As I was driving into work I passed a Red-tailed Hawk on the side of the road eating, well, something dead. If you are paying attention, you can see fleeting glimpses of large predatory birds everywhere. Look up and you may see a group of vultures with massive wing spans seeming to effortlessly and slowly circle a field as they ride the thermals and look for a meal. Sitting by the lake, you might see a bird diving toward the water and attempting to scoop a fish back with it into the sky. Red-tailed Hawks sit on posts and telephone wire poles scanning open areas for tiny scurrying feet. Our eyes are not our only tool to come across these birds hunting for food. Owls hoot in the distance as the sun sets. They are silent predators moving from tree to tree and listening for rustling leaves on the ground before swooping down to catch their prey.
Each of these birds is a predator. They eat other animals, whether that might be fish, mice, moles, snakes, skunks, or smaller birds. Since they hunt for their food, they are known as birds of prey. Another name for these birds is raptors, which, at least for me, brings about visions of dinosaurs and velociraptors and to be honest, I kind of see the resemblance.
Birds of prey include birds such as hawks, owls, eagles, osprey, and yes, vultures. In fairness, I never said that prey had to still be alive. Even eagles, who are known as a majestic and stately bird by many, often prefer to eat carrion, or dead animals, sometimes by stealing another animal’s or bird’s kill.
Although they vary vastly in size, color, and habitat, most raptors have some similarities related to the fact their diet consists largely of meat. They have a sharp, curved beak to tear their prey into small enough pieces to swallow whole, sharp talons they use to catch their prey, and excellent eyesight, and hearing. After all, the hawk does have to be able to see a small mouse in a field from its perch in a tall tree or telephone pole. And owls need to hear the smallest noise to find their prey in the dark of the night.
These birds of prey are often seen from afar or in the case of owls, usually heard instead of seen. It’s not often we get the same chance to see them up close or spend time studying them as we might a bird in the backyard bird feeder.
You may get glimpses of them if you know where to look. For example, if you are willing to go on a night hike you can call for owls, and if you are lucky, and it is the right time of year, they may call back or come closer. Even this does not allow prolonged and close viewing of these impressive and varied birds. Many places, such as nature centers, zoos, and other animal-based education centers have birds on view in enclosures outside or inside and some of those places do programs where they bring or show birds in an educational capacity.
Liberty, Audubon’s non-releasable Bald Eagle is one example of a raptor kept in captivity. Non-releasable is the key here, though. Most birds of prey in captivity and used for education have some sort of injury or reason they have not been released into the wild. Often, it is the case that they will not be released back into the wild because it is unlikely they would survive. They may have an injury making it difficult to hunt for food or fly.
On Saturday November 14, Audubon Community Nature Center will run their annual Live Hawks and Owls Event. This is a special opportunity to see these birds up close instead of soaring far overhead and catching a fleeting glimpse of them flying by while we are driving by in the car. This year, Wild Spirit Education, a wildlife education and rehabilitation organization will be bringing live birds of prey to Audubon for a unique up close experience. There are one hour blocks where you and your family can sign up to see these birds in person, ask questions to the people who know these individual animals best and learn more about what makes these birds of prey so special.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Chelsea Jandreau is a Nature Educator at ACNC.