SOAR's Frequently Asked Questions
These are compiled from email and public and school programs. Have a question about raptors? Email us!
What is a raptor or bird or prey?
- The word raptor comes from the Latin rapere and means "to seize." A bird of prey is a bird that eats another animal. The terms may technically mean different things, but both terms describe the same group of birds. These birds have talons to seize or take their prey.
When did the bald eagle become our national symbol and why?
- On 20 June 1782 our Continental Congress (as it was called then) selected the bald eagle as our national symbol because of the bird's symbolic power, strength, and freedom. Yes, Thomas Jefferson did suggest the wild turkey be the national symbol.
Are raptors protected by any laws?
- The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 - protects migratory birds and any part, nest, or egg of any such bird, except as allowed for by specific law (like duck and goose hunting)
- Lacy Act Amendments of 1981 - updated the Lacey Act of 1900 and protects bald eagles by making it a Federal offense to take, possess, transport, sell, import, or export their nests, eggs and parts that are taken in violation of any state, tribal or U.S. law.
- Learn about the National Eagle Repository
Do eagles have additional protections?
- The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 - protects both bald and golden eagles
Eagle factoids from USFWS Midwest Region
- The bald eagle is truly an all-American bird; it is the only eagle unique to North America.
- Nests are sometimes used year after year and can weigh as much as 4,000 pounds.
- Bald eagles may live 30 years in the wild (even longer in captivity).
- Bald eagles pair for life, but if one dies, the survivor will accept a new mate.
- In hot climates, like Louisiana and Florida, bald eagles nest during winter.
- Bald eagles get their distinctive white head and tail only after they reach maturity at 4 to 5 years of age. (SOAR has noticed that it may take until the eagle is 8 years before the entire head is a brilliant white. Just like people may have a color streak in their hair, some eagles don’t ever seem to get an entirely white head of feathers.)
How do you know if a bald eagle is male or female?
- Check out this post about measuring beak depths.
How many feathers does a bald eagle have?
- Bald Eagles have approximately 7,000 feathers. Feathers, like hair and nails, are made of keratin. Feathers are made of interlocking, microscopic barbules that are light, but very strong. Layers of feathers trap air to insulate birds against cold and protect them from rain.
How long does it take raptor eggs to hatch?
- Incubation time varies with the size of the bird. Owls, hawks, and falcons may incubate 26-37 days while eagles may incubate 34-40 days. The first egg laid hatches first and the second egg hatches about two-four days later. If there is a third egg hatches, it will hatch two-four days after the second. Smaller species tend to lay more eggs than a larger species.
What are the stages of bird of prey development?
- During the first few weeks after hatching, eaglets and other raptors are almost never left alone. Parents keep very busy taking care of them. One parent is always on the nest covering their babies with wings to keep them warm and to protect them from sun and weather. As the nestlings gain strength, they begin to wobble on their feet using wings like crutches. They are very clumsy. As they become bigger and stronger, they are much more steady and flap their wings and begin to "branch." Branchers test their skills by going to nearby branches and stay close to the nest. First flight usually occurs around 75 days after hatching (for an eagle) and the bird is then a fledgling. Young birds have different ‘feed me’ calls at the different stages of development. If a nestling becomes displaced from the nest and is on the ground like a brancher or a fledgling might and gives the ‘feed me’ call, the adults don’t recognize that as being correct and will not feed. A brancher / fledgling on the ground makes a different feed me sound and the parents will bring food to that youngster. It is very important to do what is safely possible to re-nest young birds with their parents.
What is special about raptor feet?
- Raptor feet are amazing. Eagles, falcons, and most hawks do not have feathers that cover their feet. Owls have fine, specialized feathers to cover their feet. The size, thickness, and curvature of the talons are matched to the bird's hunting habits. Small falcons, like the American kestrel, have long and slender toes designed for perching and grasping and their talons are curved and needle-sharp. Ospreys have toes that are covered with spicules on the underneath side (like a Velcro feeling) to grasp slippery fish. Their outer toe is reversible, just like an owl's, and their toes are tipped with long curved talons (fish hook style) that are sharp as needles. Eagle's toes are short and powerful with long, strongly curved talons.
Can an owl turn its head all the way around?
- Owls can turn their head 270 degrees, that is about twice what you and I can do! They can do this because they have more vertebrae in their neck than humans.
- How do owls spin their heads without tearing arteries? Read this NPR story about and check out the visuals for this college student's science investigation.
