I’ve got a few interesting North American Raptors to talk about this week. Both are common in the eastern United States. Raptors are fascinating to me for several reasons. First, they are at the top of the food chain, mostly predators, but sometimes scavengers. And they are lineal descendants of the most famous dinosaurs that every young boy loves. Whether you’re talking about Tyrannosaurs or Velociraptor, these are about the scariest creatures that ever lived. Their very distant relatives are still with us and the Raptors evoke those images. That “predator look” is also what makes them great subjects to photograph.
The top image is the Broad Winged Hawk, Buteo platypterus, is a smallish, stocky Raptor with a relatively large head. They are sometimes known as “kettles”, because their call is a two part, high pitched whistle. They can be identified in flight by a profile that features broad wings that come to a pointed tip and a short, square tail. Their coloration is reddish brown on the head, with a barred breast and underparts, the tail has black and white bands.
Broad Winged Hawks migrate to South America in the winter, often in large flocks that can be a few hundred up to more than a thousand birds. There are places such as Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, or Corpus Christi, Texas that have annual Hawk Watches. Further south, Veracruz, Mexico and Panama are sometimes described as a “River of Raptors” during the migration season.
During the North American summer they nest and breed in the eastern United States, mostly in deciduous, or sometimes mixed forests. Generally they stay in the deep forest, far from human habitation. So unlike Red Tailed or Red Shouldered Hawks, they are unlikely to be seen in suburban or rural areas.
Like most of the North American hawks, they feed mostly on small mammals such as rodents, keeping those populations from getting out of control. But they will also eat reptiles and even insects.
This scary looking bird with the bald, red head is a Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura. This is a bird almost everyone has seen at some time, although probably not up close. Often mistaken for hawks or eagles from a distance, they ride the thermals with minimum expenditure of energy looking for carcasses to clean up. They are nature’s machines for disposing of dead animals that would otherwise become a health hazard. As such, they are very beneficial to humans, especially in rural areas. They almost never take living prey, preferring freshly dead carrion.
One interesting thing about vultures is that they have amazing immune systems. They virtually never contract the botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella, which may have killed the animal they are feasting on. This ability to clean up dead animals that could become a human health hazard is one of the reasons that “Sky Burials” are part of the culture of Tibet. Native Americans on the other hand, generally regard vultures as unclean and harbingers of bad things. That’s understandable, because when you see several vultures circling in the distance, something is dead.
The Turkey Vulture has one unique thing about its biology. It’s feces is completely sterile. It’s bacteria free, and completely safe. The Turkey Vulture is the only animal known that has sterile waste.
The scientific name for the Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura has an interesting history. Cathartes is derived from the Greek, and means purifier, while aura is derived from auroura, a native Mexican name for the bird. It’s a perfect name for a bird whose role in nature is to purify the landscape, ensuring the continued health for other living creatures.