About Raptors

All birds share some common traits, such as feathers, wings, laying eggs and being warm-blooded. However, there are certain characteristics that set the group of birds called raptors apart from other birds.

The word raptor comes from the Latin word “rapere” which mean to seize or plunder. Today, the word is used to describe a group of birds also known as birds of prey. There are around 450 species of raptors worldwide. In North America, we have about 30 common diurnal (active during the day) and 20 common nocturnal (active at night) raptors. Diurnal raptors include: eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, northern harriers, and osprey. Only owls are nocturnal raptors.

Raptors are specialized birds of prey with these adaptations:

1. Exceptional vision
(to see prey from afar)
2. Sharp talons
(to catch and hold prey)
3. Hooked upper beak
(to tear apart food)

What is Migration?

Twice a year, many raptors migrate. They spend the Spring and Summer in northern areas where they nest and rear young. During the winter, food supplies become scarce and the birds fly to more southern latitudes where food is more abundant. There they spend the Fall and Winter before returning to the North.

Many of the North American migrants will fly as far as Southern Mexico and parts of South America. Others find the southern United States suitable for over-wintering.

How do they migrate?

  • Thermals- The sun heats the surface of the Earth unevenly and warm air rises like bubbles in boiling water. Raptors gain altitude by soaring up in a thermal.
  • Updrafts - In mountainous areas, wind blows across the earth's surface and then upward giving raptors enough lift to soar for many miles.
  • Leading Lines - Raptors often follow geographical features such as coastlines and mountain ridges as they migrate.
  • Obstacles - Raptors do not like to fly over water because there are no thermals.

What Do They Eat?

Raptors are birds of prey that eat other animals. Their diet includes small mammals (mice, gophers, rabbits, etc.), fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Some will even chase after birds (including other raptors) and eat them. Many raptors will also eat insects they catch in mid-air.

Raptors are at the top of their food chain. When raptors eat prey that has been exposed to poisons, they can get sick and die.

Have more questions?

Contact HWI's Education & Outreach Director, Nikki Wayment, at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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