Looking at birds of prey, we marvel at the bird’s most prominent feature, their powerful, terrifying talons.
Raptors have four toes on their foot, with three talons pointing forward and one long talon pointing backward in a foot arrangement called raptorial.
The definition of the word raptor comes from the Latin word, rapere, which means to seize by force.
So talons are a bird of prey’s specialized hunting tool for survival, but raptors use them differently.
And even with these incredible hunting tools, most raptors aren’t successful every time they strike at prey.
Massive Talons Don’t Always Equal Success Hunting
A raptor’s success hunting is about 1 for 10.
Translate that statistic into a batting average, and a bird of prey is batting .100.
In other words, the raptor strikes out .900 of the time.
But when a bird of prey gets a hit, it’s usually a home run because escaping from a raptor’s grip requires luck.
Remember, the Latin word for raptor means see by force, and these birds do that quite well.
Hold your hand in front of you with your fingers open. Now grab something.
We make an effort to grip things by contracting our finger muscles.
A bird of prey’s toes are the opposite of ours, and gripping all the time.
Birds of prey make an effort to open their talons.
That’s why everything looks like they’re doing it with such ease.
Birds open their toes to land, and as soon as they touch their perch, their gripping mechanism engages.
A raptor’s grip is triggered when its footpads touch prey.
Once the wrapping mechanism is sprung, the talons snap tight and dig in.
Letting go is up to the bird.
Talking Talons with Hawks and Eagles
The subject of how a bird of prey uses its talons is not for the faint of heart, but this is nature.
A raptor’s feet have evolved into extraordinarily specialized hunting tools, perfectly suited to their survival strategies.
Hawks and eagles have two giant talons on their first and second toes.
Talons give these birds a secure grip on their struggling prey they like to eat alive.
I know. Pretty gruesome, but this is how these birds survive.
As horrific as it sounds, the bird’s prey eventually succumbs to massive blood loss or organ failure, incurred during the struggle.
Catching Prey with Owls
Owls don’t usually land a killing blow when they strike their prey.
They have one toe that swivels backward, letting them crush wounded prey between two pairs of opposable talons.
Owls then swallow their prey whole.
The “extra” parts of the owl’s meal its stomach cannot digest, like the fur, bones, teeth, feathers, and insect shells form into a tight pellet that the owl spits up.
Falcon’s High-speed Aerial Assault
Falcons have much smaller talons than other raptors.
These swift raptors specialize in high-speed assaults, striking their prey with rapid dives and swoops, crippling or killing their victim outright.
So a Peregrine Falcon doesn’t need large talons because their prey is immobile once it hits the ground.
Once on the ground, falcons kill their prey with a neck-break to avoid a protracted struggle.
Fishing with Osprey
Osprey have large, curved talons that double as fishhooks because they specialize in catching fish.
These birds plunge down into the water, grabbing the fish just below the water’s surface.
Who needs a rod and reel when you have powerful talons for fishing and wings to fly anywhere.
Respect for Talons
Regardless of the bird of prey, a raptor’s unrelenting, powerful grip is to be feared and respected.
Those fortunate to hold a bird of prey can attest to that fact.
Birds of prey are among the most majestic creatures on the planet, so being able to hold one is a privilege not afforded to many people.
Helen Macdonald, the author of the book H is for Hawk, says, “Hawking is just an optimistic and deeply privileged thing to experience.”
And she’s right.
Last year we became indoctrinated into this exclusive club when we had the privilege of holding a beautiful Harris’s Hawk.
His name is Milo, and he’s a handsome retired falconry bird under the care of Christine’s Critters.
But just because he’s retired doesn’t mean he’s ready for the raptor’s old folk’s home.
Milo is still a fierce bird of prey, with powerful talons.
Holding a stunning bird of prey, a foot from your face on glove, and looking into their eyes is the most incredible feeling.
At first, it’s intimidating holding something so powerful.
Then you realize you’re holding a raptor, a descendant of a dinosaur!
You can feel the power of a bird of prey’s talons on your arm, even wearing special leather raptor gloves, and have great admiration and respect for the bird.
Respect. A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
Humanity Poses Greatest Risk to Raptors
We have great admiration for birds of prey.
Yes, we don’t like that they eat our songbirds, squirrels, and other small mammals, but life isn’t easy out there for these birds.
Unfortunately, most young birds of prey don’t make it past their first year.
Nature created birds of prey, and they sit on top of the food chain.
But man exists, and he made pesticides, lead bullets, utility poles, wind turbines, airplanes, forest fires, fishing lines, hooks and nets, windows, and cars.
All of these man-made things present distinct conservation challenges for these birds.
Birds of prey are essential for a healthy ecosystem, so it’s critical to protect them to safeguard our environment.
Protect the birds, and we protect the earth!