Owls, eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, and ospreys are raptors, or birds of prey. “Prey” is another word for an animal that is hunted for food. The word “raptor” is based on an old word that means “to seize and carry away.” And that’s exactly what raptors do! They use powerful, curved claws called talons to catch their prey and carry it away. Then they tear into the meal with their sharp, hooked beaks.
Bald eagles and ospreys feed mainly on fish. Peregrine falcons catch birds. Tiny American kestrels nab insects, lizards, small snakes, and mice. Big golden eagles carry off jackrabbits, prairie dogs, and other medium-sized mammal prey. These are raptors that hunt by day.
At night, owls take over. Their huge eyes gather every speck of light. Round, feathered areas on their faces work like radar dishes to channel sounds to their ears. Soft feathers on their wings’ edges muffle the sound as they fly. Owl prey ranges from insects, lizards, snakes, and frogs to mice, rats, and rabbits. Great horned owls even eat skunks!
Raptors that hunt by day often travel by hitching a ride on currents of air called thermals. A thermal forms when the sun heats up the ground in the morning. Air near the ground heats up, too, and rises. A raptor can spread its wings and float upwards on this air, soaring effortlessly in circles. It can travel for miles by riding one thermal after another, hardly ever flapping a wing!
Photos: (bottom right) Dave Menke/USFWS, (all others) Thinkstock