Virtual vultures, eagles by email, owls online? All were topics of discussion last month as Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (1700 Hawk Mountain Road, Kempton, Pa., 19529) hosted its monthly “Stay at Home Speaker Series” virtually via ZOOM webinar. February’s free program titled “So, What is a Raptor?” was hosted by Director of Education Jamie Dawson and HMS Senior Scientist J.F. Therrien, covering the multidimensional meaning of the term “raptor.”
It was an interesting way to spend a cold, snowy evening with my five-year-old son who has a special affinity for ancient raptors of the dinosaur kingdom – likely predecessors of today’s modern bird. Anything with huge talons and meat shredding tendencies is cool in his eyes, and Pennsylvania’s various birds of prey are no different.
According to Therrien, species considered raptors are subjects of monitoring programs, legislation and multinational agreements, yet no standard definition for the synonymous terms “raptor” or “bird of prey” exists. Throughout his presentation, he reviewed various criteria previously used to define raptors and presented an updated definition that incorporates current understanding of bird ecology and phylogeny.
The term raptor was derived from the Latin origin “to seize,” but using anatomical features alone (such as feet, beaks and eyes) paints a somewhat limiting picture of what makes a bird a raptor.
“Traditionally, raptors included hawks, eagles, falcons, and caracaras. Sometimes owls, vultures, shrikes and ravens (corvids) were lumped into this category. Occasionally owls were left out because of nighttime feeding behavior. Vultures have been excluded because of weaker feet. Shrites have similar feeding behaviors. Ravens have similar diets,” Therrien explained.
With all that in mind, figuring out what exactly constitutes a bird being a raptor has become rather complex, warranting further consensus on common qualifications.
Therrien and other bird experts recently conferred to define raptors based on morphology (anatomy), ecology (how they live and feed) and phylogeny (ancestry). Their resulting agreement defined hawks, eagles, falcons, caracaras, owls, old and new world vultures and seriemas as true raptors.
Upon the conclusion of Therrien’s presentation, Dawson opened the floor for questions, which led to even more insightful discussion about intriguing birds of prey in our state.
Ten fun-fact takeaways were as follows:
Accipiter (hawks and eagles) is the most numerous Order of raptors in Pennsylvania.
American kestrels are cavity nesters, and they benefit from made-made nesting boxes.
Many raptors eat carrion (especially in the winter when food is scarce), while others will never touch a dead animal. Some insist upon being a predator.
Raptors find food in different ways – owls use their ears (and eyes to some extent at close range), but that’s very different than a turkey vulture that is circling from several kilometers in the sky searching with its eyes.
The survival rate for first year raptors is quite low due to a steep learning curve.
Based on tracking over 100 snowy owls over the past 10 years, a snowy owl eruption is expected roughly every four years due to high production rates.
A snowy owl in New York’s Central Park gained national attention this year, but they visit Pennsylvania too.
Peregrine falcons return to the exact same nest almost every year.
The best time to observe owls is at dawn/dusk, while 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is primetime for diurnal raptors – especially during fall and spring migration.
While today’s raptors are very different from those depicted in Jurassic World, there’s still much to learn about these fascinating predators of the Pennsylvania skies – and they definitely carry their own cool factor.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s visitor center and trails are currently open with safety modifications in place. To learn more about its “Stay at Home Speaker Series” and other programming, please visit www.hawkmountain.org.