No other family of animals are as populous on Earth as birds are. They can be found on every corner of the planet, and we as humans have taken great reverence for them. This is especially among the larger birds; the birds of prey. This is because they are stunning to watch, no matter what people might think of them. However, one question comes to mind when thinking about these airborne assassins: Which among them is truly the best?
This question has been subject to a good deal of research and speculation for a good few years, and several conclusions have been drawn, but there has been no clear answer! Several documentaries and papers have been published that discuss these magnificent birds, and it is on these documents that I have based my research. Some have pointed towards owls being the most efficient hunters, others have said hawks, some say eagles! Most importantly, a good many birders believe that the most adequate hunters in the bird world belong to the family of the falconiformes. Falcons, hobbies and kestrels are known for their speed, precision, and marksmanship. They act like airborne snipers, snatching their prey out of the air with the speed of a bullet. While most people cannot deny that falcons are superb hunters, what else makes them the best? That's what a number of other researchers wanted to find out through several experiments, and while not all are related here, I shall try to relate the ones that have been published to us.
When going into this experiment, I expected the search to be long and difficult, given the lack of articles on the subject, but one had only to look in the videos and books to find the answers he seeks. This was the case for me, and it was how I was able to find such valuable information to back up my claims. I was also able to find information from my close peers, as I surveyed them on which family of birds they thought were the strongest hunters. All in all, I gathered valuable results from documentaries and peers alike, and pieced them together to form this paper.
In every single documentary that I watched, it discussed the fact that falcons are made for speed. For instance, in one documentary, the narrator explained how the feathers along its wings are streamlined, sharpened, and pointed backwards to reduce turbulence (Smithsonian), and the muscles powering these wings are exceedingly powerful. Through my observations in the wilderness, I found that this is true of all falcons; not just the peregrine. Their bodily characteristics are not unlike other birds of prey, however they have been fine tuned by nature with speed and precision in mind. The birds also rely on and, "depend on an innate navigational system-similar to that found in military-grade missiles" (Robin Mills, p.3).
Peregrine Falcons- and others like it- have a line of feathers along the back that act as a spoiler to reduce drag and streamline air flow, and therefore they are able to reach speeds of over 400 kilometers an hour when diving. In order to breathe at such high altitudes, the peregrine has wide nostrils in order to keep air flowing in, because when you open your mouth at such speeds as the falcon, the air comes rushing into either your mouth or your nose and makes it difficult to breathe.
Once they find their prey, they tuck their wings in, and perform a high-speed aerial stoop- folding in it's wings and exceeding speeds of over 200 miles per hour- using proportional navigation to track the birds it plans to take down. On the other hand, smaller falcons like the American Kestrel rely more on their keen eyesight to track down their prey. All falcons have a beak that sits straight at a 90 degree angle, and then it curves downward, and at the end, there are two toothy structures that are used specifically for breaking down the bones of its prey. Perhaps the most notable feature about them are their eyes; making up for about 45% of the head. This allows for excellent peripheral vision, and allows these birds to track their victims. All of these skills combined make peregrines and other falcons some of the deadliest hunters of the bird world.
Even though these birds were built for speed, it will mean nothing if they cannot implement it in the correct ways. Many birds have different ways of securing their prey. Falcons are no different from other birds in this manner. According to my video findings, most falcons like to hunt from a high altitude, whether that be from a cliff or from the sky. Smaller falcons, like Kestrels, will hover in the air to search for prey, and once they do, they will swoop down on them rather suddenly, thus adding the element of surprise to their attack. However, based on my observations, the most notable is the peregrine's method of hunting. The stoop is most characteristic, and is adopted by several large falcons of a similar size to the peregrine. They will either swoop above or below a bird depending whether or not the altitude or terrain works to the birds advantage. However, there are several factors that determine how successful a bird is when hunting. Some of which include the season of the year, which determines the behavior of each bird (Breeding season); what kind of prey is available during those seasons of the year; and most importantly, the weather. Falcons can't hunt in a thunderstorm or a snowstorm, for instance.For, it is common knowledge that flying in bad weather would damage or waterlog their feathers and prevent them from performing their impressive aerial maneuvers. On one occasion, it rained for several days, and I could see very few birds. However, I can say that all the birds that I have seen have provided me with a lot of useful information about hunting in bad weather. They sheltered themselves in the trees and whenever something passed by, they would snatch it quickly for fear of their feathers getting wet. If they did, they would shake themselves vigorously, from wing to tail, and droplets would fly everywhere. That is then followed by rigorous preening, making sure every feather is back in place. Regardless of whether or not they have chicks to feed, or have to brave some kind of weather, they're gonna catch some kind of prey because they ARE nature's stealth bombers.
What about the Other Birds?
