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  • Mark and Heather Jeweler assisted in banding osprey chicks at Severna Park High School in 2016.
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    Mark and Heather Jeweler assisted in banding osprey chicks at Severna Park High School in 2016.

What Is A Raptor?

Mark and Heather Jeweler
Mark and Heather Jeweler's picture
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January 9, 2018

Maryland Raptor Rescue

The term “raptor” is not a scientific classification or taxonomy, but rather an informal designation. There is some scientific debate over whether all birds of prey should be considered raptors or not, but since it’s not a scientific classification, we defer to the generally accepted definition that raptors and birds of prey are synonymous.

If you were being scientific about it, the term includes all falconiformes (kites, falcons, eagles, hawks and vultures), and strigiformes (all owls). While we’re talking about the various raptors, it’s worth pointing out that the term “buzzard” has different meanings depending on where you call home. Often, in the United States, buzzard is taken to mean a turkey vulture. Elsewhere in the world, buzzard means certain types of hawks. For us, we tend to just not use the term at all to avoid the confusion.

A raptor is characterized by having exceptionally strong legs and feet, as well as sharp talons. Raptors use these as weapons to catch and kill their prey, as well as to hold and carry that prey.

In order to be considered a raptor, the bird must also have a sharp, curved or hooked beak, designed to tear apart their prey into manageable-sized bites.

It’s not a requirement to be considered a raptor, but all raptors also have excellent eyesight, and some, especially owls, have highly developed hearing. Turkey vultures have a remarkable sense of smell.

Broadly speaking, owls, hawks, falcons, eagles, ospreys and vultures are all raptors. In our region (the Chesapeake Bay, and Severna Park more specifically), the raptors you’re likely (or lucky) to see are barred owls, eastern screech owls, great horned owls, peregrine falcons, kestrels (which are falcons), red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, cooper’s hawks, bald eagles, ospreys, black vultures and turkey vultures. Rare sightings might include short-eared owls, and Merlins (which are also falcons).

At Maryland Raptor Rescue, we are training and equipping ourselves to be able to rescue, rehabilitate and release all raptors, not just the ones that are local to this region. During migration, raptors that are not typically seen in this region might fly through. For example, we are currently experiencing a very rare snowy owl “irruption” (defined as a sudden increase in animal population). Snowy owls are generally arctic birds. You can find more information about Maryland Raptor Rescue at www.marylandraptorrescue.org.

For our next column, we’ll talk about what raptor behavior and activities to expect in the first quarter of 2018 (January through March).

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