We know more about the hunting behavior of raptors, aptly known as “birds of prey,” than we do about many of Missouri’s other native predators. That’s because most predators, including bobcats, otters, coyotes and our nocturnal raptors, the owls, primarily hunt at night. Eagles, hawks, falcons and most other raptors, however, hunt during the day, allowing us to observe their predator-prey relationships in forests, woodlands, prairies, wetlands, and even along roadsides.
What Makes a Raptor a Raptor?
Despite differences in size, habitat, feeding habits and flight, most raptors share the following traits:
- Strong feet, toes and talons, for killing and holding prey. In fact, the word raptor derives from the Latin raptus (“one who seizes”).
- A large, curved beak for tearing flesh.
- Sharp vision, up to eight times better than humans. If you could see like a hawk, you could read a newspaper from a football field away.
- A bony shield above each eye, protecting the eyes from tree limbs, brush and struggling prey. These bony projections also shield raptors’ eyes from the sun as the birds soar to stalk prey.
- Simple calls—harsh, high-pitched screams, cries or whistles.
- Solitary hunting strategy, although vultures and, to some extent, bald eagles, are scavengers.
- Size difference between males and females in many species. The female is sometimes as much as twice as large as the male. Because of this, males and females sometimes seek different-sized prey, which is especially helpful for brood survival.
- Nests constructed from sticks in tall trees, along cliffs or even atop utility poles. Nests are often used year after year by the same birds and grow larger each season. Most raptors lay one to three or four to six eggs every year, depending on the species, with both parents usually sharing in incubation and brood rearing.
- Fantastic flyers. Large hawks, eagles and vultures can glide for miles on rising air currents; kites can dart and swoop like acrobats; and falcons can dive with terrific speed.
Scientists have placed eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, kites and vultures into the taxonomic order Falconiformes. Owls (Order Strigiformes) share many traits with these raptors but are nocturnal, hunt primarily by sound rather than vision and swallow prey whole rather than tearing it apart. There are 290 species of raptors worldwide, 33 in North America and 19 that have been observed in Missouri.
Raptors and People
The bald eagle—found only in North America—is our national symbol. Eagles, hawks, vultures and falcons appear on national, tribal, family and sports team emblems,