What are Raptors? Which birds are considered “Raptors” instead of just “Birds”?
Raptors are birds of prey that primarily hunt prey or scavenge for carrion. Raptors include diurnal (chiefly active in the daytime) birds as well as the nocturnal owl. Raptors have three physical characteristics that set them apart from other birds. These include strong grasping feet with sharp talons used to seize prey, a hooked or hook-tipped beak used to kill and consume prey and a diet that consists mostly of meat. Though raptors have great eyesight, it is not a trait exclusive to them. Most raptors have a poor sense of smell, if any.
Raptors that live in or pass through the Midwestern United States include: Eagles, Falcons, Hawks, Vultures, Osprey, and Owls. Raptors are often at the top of the food chain in many ecosystems, which makes them ideal indicators of ecosystem health. If raptors in nature are threatened, then other animals in that ecosystem also are at risk. Here are some examples of the types of common questions that we get concerning owl, hawks and other raptors.
Bird Feeder Bullies
The public comes in contact with raptors in a few different common circumstances. The most common is when you are watching your bird feeders and notice that a hawk or owl is nearby watching your feeders more closely than you are. It’s easy to feel protective of the songbirds and almost feel as though the raptor is a big, bad bully, but such is life, and they’ve gotta eat too. As much as some of us love our squirrels, bunnies, birds, and chipmunks, we also know that they are food for something else. No matter what though, it’s not fun to watch a raptor eat his dinner, that’s for sure. If you notice a “ring” of feathers or fur in your yard one day, chances are it was a hawk eating his catch.
When a raptor catches prey, they sometimes land on the ground in a nice quiet spot to eat. As they do so, they open their wings a bit to make a sort-of ‘cape’ to shield their prey from being seen by others. Then they pluck all of the feathers off with their beak while holding the prey with their talons, or they pluck the fur if it is a mammal they are eating. As they do this, they rotate around in a circle, leaving feathers or fur in an almost perfect circle in our yards. This is also when you will hear birds and squirrels yell and scream from time to time. They are not always dead before the plucking begins but they are shortly after the raptor gets started.
An owl/hawk came out of nowhere when I was driving and hit my car
One of the other ways that we run-in to raptors is from our cars. Here in Missouri & Illinois, Red Tail Hawks and Barred Owls are by far the most commonly spotted raptors that we get calls about. Both raptors are frequently on highway signs over the highway lanes, on exit signs on highways, telephone wires, and completely bare trees that aren’t even that tall. They don’t seem to worry too much about us spotting them so they don’t even bother hiding.
Roads and highways are good hunting grounds for these raptors, When a mouse or rat, rabbit, or starling lands on the side of a road or runs across the road, these raptors take aim and shoot. One major problem with this is due to the way that they hunt. Raptors tend to get ‘tunnel vision’ when they see a meal that they want to catch. So let’s say a Red Tail Hawk sees a mouse on the left side of the road and he is perched off of the right side of the road. The hawk will fixate on the mouse and track its movement with his eyes. He becomes so focused on that silly mouse that he “forgets” about the cars that are driving on the road that he is hunting on. Sometimes they are so focused that they run right into a car that is driving by – resulting in a car being hit by hawk, literally, instead of hawk hit by car.
Many times in these cases the raptor doesn’t technically need intervention. If he is injured, bleeding, or unable to fly, he should be seen by a wildlife rehabber. However, if he just acts stunned, ‘out of it’ and not flying or even trying to fly, give him some time to recover. If he is in the middle of a busy road, by all means move him to the side of the road where he will not get hit by a car. (Instructions below on how to handle him without getting hurt.) After about 10-30 minutes, sometimes even faster, he will suddenly ‘come to’ and see you, flip out a little, and fly away. He will be perfectly fine in these cases. He just has some wounded pride, and an empty belly, considering he ended up catching a car instead of that mouse he was after. If the raptor will not try to fly at all, tries to fly but can’t, is visibly injured, lies down on its side, or just seems unwell in some way, give us a call at the hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP anytime.
How to determine whether or not a raptor is in need of human intervention
Aside from the obvious; injuries, not flying, lying down on their side, there are also some ways to help you make an educated guess about what is wrong the raptor you have found. Any normal, healthy, wild bird, when approached by a human being, will fly away. If it doesn’t, something is wrong with it.
Most times one of the following is what’s wrong:
It’s too young to fly away.
It’s been injured and can’t fly away.
It’s sick and too weak to fly away.
Too young to fly away:
If you find a nestling bird on the ground and it’s not injured, if at all possible return it to its nest. A nestling cannot walk, hop or fly, so chances are its nest is very close by, maybe even directly above where you found it. It is not true that parent birds will reject their young because they’ve been touched by humans. Birds in general have no appreciable sense of smell, and parents will readily accept and raise their young when replaced in the nest. Altricial birds like robins, grackles and mockingbirds commonly nest in people’s yards.
They build sturdy nests, but often after heavy rain or wind storms, an entire nest and its contents may be found on the ground. If the nestlings are uninjured and the parent birds are still around (they usually are as birds are very reluctant to abandon their young), the fallen nest can be replaced. Use a piece of wire mesh, like hardware cloth, cup it into the shape of a nest and secure it in the same place as the original nest. If the original nest is usable, place it in the wire mesh and return the nestlings. If the original nest is not intact, a substitute can be made using a small berry box (with drainage holes) lined with portions of the original nest and dry grass. After replacing the nestlings, watch from a reasonable distance to make sure that the parents return.
