Terrifying Talons for Catching Prey

Bird of Prey’s Talons are Specialized Hunting Tools for Survival

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.

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.

Golden Eagle talons can have a grip pressure as high as 400 pounds per square inch

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.

This is Magma, a red-phase Eastern Screech Owl. He’s only 5.8 ounces, but preys on chipmunks, squirrels, song birds, snakes, frogs, toads, salamanders, rats, rabbits, and other owls

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.

Peregrine Falcons specialize in high-speed aerial assaults, striking their prey with rapid dives and swoops

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.

An Osprey's feet are their fish-catching tools
An Osprey’s feet are their fish-catching tools

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.

Milo is a beautiful Harris's Hawk, and a retired falconry bird
Milo is a beautiful Harris’s Hawk, and a retired falconry bird

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.

We have such respect for a Red-tailed Hawk’s talons that we put them on one of our Dream Journals available in our shop at intobirds.shop

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!


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  1. Is it possible to get permission from you to display some pictures of raptor legs from your display for inclusion in my book

    Rabbi Hezekiah Yosef Cohen
    Senior rabbi in the kosher slaughter of poultry and cattle

  2. Is it possible to get permission from you to display some pictures of raptor legs from your display for inclusion in my book

    Rabbi Cohen
    Senior rabbi in the kosher slaughter of poultry and cattle

  3. There is a hawk who visits my back yard where there are lots of bird feeders. Recently it only perches on one leg. It looks as if the claw/talons on the other food are crippled. I’m afraid it won’t be able to catch prey and survive. It sits on a tree branch and the squirrels, who would normally hide, remain on an adjacent branch. Sometimes it will fly up from the ground in a woodsy part of the yard.
    Is it possible to help it? Feed it?

    • Hi Rita. Hopefully the hawk is probably standing on one leg to minimize heat loss from the cold. But if it looks like the bird is having difficulties hunting you can contact a local birds of prey rehabber and they might be able to help it.

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