Hunters in the sky

Because many different species of birds hunt by day, they use different ways of catching prey so they do not compete with each other – here are just a few of the ways.

#1 – Pounce from high up: Red-tail Hawk
While the Red-tail is almost the largest bird you’ll see, even the biggest one weighs only a little over one kilogram – yet it can catch rabbits of double that weight! The Red-tail Hawk has very sharp eye-sight and can see long distances. It can spot prey from 30 metres away. Sitting, very still, high up on trees and telephone poles, the hawk moves its eyes all the time – left, right, down below, behind, then forward. When the hawk recognizes a prey animal such as a squirrel – zoom, down it swoops, talons out to grab it and carry it off to a tree to eat it, or to its nest to feed its young.

#2 – Steal from others: Parasitic Jaeger
Parasitic Jaegers are very fast, agile fliers and well known as seabird pirates! They can catch fish but they prefer to use their flying skills to chase other birds such as gulls and harass them until they drop their catch. Then the jaeger swoops down and snatches the stolen food before it can fall back into
the ocean. There are other bird pirates, on both land and sea, such as eagles, ravens, crows, gulls and frigate birds.

#3 – Fly fastest: Swifts
Peregrines are the fastest of all birds but only in a steep dive. Swifts are by far the fastest fliers – one was clocked at 111.6 km/h! Swifts go hunting for food in a flock. They feed while they are flying, zooming through hordes of gnats and mosquitoes with their beaks wide open, catching up to 1,000 insects a day! Small insects go straight down the throat to their crop – larger ones need to be crunched up.

#4 – Ambush and chase: Sharp-shinned Hawk
These hawks can dart through trees and shrubs. They can make 180 degree turns around trees, then reach out their talons to capture the prey. Sometimes they chase small birds in and out of bushes. They are smart too – they know where to find food. They will grab small birds from feeders, in mid-air, or even as they bounce off a window. If you have a feeder in the garden don’t feel bad if you see a hawk picking off one or two of your visitors – remember that hawks have to survive the winter too, so your feeder is helping a wide range of birds get through cold weather.

#5 – Grab from low down: Northern Harrier
The Northern Harrier hunts in a very different style – it flies low over open grassy areas or marshes, listening as well as looking for prey. The harrier has a roundish face rather like an owl, with stiff facial feathers which help to bring sound to its ears, so it can use hearing as well as sight when hunting. Harriers usually hunt small mammals and birds, but they can even kill bigger prey like rabbits and ducks by drowning them.

Nighttime hunters

Hunting in the dark is much more difficult than hunting in daylight, so basically there is just one kind of bird that regularly hunts at night – the owl. And not all owls hunt at night. In BC, Long-eared Owls, Great Horned Owls, Western Screech Owls, Boreal Owls and Barn Owls hunt at night, but even they sometimes hunt in the daytime. So how do owls find prey in the dark? They use their amazing hearing abilities to locate small mammals that run around at night. Owl ears are placed level with the eyes but in most species, the opening to the ear on one side is slightly higher and further back than on the other side. Thus, an owl can tell exactly where its prey is – above, below, in front, behind, to the right or left. Added to that, an owl’s wing feathers are much softer than other birds so when the owl is flying there is not a whisper of sound from the wings. Once the owl has located its prey –most likely a mouse or vole – it speeds to capture it before the creature even knows there is an owl nearby.

Image credit: Fox Photos (Northern harrier, female)

This article appeared in NatureWILD magazine which is part of our $35 annual family membership or it can be purchased on its own for $20 per year.
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