Wondrous Wildlife
By Vern and Lori Gieger
Eyes in the Sky

     Keep both eyes open, look over your shoulder, and watch your...well, you get the idea. I’m not talking about some big brother satellite. But depending upon who you are these eyes could be your demise. Raptors are one of the most successful and widely distributed birds in the world. They are found on every continent (except Antarctica) and in virtually every type of habitat on the planet. What is a ‘raptor’? The word raptor comes from a Latin word, rapere, meaning "to seize, snatch, tear away; to plunder a place." It is a general term used to cover all birds of prey. Given the predatory nature of many birds in this group, it is an appropriate word to use.
     One of the most frequent questions we are asked is: what is the difference between, eagles, hawks, and falcons. Most of the differences are general and not definite. It can be difficult to determine to which family a bird belongs. There are some buzzards which appear very much like hawks, and vice versa. Raptors fascinate many people—not just birdwatchers—and the information about them is vast. One can hardly do justice to a huge family like this in a short article. 
     They can range in size from down right huge to smaller than a pigeon. Picture this, a Harpy Eagle (one of the world’s largest bird of prey) gliding over the jungle canopy, snatching a monkey, and flying off, to a young red tailed hawk struggling to subdue a gopher snake. Like all animals their prey determines their physical attributes, whether it is strength, agility or speed.
     Eagles are large powerful birds that prey upon larger mammals. They tend to soar high up looking for prey then swoop and chase. Typically broad winged and having fairly short tails (depending on the species). Eagles have brawny legs, stocky feet, short toes and sharp strong talons. Possessing enormous strength in their feet, they literally crush the skull of the victim. Killing the victim instantly, thereby preventing it from causing harm to them.
     Hawks are agility hunters; they hunt their prey by swift, surprise attacks—preying upon small mammals, other birds, even the occasional reptile. They are short-winged with long tails, having longer slimmer legs, feet and toes. While they have considerable strength in their feet, size for size it does not compare to that of an eagle. An interesting note: most true hawks have yellow, orange or red eyes.
     Falcons are speed hunters, long-winged with shorter tails and long lean feet and toes. They reach great heights of up to thousands of feet, diving at impressive speeds (the fastest animal on the planet is the Peregrine, recorded at reaching over 250 MPH in a dive) hitting their prey in mid-air breaking the neck as they hit their prey in the back of the head with their feet.
     Many believe raptors to be solitary and aggressive. This is not true. Birds of prey tend to be monogamous. They mate for life, particularly true in the case with large eagles, who often return to the same nest for many years. Mates will preen each other, and many species are highly gregarious. The notion that raptors are fierce, without compassion, no doubt results from the fact that they are exceptionally good hunters. Yet, these same predators are extremely gentle with their young.
     While the differences among raptors are numerous and sometimes subtle, one amazing thing they all have in common is that birds of prey have exceptional eyesight. This is partly due to the large size of the eye. During the day, sensors called cones (located at the back of the eye) pick out sharp contrasts, color and detail. The cones are concentrated into what is called a fovea. Birds of prey have two foveae—areas of image resolution—in each eye. One is for lateral vision, the other for forward vision.
     When working in conjunction, they provide an extraordinary level of detail resolution. Outside the foveae, raptors have nearly twice the detail resolution of humans. In the foveae themselves, they can have anywhere between four and eight times the resolution of humans. Researchers conclude that raptors may well have the most precise visual acuity of any creature on the planet.
     (Note: Last months eye-opening column "For Your Infurmation— What Are You Wearing?" was written by Barbara Kruse.)