Some ornithologists might be asking themselves, "Falcons are all well and good as hunters, but what about other birds of prey?" Through my research I found some answers that hopefully will allow for some reconsideration. In generality, all birds of prey have gyroscopic vision because they can't move their eyes. Therefore, they swivel their heads from side to side using their very flexible necks. Their eyesight can range from about 5 times stronger than ours, to over twenty times stronger. Eagles, for instance, can see at about one hundred frames per second, which helps them to track their prey's speed. However, the kings of eyesight and hunting in the night, are OWLS. Some would argue that owls are perhaps the most superb hunters of the bird world. This is due to the fact that owls have the most acute senses of sight and -particularly hearing- of any bird. As we know, these birds are able to turn their heads a full 270 degrees and not get cut off from blood circulation, and this allows for excellent peripheral hearing and sight. Furthermore, the great horned owl in particular has immensely powerful talons and feet, able to crush at over 400 psi (Pounds per square inch), and their wide mouths allow them to swallow their prey whole, like a snake. So, yeah, owls are a pretty big deal in the bird world. However, what about the most iconic bird of prey? According to my research, eagles use power to procure their food. Whether it's the mountain dwelling, large rodent-eating Golden Eagle of North America, or the sloth eating Harpy Eagle of the forests in the Philippines, they all procure food in the same way. Eagles rely on pinpoint eyesight like those of other birds of prey. However, their eyes are smaller than an owl's or a falcon's, but that hardly matters. The true extent of their hunting prowess is in their talons. Eagles talons are both very long, and very sharp, curving downward like a sickle. These "Hooks" are extremely useful for holding onto wiggling prey, such as a large duck or a fish. They are not as long as other birds of prey, but it's useful for holding onto slippery prey. What is more, their feet are rough like sandpaper, so that even if the fish could escape the talons, the bird could still maintain a strong grip on them, until they are swiftly devoured. Surprisingly, one would associate eagles with integrity, but in the wild, that's not the case. Eagles aren't above stealing other's catches, so that knocks them down a few points on the "best hunter" scale. Lastly, my research covered Hawks. Hawks are known for going with the flow on what they can eat, and they eat a lot. They rely on brute strength and eyesight, very much like an eagle, but their diet is much more varied. Sometimes, these birds will form packs to eat and hunt. For instance, the Harris Hawk will form small family groups to hunt small prey such as grasshopper mice or small collared lizards (Fry. 42:31- 48:40)
My past research of these birds consisted of observing what other ornithologists have gathered beforehand, so that I may learn about it myself. Furthermore, I have spent many hours birdwatching on family trips, and I have seen hawks hunting before in the wild. A majority of the sources I have found online through various search engines and date back several years ago, as people were still finding out about how these birds behave in their everyday life. The first source I found was a collaborative article that explained what it took to define a bird as being "Raptorial." The article ( Commentary:Defining Raptors and Birds of Prey,) was spread out in various subheadings that discussed such topics as raptorial morphology, taxonomy, sorting of families etc. All of the sources I have visited have been very similar, as I was looking for factual evidence about my charges- the birds of prey. I will not lie when I say that the research process was tedious, as I did not see these birds out and about in the wild in my own backyard, but maybe I was not looking hard enough. Luckily, there were sources like the Audubon Society that could provide me information that proved to be really crucial. In fact, it was that source that gave me such great insight into the behaviors of the Harris Hawk: it was laid out in such a way that I found the information easily accessible. Also, I was able to contact the Phoenix Zoo and find information there. Some of the keepers showed me what the kestrel's hunting strategy was, and you can only imagine how thankful I had been for that opportunity. However, by far the most helpful source I could find was a birder by the name of Robert E. Fuller. Fuller has published a whole series regarding a type of falcon called the Eurasian Kestrel. The series saw the two parents bringing up their young in a highly disrupted neighborhood, and that had to involve some hunting done by at least one parent. As the female stayed back at the nest, the male would "Go off hunting and bring back some truly bizarre meals." (Fuller, 19:54-20:00)
As I witnessed these birds in the nest and the catches they brought in, I realized just how much work hunting must be for not just falcons, but with birds of prey in general.
Even though these birds are great at what they do, Falcons are at home among them due to their prowess in speed and precision. Of course, the hunting methods of these birds vary, but falcons are unique in their hunts for prey. With this paper, I hope to raise awareness for not just these birds, but for all of nature. It may seem a little out there at first, as time goes on, I would hope that the people of this world come to realize just how much damage they have done to our ecosystem. Some may reject it, saying that such matters will deny them of their freedom, and obstinately affirm that they "can do whatever they want with their lives, and other people don't have a say in them."
To that, I say, " I respect your choice, and it is entirely up to you." People need to be able to choose for themselves whether or not they want birds to flourish alongside us or not. It's not going to do us any good to force them. It might be nice if we could ramp up the efforts we are already putting forward to ensure these birds will survive another century. However, I stray from my point. Birds of all sorts hunt in some way, but the birds of prey- the raptors- are what truly capture our attention.In this paper, I hoped to answer the question: "Which one of these birds is truly the best at it's craft?"(Street, p.19), and to be honest, I feel like I've succeeded.
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