A bird of prey, predatory bird, or raptor is any of several species of
bird that hunts and feeds on rodents and other small animals. The term
raptor is derived from the Latin word rapere, meaning to seize or take
by force. Birds of prey have keen vision that allows them to detect
their prey during flight, as well as powerful talons and beaks.
Taken literally, the term bird of prey has a wide meaning that
includes many birds that hunt and feed on animals and also birds that
eat very small insects.
Ornithology has a narrower definition of
bird of prey: a bird that has very good eyesight for finding food,
strong feet for holding food, and a strong curved beak for tearing
flesh. Most birds of prey also have strong curved talons for
catching or killing prey. An example of this difference in
definition, the narrower definition excludes storks and gulls, which
can eat quite large fish, partly because these birds catch and kill
prey entirely with their beaks, and similarly bird-eating skuas,
fish-eating penguins, and vertebrate-eating kookaburras are excluded.
Birds of prey generally prey on vertebrates, which are usually quite
large relative to the size of the bird. Most also eat carrion, at
least occasionally, and vultures and condors eat carrion as their main
1 Common names
2.1 Historical classifications
2.2 Modern systematics
4 Sexual dimorphism
5 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
The common names for various birds of prey are based on structure, but
many of the traditional names do not reflect the evolutionary
relationships between the groups.
Variations in shape and size
Eagles tend to be large birds with long, broad wings and massive feet.
Booted eagles have legs and feet feathered to the toes and build very
large stick nests.
Ospreys, a single species found worldwide that specializes in catching
fish and builds large stick nests.
Kites have long wings and relatively weak legs. They spend much of
their time soaring. They will take live vertebrate prey, but mostly
feed on insects or even carrion.
The true hawks are medium-sized birds of prey that usually belong to
Accipiter (see below). They are mainly woodland birds that
hunt by sudden dashes from a concealed perch. They usually have long
tails for tight steering.
Buzzards are medium-large raptors with robust bodies and broad wings,
or, alternatively, any bird of the genus
Buteo (also commonly known as
"hawks" in North America, while "buzzard" is colloquially used for
Harriers are large, slender hawk-like birds with long tails and long
thin legs. Most use a combination of keen eyesight and hearing to hunt
small vertebrates, gliding on their long broad wings and circling low
over grasslands and marshes.
Vultures are carrion-eating raptors of two distinct biological
families: the Accipitridae, which occurs only in the Eastern
Hemisphere; and the Cathartidae, which occurs only in the Western
Hemisphere. Members of both groups have heads either partly or fully
devoid of feathers.
Falcons are medium-size birds of prey with long pointy wings. They
belong to the
Falconidae family, rather than the Accipitridae
(accipiters). Many are particularly swift flyers.
Caracaras are a distinct subgroup of the
Falconidae unique to the New
World, and most common in the
Neotropics – their broad wings, naked
faces and appetites of a generalist suggest some level of convergence
with either the Buteos or the vulturine birds, or both.
Owls are variable-sized, typically night-specialized hunting birds.
They fly almost silently due to their special feather structure that
reduces turbulence. They have particularly acute hearing.
Many of these
English language group names originally referred to
particular species encountered in Britain. As English-speaking people
travelled further, the familiar names were applied to new birds with
similar characteristics. Names that have generalised this way include:
kite (Milvus milvus), sparrow-hawk or sparhawk (
Accipiter gentilis), kestrel (Falco tinninculus), hobby
(Falco subbuteo), harrier (simplified from "hen-harrier", Circus
cyaneus), buzzard (
Some names have not generalised, and refer to single species (or
groups of closely related (sub)species): merlin (Falco columbarius),
osprey (Pandion haliaetus).
The taxonomy of
Carl Linnaeus grouped birds (class Aves) into orders,
genera, and species, with no formal ranks between genus and order. He
placed all birds of prey into a single order, Accipitres, subdividing
this into four genera: Vultur (vultures), Falco (eagles, hawks,
falcons, etc.), Strix (owls), and
Lanius (shrikes). This approach was
followed by subsequent authors such as Gmelin, Latham, and Turnton.
Louis Pierre Veillot used additional ranks: order, tribe, family,
genus, species. Birds of prey (order Accipitres) were divided into
diurnal and nocturnal tribes; the owls remained monogeneric (family
Ægolii, genus Strix), whilst the diurnal raptors were divided into
three families: Vulturini, Gypaëti, and Accipitrini.
Thus Veillot's families were similar to the Linnaean genera, with the
difference that shrikes were no longer included amongst the birds of
prey. In addition to the original Vultur and Falco (now reduced in
scope), Veillot adopted four genera from Savigny: Phene, Haliæetus,
Pandion, and Elanus. He also introduced five new genera of vultures
(Gypagus, Catharista, Daptrius, Ibycter, Polyborus)[note 1] and eleven
new genera of accipitrines (Aquila, Circaëtus, Circus, Buteo, Milvus,
Ictinia, Physeta, Harpia, Spizaëtus, Asturina, Sparvius).
Accipitriformes is believed to have originated 44 million
years ago when it split from the common ancestor of the secretarybird
(Sagittarius serpentarius) and the accipitrid species. The
Accipitriformes is complex and difficult to unravel.
Widespread paraphylies were observed in many phylogenetic
studies. More recent and detailed studies show
similar results. However, according to the findings of a 2014
study, the sister relationship between larger clades of
Accipitriformes was well supported (e.g. relationship of Harpagus
kites to buzzards and sea eagles and these latter two with Accipiter
hawks are sister taxa of the clade containing Aquilinae and
The diurnal birds of prey are formally classified into five families
of two orders.
