Birds of Prey: Hawks, Falcons, Owls

November 19, 2018
Harris's Hawk
Catherine Boeckmann

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Wonder what’s soaring in the sky? It may be a bird of prey.  Here are pictures of a few common raptors to help you identify them!

I had the opportunity to see four live birds of prey at a presentation by the Indiana Raptor Center—a non-profit organization dedicated to rehabilitation of sick and injured birds of prey.

First, it’s important to know what is meant by “bird of prey.” They are predatory birds which kill their food—with their feet!

At the end of their toes are talons—needle-sharp claws used to catch and kill prey. There is a channel down the back of each talon to help their prey bleed out. This may sound extreme, but every animal has to eat, and this channel helps the prey die quickly!

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Photo credit: www.tug44.org/wild.life/american-kestrel/

1. American Kestrel (above)

The smallest of falcons, American Kestrels are master mousers. Also called Sparrow Hawk, they prey on small birds and insects. They eat cicadas, too! Interestingly, they can hover in place to lock down on their prey. They are very fast flyers but small. To avoid being eaten by larger birds of prey, they have a false face with eyes on the back of their head.


Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyhartshorn/496158295/

2. Eastern Screech-Owl (above)
A nighttime hunter, this small, stocky owl can fly silently thanks to the ruffled edges on the outside of its wings, which create air pockets and muffle noise, allowing it to swoop down on mice unaware. They can not see color, which is irrelevant at night anyway, and they have hearing that is 100 times better than humans’ to guide their flight. The little “ear tufts” on top of their head are NOT actually ears; naturalists believe that the tufts help to camouflage their round heads since few shapes in nature are circles. At night, they do not hoot! They make a tremolo or trill that you have probably heard but mistaken for an insect. Hear the screech-owl’s trilling sound!

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3. Harris’s Hawk (above)

From the desert Southwest, Harris’s Hawk is stunningly beautiful with bold markings. The Harris’s hawks are unusual in that they hunt cooperatively in packs. They’ll also watch their nests together. The babies stay with the mother for a year and help to foster the new round of babies. These hawks will also “stack” or stand on top of each other to spot prey as a way of conserving energy. Harris’s Hawks are social with humans, too. The injured hawk that I met was making a happy “purring” sound while sitting on the arm of her handler.

4. Red-tailed Hawk (above)
This huge hawk weighs about 2.4 pounds, with a wingspan of 49 inches. Their strong talons ratchet down on their prey, exerting powerful pressure—300 to 400 psi.

The Red-tailed hawk is very common across North America and is sometimes referred to as the “chickenhawk” because it has a reputation of attacking chicken coops; however, this behavior is grossly overstated. Only desperately hungry or young, inexperienced hunters will kill chickens or other domestic animals.

Red-tailed hawks’ natural diet consists of rats, rabbits, and snakes. They are super-duper rodent killers that patrol large open fields; they work very hard for us every day, curbing rodent damage to our crops and property and combatting the spread of diseases. In fact, their role in the food chain is so valued that killing a bird of prey can result in a $100,000 fine and 10 years in jail.

Many bird of prey problems can be eliminated by simply housing poultry at night.  If the problem persists, use netting or poultry wire. Here is more information.

How Birds of Prey Benefit Us

Just imagine: One rat can cause $14 of damage to a crop in a year. One pair of red-tailed hawks can dispatch 400 rats during a season. By preserving a few large trees, a farmer can encourage hawks to nest on his property, potentially preventing $5,600 in damage.

I am certainly thankful for any bird that helps to control the world’s rodent population!

Which types of birds of prey have you spotted in your area? Please share your experiences, stories, and comments below.

About This Blog

Your Old Farmer’s Almanac editors occasionally share our reflections, advice, and musings—and welcome your comments!