Of all avians, the group known as the raptors, or birds of prey, is arguably the most impressive – in both their behaviours and physical appearance. For those lucky enough to see an eagle, hawk, falcon, osprey or even an owl in full flight on the hunt, it can be a thrilling experience. |
What Makes a Raptor?
Birds of prey are carnivores and their name is derived from the Latin "rapere", which means to capture, or seize. The various types of raptors aren't the only birds that eat meat, but their distinguishing characteristics are: extremely good eyesight; claws or talons for gripping and carrying prey; and a large hooked beak for tearing flesh.
Types of Raptors
Within the orders Strigiformes and Falconiformes, the different types of raptors are divided into six groups:
Acute Hearing and Vision
- Vultures (Catharditae)
- Owls (Strigidae and Tytonidae)
- Eagles, hawks, kites, buzzards (Accipitridae)
- Falcons (Falconidae)
- Osprey (Pandionidae)
- Secretarybirds (Sagittariidae)
Birds of prey all have highly developed sight and hearing (around 10 times that of humans) to enable them to locate prey at long distances. They have asymmetrical ear openings to precisely capture sound at different levels, and their eyes are large in proportion to the size of their heads - although they're not able to move them around like humans. They have very strong necks (with extra bones) in order to support the constant movement of the entire head, rather than the eyes.
Diet and Lifespan
Food is their primary concern and they adapt to a varied diet, hunting everything from smaller birds, to insects, rodents, reptiles, small mammals like rabbits and even amphibians. While some are apex predators and can live beyond five years, many do not survive beyond a year – which can often be due to starvation in winter.
Two Kinds of Hunters
Those that come under the Falconiformes order are diurnal hunters, hunting only during the day, while the Strigiformes are nocturnal, doing all their hunting under the cover of darkness.
Diurnal hunters: Birds of prey that hunt during the day include vultures, osprey, falcons, eagles and hawks. They all have extremely powerful wings for sustained flight and also possess an opposable back toe, which assists in gripping and carrying heavy prey.
Nocturnal hunters: The Strigiformes order comprises all the owl species. They have keen, forward facing, fixed socket eyes and specially adapted feathers with soft edges that enable virtually silent flight. Their bulky, squat bodies are designed for short, powerful flights and they're able to carry prey up to three times their own body weight.
Distribution of the Top 10 Largest Types of Raptors
Birds of prey are found on every continent in the world, with Accipitridae being the most widely distributed. The 10 largest are:
California Condor – North America
Andean Condor – The Andes, South America
Lappet Faced Vulture – Africa and Arabia
Harpy Eagle – Mexico, Central and South America
Bearded Vulture – Asia, Europe, Africa
African Crowned Eagle - Africa
Martial Eagle - Africa
Philippine Eagle – The Philippines
Eurasian Eagle Owl – Europe and Asia
Steller’s Sea Eagle – Russia and Japan
Encounter the Birds of Prey
One of the best ways to encounter any of the magnificent birds of prey in their natural habitat is on a professionally organised bird tour. These tours, led by experienced, knowledgeable guides, take participants to wildlife-rich destinations like South America, Australia, China and Spain to enjoy sightings of a huge variety of endemic and migratory species.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in bird watching. As a passionate lover of birds, Marissa chooses the expert-led bird holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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