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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Birds of prey are highly specialized creatures

For obvious reasons, eyesight is extremely important to birds of prey. It is believed that hawks can see a mouse or vole from a mile away. And the eyes of those species of owls that hunt under the cover of darkness are specifically outfitted for nocturnal vision.

klemek-osprey
An osprey is spotted flying over Lake Bemidji in 2020, from the shoreline near Paul Bunyan Park. Adept at soaring and diving but not as maneuverable as other hawks, ospreys keep to open areas, flying with stiff wingbeats in a steady, rowing motion, according to All About Birds. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Birds of prey, or raptors, are a group of birds that includes owls, eagles, ospreys, hawks, harriers, kites, falcons and vultures. Most of these birds make their living by capturing, killing and eating other life forms, but not all of them.

Hunting and capturing live prey is difficult, even with the supreme weaponry possessed by birds of prey. However, some raptors do just fine by supplementing their diet with carrion. Vultures are considered to be the ultimate scavenging birds of prey, although not technically considered by some ornithologists as a raptor at all.

Even the bald eagle is a scavenger. This impressively large eagle, although capable of killing live prey, will often scavenge dead animals such as deer that die on roadways. In fact, just last week while driving on a rural highway near my home, I drove up on a bald eagle feeding on a deer carcass that was laying in the middle of the road. After pulling over, I got out and drug the carcass down the ditch and out of danger.

All raptors share similar physical features. Though owls and hawks are entirely different birds, a closer look reveals remarkable similarities. Most notably are the feet of raptors. Powerfully muscled legs and feet as well as toes and sharp talons to clutch struggling prey are the primary tools of most birds of prey.

Beaks, too, are important tools of raptors. While owls' beaks are comparatively small and weak, the beaks of hawks, eagles, ospreys, and vultures are strong and specially designed. Large and hooked, these beaks are used to tear flesh from their prey.

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While owls may lack in beak strength and size, they certainly compensate for this shortcoming in other ways. Owls have the unique ability to ambush their prey silently because of their feathers. Most birds have stiff wing feathers that produce sound as air passes through the feathers while the bird is flying. Owls, on the other hand, have soft feathers throughout their body, including the wings. These soft feathers are virtually silent in flight and thus enable owls to capture their prey swiftly and quietly.

All raptors have exceptionally keen eyesight and hearing. Again, these are tools of the trade. And just because birds of prey are so equipped, doesn't necessarily mean that the critters they hunt are easy targets. Prey species are pretty good at detecting and escaping capture. Rodents, rabbits and hares, small birds, snakes and insects have all devised ways to avoid being eaten. These and other potential prey of raptors can move fast, hide well, and hear, see and smell those creatures that are hunting them.

For obvious reasons, eyesight is extremely important to birds of prey. It is believed that hawks can see a mouse or vole from a mile away. And the eyes of those species of owls that hunt under the cover of darkness are specifically outfitted for nocturnal vision.

There is, however, one sense that is undeveloped in all but one species of raptor: smell. In fact, birds in general have little or no olfactory ability. But vultures, including our resident turkey vulture, have highly developed senses of smell. For vultures, being able to smell well is imperative to their survival. Without it, they would have to rely exclusively on their vision to locate prey, which, especially in the forested regions of their range, would be almost impossible to do if not for their ability to smell animals that have died and to reach them before other scavengers do.

Raptors are fascinating and diverse birds. Some are only summertime residents, like American kestrels and northern harriers, while others remain here year-round, such as great horned owls and northern goshawks.

Indeed, birds of prey, interesting and highly specialized, are a group of birds to observe and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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