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Raptors

Learn about raptors - or birds of prey - and see how your vision compares to an owl.

Goal

Gain a bird’s-eye view. Meet the raptors that live at the ABQ BioPark, discover the ecological importance of birds of prey and learn about the traits and characteristics these mighty birds have through hands-on learning activities.

Introduction to Animal

Hawk BioPark Connect Raptors

Take flight as we soar high and swoop low to uncover the spectacular world of raptors, also known as birds of prey. Raptors are iconic symbols of strength, power, fierceness, and nobility. The bald eagle was chosen as our national bird; the fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America. Raptor size varies greatly but they are generally larger and much bulkier than other birds, which allows them to hunt a greater variety of prey.

Owl BioPark Connect RaptorsRaptors are divided into two groups: those who are active during the day, known as diurnal, and those who are active at night, which are called nocturnal. Diurnal birds of prey consist of falcons, vultures, hawks, osprey, kites and eagles. Owls are the only nocturnal birds of prey. All raptors share some common characteristics such as hook-tipped beaks and sharp curved claws called talons. Birds of prey are not only defined by their physical features, but also by their diets and they use their hook-tipped beak to tear apart prey.

Raptors are carnivorous, which means they only eat meat. While it is widely assumed that raptors only eat small mammals, these birds actually have a varied diet that can include many different types of game and other prey species such as birds, fish, lizards, snakes, and even insects. The bulk of their diet are mammals such as mice, rats, rabbits, voles, shrews and gophers. In general, the larger the hunter, the larger the prey. Nonetheless, medium and large size raptors may find it easier to find smaller prey because it's more abundant. How is your diet different from a raptor?

The saying “eyes like a hawk” is no joke. Raptor eyesight is among the strongest in the animal kingdom. Their eyesight is estimated to be four to eight times stronger than that of an average human, meaning that they have 20/5 or 20/4 vision under ideal conditions. Raptors can capture and focus on prey from two miles away! Besides having incredible eyesight, raptors also have amazing flight adaptations. They can easily glide and soar through the air. That skill, accompanied with the ability to execute powerful dives and swift pursuit, means raptors can capture each meal with great precision.

Unlike many birds that gather in flocks, raptors are solitary. There are some distinct advantages to their antisocial behavior such as avoiding competition for prey and encroaching on individual territorial size. However, there are always exceptions to the rule, and in this case, it is vultures, which are often seen feeding on a single carcass or raptors flocking together during migration.

Many North American raptors make a daunting migration twice a year, flying as far as South America during the winter. There, food supplies are more abundant for the winter months. Raptors spend the spring and summer in northern areas where they nest and raise their young. They may find themselves as far north as Alaska during summer.

Raptor nests typically hold two to four eggs, whereas songbird clutches average more than four eggs. Many factors act as physical barriers to nestling survival, including low prey availability and competition for increasingly limited nesting territory due to encroachment from human development. As raptors migrate from wintering grounds to nesting territory, they face numerous navigating issues along the way.

Raptor Conservation

Although raptors are at the top of the food chain, their slow reproduction cycle and few offspring make them sensitive to threats. While all animals are subject to natural threats such as disease and predation, raptors suffer far greater harm from human-caused alterations such as habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation; climate change; poisoning; electrocution and collisions with vehicles. When raptors are migrating or nesting, these concerns often pose an even greater risk. After analyzing the status of the more than 500 raptor species, biologists have determined that 18 percent of these birds are threatened with extinction and 52 percent have declining global populations.

What does a world without raptors look like? Saving these carnivorous birds is important because they play a key ecological role in our environment. For instance, avian scavengers such as vultures act as nature’s clean-up crew by eating dead animals and preventing the spread of diseases. Other raptors control population levels of rodents and small mammals. Because raptors are at the top of nature’s food pyramid, their populations provide good indicators of the underlying health of natural ecosystems. 

Vulture BioPark Connect Raptors

While raptors are not common backyard birds, smaller species such as the sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, and Cooper’s hawk may occasionally show up in suburban and urban areas. Many birders dislike birds of prey since many songbirds end up on a raptor’s dinner plate. It is important to remember that having a raptor visit your backyard demonstrates the great bird diversity of your area and the suitability of your habitat, since raptors will not hunt where prey is scarce. When raptors do take a backyard bird, they usually take the oldest and weakest bird. By doing this, raptors help improve the overall strength of the backyard flock.

Raptors at the ABQ BioPark 

Bald Eagle BioPark Connect RaptorsAt the ABQ BioPark we have a few adult raptors in our animal ambassador collection. Most of these birds are rehab animals and obtained injuries that make them unsuited for the wild and so are deemed non-releasable. The BioPark's education team has several raptor rescues including two great horned owl ambassadors named Athena and Orion. The two found their way to the BioPark because of wing injuries. While we don’t know for sure what caused their wing injuries, we can speculate a few common human-caused scenarios that generally lead to wing damage among birds: power lines and bird/vehicle collisions. Our ambassador birds of prey play a very important role in helping bring awareness to raptor conservation and preservation. Learn the proper steps to address an injured raptor in the wild in case you ever come across one. 