Some birds, such as woodpeckers, bluebirds, chickadees and screech owls, are cavity nesters. They do not build open nests but use holes, generally in trees, as breeding sites. Their nestlings also can be returned to the nest and will be accepted, but it may be more difficult to locate, reach or properly identify the nest site.
If you find a nestling that is injured, cannot be returned to the nest or is really orphaned with no parents in attendance, then you have no choice — rescue it. See our guide at the bottom of this page for advice on how to rescue it without getting hurt.
Injured and unable to fly away:
Many, perhaps most, of the injuries suffered by wild birds are caused by, or related to, human activities. The vast majority of the injuries are not intentional, but accidents, and often difficult if not impossible to prevent. (Check out what you can do to help prevent injuries to wild birds) Most of the wild bird injuries we get calls about are caused by impacts. Birds regularly collide with motor vehicles, hit tall buildings and fly into glass windows and doors, not recognizing that glass is solid. These impacts result in everything from concussions to nerve and tissue damage and broken bones. Birds also get tangled in fishing line, are poisoned by chemicals, fly into wires and, sad to say, many protected species are still shot by lawless, irresponsible people with guns.
Any bird that has sustained a serious injury is in deep trouble, and without human assistance has little to no chance of surviving. Broken bones seldom heal properly on their own — not in humans, not in birds. So if you find an injured bird and you wish to help it, call a local rehab center for guidance or us at the hotline for advice.
Sick and not able to fly away:
Like all other animals, wild birds can and do get sick. Most avian diseases are specific to birds and cannot be transmitted to humans. So the chance of anyone becoming ill from handling a wild bird is remote. Rabies, the most serious wild animal disease which can be contracted by humans, is a mammalian disease and is not carried by birds. Lyme disease, another recent human health problem, is transmitted only by ticks. After handling any wild bird you should wash your hands thoroughly. If you ever have your skin punctured by a bird’s beak or talons, check with your doctor on the advisability of an antitetanus booster.
Safely Catching/Handling a Sick, Orphaned or Injured Raptor
The degree of difficulty and the risk involved in attempting to rescue an injured wild bird depend greatly on the following: what kind of bird it is, how big it is and what’s happened to it. In general, small birds are easier and much less risky to handle. A hawk that’s been hit by a car and knocked unconscious is no problem to pick up, but the same bird, if alert, can be a handful. An injured bird will not know you are trying to help it and will resist your efforts in whatever way it can.
The best way to contain and transport an injured wild bird is in a cardboard box. Shoe boxes work well for small birds and can usually be found around the house. Larger and heavier boxes can be obtained from a supermarket. The box needs to be large enough so that the bird fits comfortably in it without being cramped. Punch a few air holes in the sides and put a towel or a piece of old carpeting on the bottom so the bird is not on a slippery surface, and tape the top closed. Small birds may be safely transported in a paper bag, again with a towel to stand or lie on. Airline sky kennels and other pet carriers can also be used. Placing the bird in a closed, secure, darkened environment is very important. It will help keep it calm, reduce additional stress and prevent it from causing further injury to itself. Do not transport wild birds in wire cages or glass aquariums.
If you should find an injured bird in a situation you cannot resolve yourself, don’t risk getting injured — get help. Call the Hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP or a rehabilitator for advice. Raptors are birds that can be dangerous to handle. Also known as birds of prey, they include hawks, falcons, eagles and owls. Raptors come in all sizes from diminutive American kestrels, not much larger than Blue jays, to huge eagles with seven-foot wingspans. The most common species are Red-Tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls. Although their beaks are formidable weapons, the real business end is their incredibly strong feet. Their grip is vise-like, and large hawks and owls are capable of seriously hurting a human. The best way to capture an alert raptor is to completely cover it with a jacket, coat or blanket. If possible wear heavy gloves. Gather up blanket and bird together, keeping it away from all parts of your body that you deem valuable. Cardboard boxes work well for transport.
Step By Step Instructions
Get a towel, blanket, jacket or any other lightweight item large enough to cover the entire bird.
If possible, wear a pair of gardening or welding gloves to protect your hands and arms.
Approach the bird from the rear if possible. If the bird is alert and can follow your movements it may turn to face you, or flip onto its back with its feet in the air. Anticipate that it will struggle when first covered.
When close enough, carefully place the cover (jacket, towel, blanket) over the bird, making sure it is completely covered.
Quickly restrain the bird by tightening the covering around the bird. Scoop the bird and covering up together, and place into a cardboard box, animal carrier or other secure container. Keep the gloves on and securely hold the bird and covering away from your body to prevent accidental contact with the bird’s feet and talons.
Do not remove the covering from the bird unless you are satisfied that you can get the covering off the bird without harming yourself. The bird may have grasped the covering in its feet – if so, leave the covering in the box with the bird, although not covering the bird.
If it is warm place the box or container in a cool place, as birds can overheat quickly.
Do not attempt to give the bird water or food, as both may complicate the injury, especially an internal one.
Transport the bird to a licensed bird of prey rehabilitation center. To find you local center, please call the hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP.
By rescuing an injured or orphaned wild bird you’ve taken the very important first step in saving its life. You’ve taken it out of harm’s way and have it safe and secure in a box. We strongly urge that your next step be to get it to a qualified and licensed person as quickly as possible. Do not try to raise a baby bird yourself, no matter how appealing, or treat an injured one, no matter how tempting. Realistically, even experienced rehabilitators can’t save them all, but they can offer the bird its best second chance at survival, self-sufficiency and freedom.
If you would like to learn more about preventing injury to raptors and songbirds, visit:
As always, if you find that you need more information, or are not sure how to proceed, give us a call at the Wildlife Hotline and our wildlife specialists would be happy to direct you to the closest rehab facility.