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What is a Raptor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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The term “raptor” is used to refer to a group of birds which hunt for meat and share several common physical traits. These avians are also known as birds of prey because most of them seek out and kill animal foods, eating little to no plant material. They vary widely in size from miniature owls to majestic Andean condors, and also have different body shapes, although all of them are built for speed and efficient hunting.

The Latin word rapere, meaning “to seize” is the root for the word raptor, a reference to the way in which most raptors hunt: flying overhead and then swooping in for the kill. The highly efficient and accurate hunting skills of the raptor have been used by humans for thousands of years to supplement their own hunting skills. Falconers who pursue live prey with raptors for food and sport can be found all over the world practicing their ancient art.

All raptors share a hooked beak, sharp talons, and excellent vision. The talons of the raptor can be used to grip and manipulate prey, and are usually quite large, comparable to the claws of hunting mammals. A hooked beak is useful for tearing at prey and can be used to slice through skin and flesh. The excellent vision of raptors allows them to soar overhead, out of sight of their prey, and still be able to spot potential sources of food.

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Hawks, eagles, falcons, osprey, secretary birds, condors, vultures, and owls are all considered raptors. All of these birds are associated with the consumption of meat, and as can be seen, some raptors prefer to scavenge for their meat, rather than actively hunting it. Most raptors build a nest together and raise their young in tandem, helping the young raptors to learn how to hunt prey successfully as they are weaned. In many cases, a raptor pair will return to the same nest year after year, making them unfortunately highly sensitive to human encroachment on their habitat.

In most parts of the world, strength, beauty, and grace are associated with the raptor. Some nations have made raptors their national or state bird; the Bald Eagle, for example, represents the United States. Sadly, because raptor habitat is increasingly under threat by humans, some raptors are seriously endangered. The case of the California Condor was typical; the elegant raptor was almost extinct before serious efforts were made to restore the population, which is still considered endangered. Hopefully global efforts by wildlife advocacy organizations will keep these beautiful birds cruising the skies for future generations to enjoy.

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