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It’s in your nature: Raptor adaptations

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    Owls’ eyeballs are longer and fixed in their sockets. However, owls can turn their heads about 270 degrees.

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    Raptor’s talons are vital adaptations. (If you ever find an injured raptor to try to rescue, remember those talons can impale your hand very quickly.) BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    Hawks, such as this merlin, focus on their prey with eyes five times better than a human’s eyes. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published November 24. 2018 07:59AM

When we procure our food we don’t need super eyesight or sharp talons or special wings. Certainly our brain is the key and this adaptation aids us in growing, raising or buying our sustenance. A few people may hunt or fish, but for the most part, these two activities are more for our relaxation or “hobbies.” Most of us don’t survive on what we can catch or kill.

Avian predators, the raptors, obviously need to catch their food in order to survive and to feed their offspring. To be successful and efficient they have developed some specialized adaptations. Eyesight is foremost an adaptation. Hawks and eagles have tremendous binocular vision, allowing them focus in on prey, even in a dive at 120 mph or more. A hawk’s or eagle’s vision is about five times better than man’s. Even with these adaptations, a young sharp-shinned hawk may only have a 6 percent success rate in catching a bird. As it matures, it may be successful in about one in eight attempts.

An owl’s eyes are even more specialized, having a great number of rod cells which allow them to gather as much light as possible for their nighttime hunts. (They have fewer cone cells and sacrifice color vision.) Owls have elongated eyes, not as eyeballed a shape as ours. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets but they have the ability to turn their heads much farther. An owl has twice the number of vertebra in its neck compared to humans. They can turn their heads almost 270 degrees with ease.

Please note, some have the perception that owl’s eyes, with their large pupils and abundance of cone cells, are blinded in daylight. This is not so. Their pupils can shrink in size, as do ours. In brighter light it still can see much better than we can. Owls have special flight feathers with fringes on the edges, giving them an almost completely silent flight needed to surprise prey.

Hawks, depending on their type, have adapted wings shaped for the habitat in which they live and the type of prey they seek. Falcons, the fastest of the hawks, have rather short pointed wings. A peregrine falcon, the fastest flying bird, can tuck in his wings and in a stoop attain a speed of 200 mph.

Buteos, like a red-tailed hawk, have broad, longer wings to capture thermals as they soar in circles or hover above the field vole they are pursuing. Accipiters, such as Cooper’s hawks that patrol your feeder areas, have wings shorter than the buteos and not as streamlined as the falcons. Darting among trees chasing birds, this wing shape adaptation is a necessity.

I alluded to the raptors’ hooked bills in a prior column, and that adaptation is vital. They of course, have very sharp, curved talons; necessary adaptations to grab/catch prey. They don’t use their beaks but their talons to carry prey to the young. One adaptation the raptors don’t possess is a good sense of smell. With eyesight and hearing so well developed, there is little need for that sense or for the larger brain area needed for it.

Note: If you feed the winter songbirds, you can expect to see an occasional Cooper’s hawk making attempts to eat them. They are the most common hawk patrolling feeders, and remember, they are part of nature’s balance.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: True or False: Before white nose syndrome, Pennsylvania hosted 9 different species of bats.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Great horned owls are now very vocal as dusk and just before dawn. Listen now for the Hoo Hoo Hoo — Hoo Hoo as the males and females begin pairing up. They’ll be incubating eggs by late January or early February.

Contact Barry Reed at

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