raptors, from the Latin “rapere” meaning “to seize”, are predatory birds that are classified in several groups including hawks, owls, falcons, vultures, eagles and kites. While there are other carnivorous birds such as herons, gulls, puffins and most seabirds, as well as omnivorous birds such as hummingbirds and woodpeckers, the raptors are distinguished by their powerful long, sharp talons which they use to seize and usually kill their prey.

Other characteristics of raptors are strong bodies and roundish heads with forward-facing eyes, giving them binocular vision and very keen eyesight, and a short, sharp, hooked beak. Some studies have indicated that we would need the equivalent of 8x binoculars to equal a hawk’s eyesight. Another interesting feature of their eyes is that they have 3 eyelids! They have an upper and lower as we do; the third is a transparent eyelid called the nictating membrane that closes horizontally. This “eyelid” protects the eye during flight, while feeding their young and keeps the eye moist.

Raptors use a variety of hunting techniques to find and subdue their prey:

  • Soaring slowly and using their keen eyesight to search for prey followed by a steep dive.
  • Quietly perching in a likely spot and pouncing or dropping onto prey when it appears.
  • Watching for feeding activity and stealing another predator’s prey or attacking if the feeding animal is not a predator.

Even with these varied techniques the success rate for raptors is only about 1 in 10 attacks.

Some of our local hawks, notably sharp-shinned and Cooper’s are notorious for snatching songbirds from our feeders. While they are only “doing what comes naturally”, this can be quite distressing for the backyard bird feeding public. There are ways you can protect your backyard birds from being taken:

  • Shelter: Providing natural cover within 10 feet of your feeder is probably the best thing you can do. Shrubs, brush piles and dense trees all provide a safe haven for small birds to retreat to when they feel threatened. Ideally your shelter can also provide food in the form of seeds or fruits so the birds can forage while they hide!
  • Shield your feeders: Cover your platform feeders (also protects the seed from the elements!) so they are obscured from soaring hawks or place your feeders under an awning, gazebo or tree.
  • Remove hawk vantage points: As noted above, some hawks will perch and observe; if you can remove likely perching points such as dead branches or choose fencing that would be uncomfortable for a hawk to grasp such as a thin top wire this will make your yard less inviting
  • Cage feeders: Choose feeders that have perches and feeding points within a wire cage that small birds can enter but larger birds cannot. While this won’t stop a small bird from panicking at the approach of a hawk it will give them a few extra moments to flee.
  • Remove feeders: If all else fails, take your feeders down for a week or two. The hawks will move on but your small birds will be back within a day or two of when you replace them.

Want to get up close and personal with some raptors? Come to our event on September 8 for a falconry demo with Baywings Falconry. Register here:

~ Diane Smith, Director of Education

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