Amazing Wildlife

What makes a bird a raptor? Five characteristics of birds of prey

What is a raptor?

A raptor is a predatory bird, with sharp talons, a hooked beak, and keen eyesight. Raptors are also sometimes called birds of prey. There are many different types of birds of prey, including eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, vultures, ospreys, and kites. Birds of prey come in many different sizes: from the American kestrel, the smallest of falcons, which is not much larger than a blue jay, to the golden eagle, which can have a wingspan over 6 feet (1.8 meters)! Condors, a type of vulture, can be even larger. The Andean condor of western South America may have a wingspan of up to about 10 feet (3 meters).

Here are five traits shared by raptors that make them unique and amazing birds:

1. Great Eyesight

A bald eagle’s keen eyes. Photo by Darrell Gough on

Birds of prey have excellent eyesight to spot their prey from a great distance. Many birds of prey, hunt by circling high in the air over open fields or perching atop tall trees โ€“ it takes some amazing eyesight to spot tiny prey animals like mice and snakes from way up there!

2. Curved Beaks

A falcon’s sharp, curved beak. Photo by Jean van der Meulen on

All birds of prey have curved or hooked beaks. Curved beaks are an evolutionary adaptation of raptors, that serve as a sort of multi-tool. Raptors use their hooked beaks for many purposes, such as killing and eating prey, preening, and feeding their nestlings.

3. Sharp Talons

A raptor’s sharp talons. Photo by Pixabay on

Birds of prey have sharp talons for grasping their prey. Most birds of prey have anisodactyl feet, meaning that they have three talons facing forward, and one talon on the back of the foot (called a hallux). Owls have zygodactyl or semi-zygodactyl feet. Zygodactyl means two talons face forward and two talons face backward. Semi-zygodactyl feet are like zygodactyl feet but one of the back talons can rotate to the front as needed.

4. Meat Eaters

An osprey has caught a fish to eat. Photo by Tina Nord on

Birds of prey eat meat. Most birds of prey are predators that hunt for a variety of prey animals such as squirrels, mice, rabbits, snakes, and smaller birds. Some raptors also hunt for insects. Vultures are carnivorous scavengers, which usually eat the dead carcasses of animals rather than hunting and killing their own prey.

5. Involved Parents

A pair of great horned owl fledglings. Photo by Tina Nord on

Both male and female parents take active roles in raising young: incubating eggs, hunting and providing food to the young, and defending the nest from predators. Young raptors, called nestlings, are completely dependent on their parents for food, shelter, and protection. Once they develop flight feathers, the young birds are called fledglings. The fledglings practice leaving and returning to the nest, while still depending on their parents for food.

Learn more about raptors…

Want to learn more about raptors? Chances are you can find raptors in your local area! Raptors are found in all sorts of habitats, including forests, deserts, coastal areas, grasslands, wetlands, and even urban areas! Depending on where you live, you will find different species of raptors. Visit a local raptor center or check out your state or countyโ€™s parks and wildlife website to learn about common raptors in your area!

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References and Further Reading

  1. Cornell Ornithology Lab (n.d.). AllAboutBirds. Available:
  2. LA Zoo (n.d.). Andean Condor. Available:
  3. The National Audubon Society (n.d.). Available:
  4. Tapia, L., & Zuberogoitia, I. (2018). Breeding and nesting biology in raptors. In Birds of Prey (pp. 63-94). Springer, Cham. Available:
  5. University of Minnesota (October 29, 2020). What makes a raptor – Part 1, hooked beaks. The Raptor Center. Available:

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