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It’s in your nature: What do raptors eat?

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    Bald eagles favor fish, live or dead, but when conditions limit their availability, they will certainly scavenge deer or other animal carcasses. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    Turkey vultures commonly spread their wings in the early morning to dry them and “warm up.” However, this black vulture was captured using the same technique. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    A broad-winged hawk drops down from its perch to feed regularly on snakes.

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    The American kestrel, a falcon, surprisingly feeds on many large insects, not needing to use a falcon’s speed.

Published March 30. 2019 06:16AM


I have previously discussed bald eagles, buteos and falcons. The other group of hawks is the accipiters which, along with turkey and black vultures, constitute the raptors we would encounter. There is quite a range of food items among these birds, and I’ll review some of that with you and maybe surprise you with some of that information.

Bald eagles, just by their nest location selections, remind us of that their primary diet is fish. Live and dead fish are their main choices. However, this past winter, reports of over a half dozen eagles feeding on a roadside deer carcass near Beltzville reminds us that when lake and river surfaces freeze over, they need to find other options. (Carrion is always an option.)

Red-tailed hawks feed primarily on small mammals (mice). They too, when tough winter conditions persist, may need to rely on carrion to survive. As their old nickname “chicken hawk” implies, will certainly take a wandering chicken or a game-farm-raised pheasant when the opportunities arise.

Another buteo, the broad-winged hawk, to the delight of many, makes snakes one of its favored preys. Their hunting tactic of perching on tree limbs along old logging roads, dirt roads, or utility line rights of way helps them locate these reptiles when they get into the open.

“Broadies” drop off their perches to snag an unsuspecting snake, chipmunk or other small mammal there. The anatomy of “broadies,” with short, broad wings, helps dictate their prey choices.

In contrast, falcons, with short, rather pointed and powerful wings are designed for speed. This enables peregrine falcons to pursue ducks, or city pigeons, thus birds make up almost all of their prey. Merlins, somewhat smaller versions of the peregrines, also make smaller birds their choice.

However, quite surprisingly, the kestrel, a local nesting falcon, has a more unusual diet. Even though this falcon, designed for fast flight, chooses less mobile prey. Grasshoppers, cicadas, katydids and dragon flies are summer food items for them.

They, much like a broad-winged hawk, drop from a perch to snatch a prey item. The kestrels also will hover over a field and then drop down to snatch up meadow voles (mice) that make the mistake of moving out of their grassy home for a second too long.

Much to the disdain backyard birders, the accipiters are the bird-eating hawks. Goshawks, the largest and deeper forest accipiters, eat grouse, blue jays, and even crows or small owls.

The Cooper’s hawk, the most common accipiter in winter loves the feeder-sized birds. Mourning doves are a favorite, but juncos, chickadees or sparrows will be taken. Please note that our ever-growing starling population would be much bigger if coopers or the smaller sharp-shinned hawks didn’t “take” a good number of them.

The other raptors common in our area are vultures. They are the scavengers helping to “clean up” the roadkills and natural deaths in nature. More accounts have been noted where black vultures have actually been seen separating a lamb or young calf from their mothers to kill them.

They become very opportunistic by eating whatever prey may be easy to catch and eat.

Test your outdoor knowledge: Which of these is a Corvid? (in the crow family) A. raven, B. blue jay, C. fish crow, D. all of these.

Last week’s trivia answer: The sandhill crane will visit the Times News region and now has starting nesting in our state, too.

Contact Barry Reed at




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