- A pellet is accumulated undigested material, in the case of eagles and hawks they are primarily hair. An owl pellet contains bones of the animals they have eaten; this is because an owl has less stomach ‘juices’ to digest the bone.
What materials do Iowa eagles use in their nest?
- The main things you see in an eagle nest are sticks! Some will bring back sticks that they find while soaring and hunting for their food. Sometimes, they steal sticks from beaver dams. Beaver dams have lots of sticks to choose from and it's easier to let someone else do the hard work of finding and shortening sticks! You will see mud, grass, cornstalks, and corn husks woven in with the sticks. The bowl of the nest is usually lined with soft grass and plant materials. Eagles are always working to make their nest better and keep a clean house.
Do all raptors migrate and where do they go?
- In some species, like osprey, broad-winged hawks, and peregrine falcons, almost all of them migrate out of the US and Canada to Central and South America.
- In some species, only some individuals migrate and the distance varies depending on food availability. A lack of food is the biggest reason that most hawks leave their breeding territory in the winter.
What do you call the path that birds use to migrate?
- A flyway is the path that birds congregate along to travel. There are four major flyways in the US: Pacific Flyway, Central Flyway, Mississippi Flyway, and Atlantic Flyway.
What types of migration patterns are there?
- Neotropical migrants are birds that breed in North America, but spend the winter season south of the border in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Some older folk may still call them “jungle birds.” A few examples would be blue-winged teal, oriole, tanagers, bobolink, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, Swainson’s hawk and osprey.
- Short-distance migrants are birds that winter south of their breeding grounds, but stay mainly within the United States and Mexico. Wrens, killdeer, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and white pelicans are examples.
- Partial Migration is considered by some to be linked more to a “genetic code.” Some birds of the same specie will migrate while others will stay in the same area. Iowa examples include robins, bluebirds, goldfinches, chickadees, etc. Some will migrate, while others tend to stay and bear our winters deeper into wooded protection. Iowa holds many flocks of robins all winter long, but come spring, large flocks of returning robins appear in our yards again returning from somewhere south.
- Irruptions are usually a result of a food-driven journey. Food sources of some birds can vary dramatically, season to season, year to year. Some would call this a “flexible” migration strategy. An example would be the snowy and saw-whet owls and other boreal birds that follow their significant food source. 2012 was considered an irruption year with the dramatic migration of young snowy owls moved into Iowa and even Missouri. Our environment here does not compare to their homeland in the tundra and many of those birds face huge mortality.
A raptors hunting style is based on wing shape.
- All falcons have long jet fighter wings that allow the larger falcons to fly swiftly and to stoop (dive) at great speeds. Smaller falcons like the kestrel may not fly as swiftly, but for their size still have powerful wing beats. The raptors that soar have broad wings. Look at the wings of eagles, red-tailed hawks, and vultures and see the large surface area that allows them to ride the thermals. Accipiters that prey on other birds and live among trees and now in towns have short, broad, round-tipped wings for agile and quick turning flight. Owl feathers have fuzzy edges that disperse the wind and help them fly silently in the night while hunting.
Are those satellite dishes?
- Those raptors that utilize hearing, particularly those that hunt at night or dawn and dusk, have facial disks of feathers that help funnel sound in the ear canal. Owls have the best hearing of the raptors, but harriers also have facial disks and have good hearing.
- The term ‘nocturnal’ means a night time animal and ‘diurnal’ means a daytime animal. Have you heard the term ‘crepuscular?’ Crepuscular animals are active during dawn and dusk.
Do daytime (diurnal) raptors use eyesight or hearing more for hunting?
- Birds of prey have the most developed eyesight of all animals. Their eyes are placed on the front of their heads and like us have overlapping binocular vision. Raptor eyes are very large in proportion to the size of their head. As a visual, it’s been described that for a human to see as good as an owl, our eyes would need to be the size of tennis balls. Because the eyes take up so much room in the skull, there is not room for the musculature needed to move the eyeball, so the eyes are fixed and to help determine depth perception and distance, you will see a raptor bob its head or move side-to-side.
Can raptors smell?
- Most birds do not detect airborne scents. Vultures may be the only raptor with a well-developed sense of smell.
Are red-tailed hawks to blame for low pheasant numbers?
- It's all about habitat -- both quantity and quality.
