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Birds of Prey

Birds of prey are predators that catch and eat other animals. These birds are called raptors (from the Latin rapere, meaning to snatch), a reference to their specialized, powerful feet, which are used to seize their prey. Raptorial birds eat birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and large insects.

Birds of prey are members of five avian families within the order Falconiformes. The Accipitridae includes the hawks, eagles, kites, harriers, and Eurasian vultures. Some widespread North American species in this family are the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), the redtailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), the sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus), and the northern harrier (Circus cyaneus). The Falconidae includes the falcons and caracaras, such as the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and the merlin (F. columbarius). The Pandionidae includes only one species, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus), which has an almost worldwide distribution. The Sagittariidae of Africa includes only the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius). Finally, the Cathartidae (American vultures) live only in North, Central, and South America and include the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), the black vulture (Coragyps atratus), and the endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus).

Owls are also birds of prey. Their order Strigiformes includes two families, the Tytonidae (barn owls), represented in North America by the barn owl (Tyto alba), and the Strigidae, including the eastern screech-owl (Otus asio), the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), the snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca), and the tiny elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi), which is only 5 in (13 cm) long.

As a group, birds of prey eat large numbers of small mammals that might otherwise be pests of agriculture or homes. Many people find raptors fascinating because of the grace, speed, ferocity, and power that most species display as predators. However, some people dislike birds of prey because certain species hunt game birds and songbirds, and in the past, raptors have been killed in large numbers. Large numbers of raptors have also been indirectly poisoned by the use of insecticides. For example, the widespread agricultural use of persistent, bioaccumulating, chlorinated-hydrocarbon insecticides such as DDT and dieldrin caused the collapse of populations of peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and other species of birds. The use of these pesticides is now restricted, and their effect on raptors is becoming less significant. The peregrine falcon, for example, has recovered somewhat in abundance and is no longer considered an endangered species in the United States. Nevertheless, populations of many birds of prey remain perilously small.

See also Condors.

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