Another one of the BioPark's animal ambassador is Click, a western screech owl. Like Athena and Orion, Click came to the BioPark due to an injury. While she can still fly just as well as before, she has an injured eye and would have a difficult time hunting in the wild. Because owls are so reliant on their eyesight and wings to find prey, our animal ambassadors are much safer and better fed at the BioPark, where a team of veterinarians are on-call to make sure they are healthy and happy. 

Our Swainson's hawk, Rapper, has a deformed wingspan that is nearly half the size they usually would be. While we will never know exactly what happened to Rapper, it is likely that pesticides such as DDT, a synthetic organic compound used as an insecticide on crops, affected her egg. DDT has been linked to thinning eggs, which can kill bird embryos. Pesticides like DDT have cascading affects called bioaccumulation that we see in the food web. Bioaccumulation is when insects that are affected by pesticides are consumed by larger animals such as fish. Multiple smaller fish are eaten by larger fish, and multiple larger fish are then eaten by raptors like the bald eagle. By the time the DDT reaches the bald eagle the amount has increased significantly than the tiny amount on the original insect. Pesticides not only affect animals but can also negatively impact our soils and water ways. DDT was eventually banned in the United States to protect bald eagle populations that were declining due to its negative effects on their eggs. Since the 1972 ban, bald eagle populations have increased and are much healthier. It is important to limit pesticide use and use it sparingly. But if you can find an alternative, eliminating the use of pesticides is best.

One thing you can do to protect all raptors and birds is to drive the appropriate speed limit and not throw garbage out of your car. This includes biodegradable items like apple cores. A lot of prey animals, like mice, are attracted to garbage near the roadways. When raptors are zoned in on their prey, they get a kind of “tunnel vision,” which can cause them to not notice an oncoming vehicle that they usually might be more aware of. By keeping roads free of litter and watching carefully for wildlife, you can protect raptors.

Activity: Owl Viewer

Owl Craft 1 BioPark Connect RaptorsGo owl-out with this project! Ever wonder how an owl views the world? Although owls might have night vision, their large eyes are fixed into their eye sockets, which gives them a binocular sense of the world. This means their eyeballs can’t rotate, forcing them to stretch their necks, a seemingly supernatural feat.

Humans have peripheral vision, which means we can view side without turning our entire heads. Owls must completely turn their entire head to view their sides, however. Speaking of turned heads, many of us have heard that owls can rotate their heads a full 360 degrees. This isn't quite true: owls can only turn their heads and necks as much as 270 degrees. How far can you turn your head? Did you know humans can only turn their heads 90 degrees left or right from the center? Today you can gain a bird’s eye view of the world by creating your very own owl viewer.

Materials

  • Two paper plates per owl eyesight viewer
  • One long cardboard tube per viewer
  • Scissors
  • Tape or glue
  • Brown, black and yellow paint

DirectionsOwl Craft 2 BioPark Connect Raptors Wearing Mask

  1. Cut one paper plate in half. Place one half of the plate off to the side (this will be used as the viewing base). Paint all sections brown and set aside to dry.
  2. Cut the other half of the plate in half again (this section will be used as the owl’s front eyes). Paint all sections brown and set aside to dry.
  3. Cut the second paper plate into quarters. One of the quarters will be used for the beak. Paint the beak yellow and set aside to dry.
  4. The other two quarters will be used as the bird’s ears. Paint the ears brown and set aside to dry.
  5. Discard the remaining piece or get creative!
  6. Cut your cardboard tube in equal halves and paint it black and set aside to dry.
  7. Once all sections are completely dry, trace the cardboard tubes onto the unfinished side of the viewer base and the owl’s front eyes to form eye holes.
  8. Next, cut out the eye holes in both the viewer base and front eyes.
  9. Push both cardboard tubes through the eye holes into the viewer base.
  10. One end of both cardboard tubes will need to have three or four slits cut into it. These slits will be folded backwards so the tubes can be attached to the viewer base.
  11. Glue or tape the slits to the unpainted side of the viewer base. This will help reinforce your owl viewer base to the owl’s front eyes.
  12. Push the front eyes through the other end of the cardboard tubes and then use glue or tape to reinforce the eyes to the cardboard tubes.
  13. Finally, glue or tape the beak and the ears onto the viewer base.
    1. You now have your owl viewer complete! Take your craft outside and view the world as an owl would. Do you see less or more as an owl?
    2. Tie a string around your viewer mask and wear it around your head. Have a group of students run around the selected owl as prey animals and see how quickly they can catch them. What challenges do you face as an owl? 

Additional Resources 

Learn About Bird Beak Adaptations