The word raptor comes from the Latin “rareres” which means “take by force”; and if you have ever seen an eagle strike its prey in mid-air, you will understand what take by force means.

Raptors are described as birds that eat vertebrates. All of them have been prepared for their place in nature. Their large hooked beaks are made for tearing flesh and their talons are strong. They can also be very fast as they make sudden dashes from concealment to capture their next meal.

In looks they range from the ugliest of birds to some of the most beautiful. In a guide book the first one listed for North America is the California condor, which has a bare red head. The next two we have in Texas — they are not buzzards as most Texans say — are vultures. They are the black vulture (as you may have guessed, with the bare head) and the turkey vulture. The turkey is not likely to be found on the dining table at Thanksgiving, but like the black, dines on road kill. Like the condor, the turkey has a red head.

Sometimes they are visited at lunch by another raptor, the greater caracara. Some of the raptors have special diets. The snail kite has a special built-in hook on its beak so it can eat snails down in Florida. The osprey specializes in fish, and its huge talons can lift a big one out of the water.

Kites are medium-sized raptors, ranging from 14 inches in length to 22 inches; their diet consists of smaller flying prey.

One of the more common small hawks, the sharp-shinned, has adapted to living with humans and can be seen watching backyards for feeding birds. When we see one in our yard, Jackie says it can have sparrows, but it had better leave her chickadees alone. I once saw one carrying a pigeon, which was about all he could carry — or for that matter, kill.

The family of buteo hawks are generally larger and include the common black-hawk that Jackie and I saw at Big Bend and the Harris’s hawk which we saw often in South Texas. 

The most common hawk in East Texas is the red-tailed that can be seen sitting on telephone poles along the highway.

The most exciting hawk event I have seen was the migration of the broad-winged hawks that start from a little park in Calallen just north of Corpus Christi; they form huge “kettles” that are made up of thousands of the birds.

The larger of the raptors include the eagles, both golden and bald. The golden is seen in West Texas. Jackie and I saw our first north of Seattle, Wash. These birds are able to take rather large birds and small animals as prey.

One of the things ornithologists are concerned about now is that with the recovery of eagles (they were almost wiped out by DDT), they are so abundant now they are taking rare birds as prey. Even small raptors such as merlins and American kestrels can make a meal for the bigger bird.

When you look back you can see that the way of nature has been disrupted by humans with the destruction of habitat, which includes nesting grounds as well as the loss of food sources. The birds depend on a supply of small mammals such as rabbits and mice, and these are in decline also.

My personal encounters with raptors include the time Jackie and I watched an osprey take a fish as big as he was and struggle to get it ashore and the golden eagle that sat in a dead tree and let us join him for lunch, which consisted of a large snake.

It didn’t look very tasty to Jackie until the bird pulled out a huge bottle of ketchup.


Boswell is a Greenville resident and author whose birding column is syndicated. Contact him at

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