Accipitridae: hawks, eagles, buzzards, harriers, kites, and Old World
Pandionidae: the osprey
Sagittariidae: the secretarybird
Falconidae: falcons, caracaras, and forest falcons
New World vultures
These families were traditionally grouped together in a single order
Falconiformes but are now split into two orders, the
Cathartidae are sometimes placed separately in an
enlarged stork family, Ciconiiformes, and may be raised to an order of
their own, Cathartiiformes.
The secretary bird and/or osprey are sometimes listed as subfamilies
of Acciptridae: Sagittariinae and Pandioninae, respectively.
Australia's letter-winged kite is a member of the family Accipitridae,
although it is a nocturnal bird.
The nocturnal birds of prey – the owls – are classified separately
as members of two extant families of the order Strigiformes:
Strigidae: "typical owls"
Tytonidae: barn and bay owls
Below is a simplified phylogeny of
Telluraves which is the clade where
the birds of prey belong to along with passerines and several
near-passerine lineages. The orders in bold text are birds
of prey orders; this is to show the polyphly of the group as well as
their relationships to other birds.
Accipitriformes (hawks and relatives)
New World vultures)
Coraciimorphae (woodpeckers, rollers, hornbills, etc.)
Psittacopasserae (parrots and songbirds)
Migratory behaviour evolved multiple times within accipitrid raptors.
An obliged point of transit of the migration of the birds of prey is
the bottleneck-shaped Strait of Messina, Sicily, here seen from
Dinnammare mount, Peloritani.
The earliest event occurred nearly 14 to 12 million years ago. This
result seems to be one of the oldest dates published so far in the
case of birds of prey. For example, a previous reconstruction of
migratory behaviour in one
Buteo clade with a result of the origin
of migration around 5 million years ago was also supported by that
Migratory species of raptors had a southern origin because it seems
that all of the major lineages within
Accipitridae had an origin to
one of the biogeographic realms of the Southern Hemisphere. The
appearance of migratory behaviour occurred in the tropics parallel
with the range expansion of migratory species to temperate
habitats. Similar results of southern origin in other taxonomic
groups can be found in the literature.
Distribution and biogeographic history highly determine the origin of
migration in birds of prey. Based on some comparative analyses, diet
breadth also has an effect on the evolution of migratory behaviour in
this group, but its relevance needs further investigation. The
evolution of migration in animals seems to be a complex and difficult
topic with many unanswered questions.
A recent study discovered new connections between migration and the
ecology, life history of raptors. A brief overview from abstract of
the publish paper shows that "clutch size and hunting strategies have
been proved to be the most important variables in shaping distribution
areas, and also the geographic dissimilarities may mask important
relationships between life history traits and migratory behaviours.
The West Palearctic-Afrotropical and the North-South American
migratory systems are fundamentally different from the East
Palearctic-Indomalayan system, owing to the presence versus absence of
ecological barriers." Maximum entropy modelling can help in
answering the question: why species winters at one location while the
others are elsewhere. It is interesting that how temperature and
precipitation related factors differs in the limitation of species
distributions. "This suggests that the migratory behaviours differ
among the three main migratory routes for these species" which may
have important consevational consequences in the protection of
Shikra females have yellow eyes
Raptors are known to display patterns of sexual dimorphism. It is
commonly believed that the dimorphisms found in raptors occur due to
sexual selection or environmental factors. In general, hypotheses in
favor of ecological factors being the cause for sexual dimorphism in
raptors are rejected. This is because the ecological model is less
parsimonious, meaning that its explanation is more complex than that
of the sexual selection model. Additionally, ecological models are
much harder to test because a great deal of data is required.
Dimorphisms can also be the product of intrasexual selection between
males and females. It appears that both sexes of the species play a
role in the sexual dimorphism within raptors; females tend to compete
with other females to find good places to nest and attract males, and
males competing with other males for adequate hunting ground so they
appear as the most healthy mate. It has also been proposed that
sexual dimorphism is merely the product of disruptive selection, and
is merely a stepping stone in the process of speciation, especially if
the traits that define gender are independent across a species. Sexual
dimorphism can be viewed as something that can accelerate the rate of
In non-predatory birds, males are typically larger than females.
However, in birds of prey, the opposite is the case. For instance, the
kestrel is a type of falcon in which males are the primary providers,
and the females are responsible for nurturing the young. In this
species, the smaller the kestrels are, the less food is needed and
thus, they can survive in environments that are harsher. This is
particularly true in the male kestrels. It has become more
energetically favorable for male kestrels to remain smaller than their
female counterparts because smaller males have an agility advantage
when it comes to defending the nest and hunting. Larger females are
favored because they can incubate larger numbers of offspring, while
also being able to breed a larger clutch size.
Origin of birds
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Prey and the difference between Diurnal and
Accipitridae (Buzzards, eagles, harriers, hawks, kites, and Old World
New World vultures (family: Cathartidae)
American black vulture
Lesser yellow-headed vulture
Greater yellow-headed vulture
Old World vultures (subfamily: Aegypiinae)
Himalayan griffon vulture
Species (extinctions: † indicates a species confirmed to be extinct)
Cape Verde buzzard
Rufous crab hawk
Common black hawk
Cuban black hawk
Great black hawk
BNF: cb11932892n (d