Australia is blessed with many different species of raptor. Raptors are probably the most popular birds photographed, and many birders only seek to photograph these bird species. I thought it […]
Australia is blessed with many different species of raptor. Raptors are probably the most popular birds photographed, and many birders only seek to photograph these bird species. I thought it good to showcase some of our beautiful raptors. These majestic birds are the kings of the sky and their images are used to denote power and authority being displayed as part of our defense force, police force and various state and federal government coat of arms, with Australia’s largest eagle, the Wedge-tailed Eagle being predominantly featured (above).
. There are two distinct groups of raptor:
1. Those that hunt their prey during the daylight hours, known as Eagles, Kites Hawks etc.
2. Those that hunt their prey during the dark of night (nocturnal) we know as Owls.
Let me list some of the important traits that group these amazing birds into a unique and exceptionally remarkable class of their own.
Part 1 – The Raptors that Hunt During the Day
⇒ They have the keenest and sharpest eyesight of any creature: They can see small rodents over one kilometre away and most of them, such as the Wedge-tailed Eagle (below) have, not only binocular vision, but also telescopic vision, as they are able to press out their eye socket in a way that zooms their eyesight making it over 5 times better than our own.
⇒ They have powerful retractable talons: Unlike other birds they do not only have claws, but they have large scissor-sharp talons controlled by powerful muscles in their feet which they can advance and retract. This is how they kill their pray and carry it in the air. The Osprey has very unique talons with opposing toes designed for carrying fish, which are their prime diet. Wedge-tailed Eagles (below) have been seen carrying in flight small lambs and and even young wallabies. Click on photos to enlarge them.
⇒ They have very strong hooked beaks: The hook on the beak allows them to tear flesh off their prey, which for the most part if smaller animals and birds. They lack teeth and have to break off pieces small enough to swallow whole.
⇒ They have very large wingspans which enable them to soar: One of the features of these birds similar to many other birds is their ability to catch the warm upper currents off land (called thermals) and once they reach a certain height using their powerful wing beats, they spread their wings and soar motionless with the winds up to 2000 meters, usually going up in a circular trajectory. This a good reason why keen eyesight is essential for these birds to be able to spot their prey from high in the sky. Not all raptors prefer this technique, but most can do it. They can move and turn in the air with barely a visible movement. The conservation of energy as they aeronautically soar on the thermals allows them to spend hours in the sky, but they can only do this by day..
⇒ They often prefer a very high 360° view of their territory: Raptors are generally lone hunters, though when breeding are training young they may also accompany spouse and young. The place to look for these birds is usually on the highest point of a dead tree, or even green tree, when they are resting, as they like to purvey their complete surroundings, like a king surveying his kingdom, from which, using their telescopic eyesight are able to spot prey from some distance away. The Black-shouldered Kite below is a good example.
⇔ They build some of the largest nests: Some Eagles build nests that weigh several tons and are many metres wide and deep. Our Wedge-tailed Eagle and White-bellied Sea-Eagle, being our largest raptors, build the largest in Australia. Here is a link reporting one of the largest reported from the USA.
⇒ They train their young for several years in every aspect of life: This not so for all raptors, but is for the larger eagles, however they require persistent adult teaching to learn to fly and hunt. Much of their learning is simple observation and listening, as it is for us. Adult eagles are known to push their young out of the nest if they do not brave it themselves, when they think they should.
This is where the phrase “I carried you on eagles wings” (Exodus 19:4) comes from in the Bible, when God was referring to Israel being delivered from Egypt’s slavery. After pushing the youngster out of the nest, the adult flies rapidly beneath it. If it fails to fly it catches it on is back and wings it back to the nest to try again, as many times as it takes. Finally, as the youngster starts to fly of its own accord,it flies beneath the youngster until it can fly alone, and then leads it away to strengthen its wings in flight. These photos and this training process, among others appear in my first book. Notice in the above left-hand photo how the youngster looks down to check the parent is there.
⇒ They can deliberately hatch their young at different times: Most raptors, in particular eagles, usually only have one to three offspring at a time, and only two out of three may survive. This is because the mother deliberately lays her eggs 2 to 4 days apart, so they each are born larger than the hatching that follows. This can lead to the smallest becoming the weakest due to feeding priority given to the larger birds, and often the first born will compete for food being stronger, causing the youngest to eventually die. Because of the amount of hands on effort in feeding, teaching and raring the young for several years, it is to their advantage to raise only one healthy youngster in each clutch. Even though the juveniles are fully fledged, they continue to need feeding for some time till they learn to successfully catch their own without help, as it is with us training a child to use a knife and fork.
⇒ They are mostly monogamous: Most raptors spend their lives with the one mate and raise their families together. If a mate dies they may go looking for a replacement and continue breeding. It is not uncommon to see pairs of adults and junior tagging along as they soar on the thermals.