- Weather impacts upland game populations from year to year -- after a severe winter followed by a wet spring, the conditions are not optimal for successful nesting. In the 2011 Iowa DNR August Roadside Survey, "This marks the 5th consecutive winter in a row Iowa has received ~ 30 inches or more of snowfall. In the 50 yrs of standardized roadside counts Iowa has never seen 5 consecutive winters of this severity." Learn about the Iowa DNR August Roadside Survey.
- Habitat loss is gradual and is best noted over time. US Department of Agriculture estimates that over 2,400 square miles of small grains, hay ground, and CRP has been converted to soybeans and corn between 1990 and 2005.
- Besides, did you know that 75% of red-tailed hawk's diet is made up of small mammals like rabbits, mice, rats, and ground squirrels?
- Download, print, and share Protected Predators Keep the Balance brochure (2.4 MB PDF)
About bird bands
Because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and associated regulations, all bird banding is done under a Federal Banding and Marking Permit from the US Geological Survey. The permit outlines allowed species and activities (what are you trying to learn), as well as all the individuals allowed to help with that project. All bird banding permits and activity is managed by the US Geological Survey (USGS) Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Since 1920, the BBL has been a scientific program responsible for the “...collection, archiving, management and dissemination of information from banded and marked birds in North America.” Learn more here: https://www.usgs.gov/centers/…/science/why-do-we-band-birds/
Why band birds?
The data collected by the bird bander and from people that have an "encounter" with an already banded bird provide useful information for scientific research and management activities. Bird banding data helps biologists understand dispersal, migration, longevity, behavior, productivity, and more. Bird banding data only gives point-in-time data - on a specific date, someone had eyes on that bird and the band.
An example from SOAR:
On 27 August 2019, Cass County Conservation rescued a great horned owl about six miles south of Atlantic, Iowa. This owl sported a USGS band. This is an example of a bird band encounter. If you find a banded bird you should report the band number and location to reportband.gov. The band encounter was reported and this great horned owl was banded by Kay before being released on the southwest edge of Atlantic, Iowa… 11 years ago! This is dispersal information, dispersal from release location for this owl. This is important for a raptor rehabilitator to know - great horned owls may not travel or disperse very far from where released. The great horned owl pictured here is that banded owl in a flight pen regaining flight skills.
This great horned owl’s band encounter adds to the collection of reports for longevity. Curious about how long has a certain species has lived? Visit the BBL longevity search page: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/longevity/Longevity_main.cfm
SOAR executive director, Kay Neumann, does not have a bird banding permit. Years ago, she was a sub-permittee on another ornithologist's permit who is no longer banding birds.
To band or not to band?
Summer of 2019 involved rehabilitating many juvenile bald eagles that abandoned their nest site due to difficulties with black flies. Three of these bald eagles garnered much attention from the nest camera audiences! Many speculated and asked if these juveniles would be banded. Kay talked with Brett Mandernack of Eagle Valley Nature Preserve about banding the four juvenile bald eagles - Allamakee, Calmar, D33, and DN9. (Read their story here.) One of Brett's research projects is to look at juvenile bald eagle dispersal and travel behavior from the nest and nest area. Brett said that since these four juvenile bald eagles would be rehabilitating together, he thought banding all four eagles could lead to interesting information. Brett felt that these four juveniles being rehabbed and released together would closely resemble siblings dispersing from a wild nest. Kay and Brett also discussed whether to band D32 if and when he could be released. Both felt that his rehabilitation circumstances would not allow for a similar juvenile dispersal, so D32 will not be banded.
Differences between banding birds and using telemetry?
Both bands and telemetry must be put on the bird by someone with the banding permit. Data collected from band encounters is not (hopefully) quickly known by the bander. With raptors, band encounters may happen through research projects including hawk banding stations, through birds being admitted to a rehabilitator, or by birds being found dead in the field.
A telemetry unit permit is most often associated with a large-scale research project that has substantial funding and partner agencies. Tracking a bird with telemetry varies depending on the type of unit -- a UHF unit that can be monitored using a handheld antennae, a telemetry unit that utilizes satellite technology, or a GPS-GSM telemetry system where data points are downloaded when the unit has cellular signal.
Learn about a couple birds sporting telemetry units:
“Oklahoma” and the Midwest Bald Eagle Telemetry Study - https://soarraptors.org/…/09/releases-to-help-with-research/
D27 visits! - https://www.raptorresource.org/2019/09/19/d27-visits/