Recently, a video of a golden eagle briefly lifting the child in a Montreal park before dropping him unharmed went viral via the internet. However, the video was a hoax. Nearly 17 million people have watched the video on YouTube in three days. But a digital training centre in Montreal later told the BBC that the clip was made by its students as part of a degree course. Suzanne Guevremont, director of the Centre NAD, said the clip had been produced by four students who “had an idea of making something believable”. The students – who were doing a degree in 3D animation and digital design – had come up with the idea after a brainstorming session, completing the project in seven weeks, she said.
Most birders would have recognized the video as hoax from the very start. While birds of prey each have individual skills that would amaze you, none would have been capable of lifting a small child for any period of time. The subtle distinctions are of interest as feeding habits are largely determined by wing size and shape. In general raptors are carnivores with strong bills, large talons and outstanding flying capabilities.
These are just a few examples of their distinctive abilities from my master naturalist notes:
Accipiters are slender forest hawks with rounded wings and long tails which give them excellent flight maneuverability, such as the Cooper’s Hawk. If you’re trying to determine whether a hawk is a Cooper’s Hawk, or it’s close cousin, the Red-Tailed Hawk, consider size (Cooper is slightly smaller), color of the tail and perhaps most importantly, location. Cooper’s Hawks tend to located in wooded areas, whereas Red-Tailed Hawk prefer to be in the open.
Buteos are larger hawks with broad wings and short tails that allow them to soar over the landscape searching out prey below. A great example would be the Red-Tailed Hawk. I can remember the days when sighting a Red-Tailed Hawk was rare. Today, they can be seen in trees or on fence posts along nearly any roadway. DDT of course had an incredible impact on all birds, particularly raptors by softening the eggs so that they broke open and the embryo died before maturation.
Eagle are very large soaring hawks with exceptionally keen eyesight (whence the nickname “eagle-eye”) and powerful wings. Bald Eagles are perhaps the best known. Not far from where I live in Indiana, Bald Eagles can be regularly sited along the Wabash River between Huntington and Wabash. One of the best ways to see them is by canoe, but be sure to make the trip before the end of June or you may be dragging your canoe over gravel bars.
Falcons are raptors with tapered, pointed wings built for speed and agile flight. The peregrine falcon, which has slowly been emerging from the endangered species list) is the world’s fastest animal with dive speeds up to 200 miles per hour. Interestingly, colonies of peregrine falcons have been known to nest among skyscrapers in large cities. They seem to like the height and isolation. Many cities have introduced ordinances prohibiting the removal or disturbance of falcon nests. Otherwise, they build their nests on cliff sides, particularly along the shores of Lake Superior.
A harrier is a hawk that flies low or hovers while hunting in fields and open areas. In North America you’ve not likely to see anything other than a northern harrier. In order to distinguish them from other hawks you will want to look for their yellow talons and the notable “helmet” design of the feathers on the head.
Kites are small, agile birds with tapered wings and graceful flight. Most kites are found in the southern US, except the white-tailed kite which can be found along the Pacific coast. In order to distinguish them from gulls, you will want to pay attention for the curved bill (common among most all raptors) and the marquis-shape horizontal eye opening with its noticeable yellow color.
Osprey are fish hunters and among the most widespread raptors in the world. Amazingly, there is only one species of osprey. One interesting feature of the osprey is its ability to catch two fish at a time. It ability to spot, grab two fish and fly away is quite impressive. Once I saw an Osprey nab a squirrel at a golf course. It wasn’t a pleasant scene as the squirrels shrieked all they way up to the high branch where the Osprey finally tore it apart.
A nocturnal bird of prey, the owl is known for its upright posture and forward facing eyes (perhaps why we view them as symbols of wisdom). Owls obviously have keen night vision, outstanding hearing and nearly silent flight making their dive to capture their prey practically imperceptible.You may recall my reference to Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehab in Fort Wayne Indiana. There they rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned hawks, owls, falcons and eagles. Birds that simply cannot be released back into the wild are often taken to schools and other groups for educational purposes.
Shrikes are unique in that they are both songbirds and birds of prey. Some have given them the name “butcher birds” as the impale their prey on thorns or other sharp objects in order to rip it apart with their rather weak talons. They seem a little like the “sirens” of the raptor world.
Vultures are exceptionally large birds with featherless heads that scavenge for their food. Carrion is their preferred food and they’re capable of soaring for hours while they seek out their next meal. Many confuse them with other birds of prey, but the can be best distinguished from others by the “v” shape of their wings when they are soaring. Eagles wings, for example, are relatively level.