⇒ They vary between species in size and hunting methods: While the larger eagles and kites swoop down on their prey at speed from a distance above or from the top of a dead tree, Smaller Goshawks, Kestrels and Black-shouldered Kites hover above waiting for their prey to appear and then suddenly descend on it from above. Pacific Baza fly into the trees and catch their prey as they fly through. Harriers fly very low over the ground and drop suddenly down on their quarry. A Black-shouldered Kite shows us (below) an example of hovering over prey, but alas on a very cloudy day.
⇒ They have often beautifully patterned distinctive plumage: The main form of identification of these birds when they are soaring is their specific under wing plumage, as this may be all you see. Here are some examples…
Nankeen Kestrel diving on prey
A Lesson from the White-bellied Sea-Eagle
The more complex, intelligent and able the creature, the more learning and listening is required of the trainee nestling and fledgling, as it is for humans. They take several years of training before they gain their full maturity colours and can breed, and all of their behaviour is learnt from their parents. This highlights the need for parents to be loving and responsible role models to their children, so that they grow up well equipped for life. It has been shown that most of what we learn is from observation, being copied behaviour which when repeated over time becomes hard-wired in our brains. It is also interesting from recent research and personal observation that in a similar way to us humans there are good and poor learners with varying results of success in life.
The White-bellied Sea-Eagle perched above has been trying to get its juvenile fledgling to hunt for itself, but it just remains in the nest squawking to be fed. The boat captain on the Arthur River laughingly said that these parents have been endlessly trying by example, to make this reluctant youngster hunt for itself. The video below shows the Sea-Eagle father catching a fish and carrying it away from the nest out of sight to eat it. This is followed by the juvenile trying to follow, but stops when it loses sight of it. This is an old movie so it lacks quality.
Simply put the lesson is: no matter how well we may parent and set a good example for our children, it is ultimately up to the child what they choose to learn from and respect. Many hurting parents have shared their false guilt over how they blame themselves for their children not turning out the way they had hoped, after much loving commitment to their development and instruction. Each of us are ultimately responsible for our own destiny, and what we do with what we have been given. It is the hardest thing for many to allow their child to suffer the consequences for their bad decisions, but it is important that they learn for themselves and sometimes the hard way. We need to always show them love, acceptance and forgiveness , sharing our concern, but always letting them live their own lives and not try saving them, as this is also part of their normal growth and maturity Often they will have a light bulb moment and realize the error of their ways and apologize to the parents down the track.
Parents who allow their children to become spoilt and dependent on parents, eventually become co dependent to the child’s self focused, careless behaviour, often being called to bail them out of situations and often suffer the abuse syndrome from the child’s disrespect. This results in the child never maturing, or learning to manage their own lives and correct their bad habits. They become so self focused they are emotionally and socially unfit for loving relationships.
“Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.” – Proverbs 1: 8,9 (NIV)
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” – 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7
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Part 2 – The Raptors that Hunt During the Night
The Owl family share common features with that of the Eagles. These include: powerful feet with sharp retracting talons for transporting and killing their prey, hooked beak for tearing flesh, advanced bifocal vision, large wings for power to pounce on their prey, they hunt alone and prey on small mammals and reptiles for most of their diet. However, they have several specialized features which enable them to hunt at night.
⇒ They have large eyes especially equipped to see well in poor light of the night:
This is because Owls have 30 to 1 more Rods than Cones in their retina, which means they see so much better than us in the dark. Secondly, having the larger eye enables their pupils are able to dilate so much more allowing more light to enter. Finally, they have a special chemical which coats their eye which allows greater sensitivity to light.
⇒ They have the most astonishingly acute hearing of any creatures:
Owls hear 10 times better than humans, which allows them to detect and locate the faintest of sounds in the darkness of night when animals are moving. The Barn Owl with its large asymmetrical ears and dish-like face has the best hearing of all, not only detecting the sounds but locating with amazing accuracy exactly where it is coming from and how far away it might be. This is another good reason why the owls remain perfectly still and silent when they hunt.
⇒ They have extremely soft feathers which enable silent flight:
Owls hunt by catching their prey by surprise. They do not soar high in the sky to find their prey and swoop down on it as the Eagles do using their super keen eyesight, but sit silently in a tree observing their prey for the opportune moment to pounce. Their soft feathers enable them to very quietly snatch other nocturnal creatures which also share good night vision.
⇒ They have have the ability to turn their head 180°:
Owls because of their wisdom in observation have the added advantage of being able to look behind them without moving their body, which gives them an added advantage at night, as the less movement, the more they are able to better stalk their prey and catch it unawares. This ability grants the owl a full 360° visual coverage around it with minimal movement.
⇒ They have the ability to remain perfectly motionless for long periods:
This enables them to listen intently and to allow unsuspecting prey to move close to them, without them having to chase it. They are able to pounce on their prey at close range with minimal flight. Combined with their light sensitive eyesight, ultra acute hearing and ability to turn their head 180° they are the perfect killing machine for hunting at night.
⇒ They build their nests in tree hollows:
Unlike the daytime raptors, Owls nest and often rest in the dark of tree hollows. This allows them privacy and darkness enabling them to better sleep during the bright daylight hours, which can be taxing on their ultra sensitivity to light.
⇒ They sleep during the day so they can hunt by night:
Obviously, as with all nocturnal creatures, this is their normal lifestyle, however owls may sometimes be seen awake often sitting quietly in trees by their nesting holes, catching short naps while they keep their ears attuned to surrounding sounds.
⇒ They often hang their prey overnight from their talon while resting high in a tree. Males may also eat the head and offer the body to the female to feed herself and their young when nesting:
It is not uncommon to see a possum hanging on display during the daytime from the talon of a Powerful Owl, Australia’s largest and strongest owl, able to catch and carry large possums, ferule cats and other domestic pets up into high trees to dismember.
Because these are birds of the night it can be difficult to get clear images of them, as flash photography is not recommended and can damage their eyesight and even cause them to fall from the tree and injure themselves. Here are a few of our Australian owls:
A Lesson from the Owls
The Barn Owl is the last bird featured in my book “What Birds Teach Us” because it is a good example of the wise old owl in the poem which exemplifies their wisdom: to observe, study and learn silently the manner and characteristics of its prey before taking action. This ensures that each flight will be a success and bring in a meal. We can all continue to learn from the age old nursery rhyme:
A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?
We would make far less errors and mistaken choices in life if we heeded this simple principle: Look [study carefully, listen intently, observe] before you leap [act, choose, commit, go forward]. You may recall from the notes above that it is the owl’s acute hearing which is its major hunting advantage. It is wisdom for the owl to remain totally motionless and silent to listen and wait for its prey to come to close to it, rather than chase after it as the Eagles do.
A well known speaker Stephen Covey is quoted saying:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand;
they listen with the intent to reply.”
“Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.” – Proverbs 17:28
“My children, listen when your father corrects you. Pay attention and learn good judgment” – Proverbs 4:1
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Mistaken Identity of the
The Tawny Frogmouth is a bird that often experiences mistaken identity. It has been wrongly identified by many Australians as an owl, when in fact it is of a unique family called Frogmouths. Though Tawny Frogmouths share several owl-like characteristics they are distinctly different. They hunt by night, have night vision, soft feathers, silent movement similar to owls, but are not classed as a raptor, which an owl is, for some very important reasons:
* Frogmouths do not have a hooked beak for tearing the flesh of small animals but have a wide frog-like mouth for eating insects, which make up their main diet along with very small reptiles and rodents.
*Frogmouths have small simple feet and not the powerful retracting talons of raptors, because Frogmouths do not kill or carry their prey with their feet, but with their large mouth.
*Frogmouths do not carry their prey to a tree branch to devour it, they pounce from the tree directly onto it and eat it there.
*Frogmouths build a very simple nest to have their young and do not nest or rest in tree hollows, which is why they are seen more by humans as they tend to rest quite visibly on tree branches during daylight hours, usually returning to the same tree.
*Frogmouths while they have excellent hearing lack the extreme hearing capabilities of the owls because they lack the face disc and large asymmetrical ears of the owl.
What we Learn from the Tawny Frogmouth:
The ASS of ASSumption – Beware of Stereotypes.
The Tawny Frogmouth is Australia’s mysterious bird of the night. During the daytime it blends into the eucalypt tree in such a way that it appears to be a dead branch, invisible to unsuspecting passers by. This bird is a good example of a misjudged bird. Many Aussies call it an owl because it has some owl-like characteristics, such as soft, owl like feathers, large eyes and it hunts at night. However, it is not classified as an owl and is not even classified as a raptor, which the owl is. For those who are wise enough to take the time to observe and research the truth about the bird, they will discover the major differences, and see that this bird is quite unique and in its own special class of Frogmouth. Frogmouths have a wide frog like mouth used for catching its prey, simple feet for perching but not for killing its prey, and they lack the hooked beak of a raptor.
Compare the photos of the Tawny Frogmouth with those of the Barn Owl, Powerful Owl (our largest owl), and the Barking Owl and note the visual differences… The problem with making judgement about people or situations on first glance is that we can easily misjudge them, and make a negative inaccurate assessment. It is important that we give each person the respect they are entitled to, by taking the time to get to know them, and find out for ourselves the facts about them and their situation where others may already have cast judgement on, or made innuendos concerning them. It is important that we do not judge by appearances, for to assume can make a fool or (ass) of you (u) and me. Everyone is entitled to kindness, respect and understanding when we engage them for the first time, regardless of what we might think or what others have told us. It is wise to avoid making superficial judgements as these have a tendency to backfire and cause personal embarrassment down the track.
The above is an excerpt from my second book “Flight of a Fledgling” available online here.