Wedge-Tailed Eagle (Aquila audax)

I picked today’s animal because lately I’ve had a hankering to draw some kind of claw or talon. When I think of impressive talons, I immediately think of eagles, so I searched around until I found a suitable candidate. And lo! The wedge-tailed eagle popped up, and I couldn’t have found a better bird to draw and to write about.

The wedge-tailed eagle is found in Australia, so I’m shocked it’s not venomous. There are also populations in New Guinea and Indonesia. Wedge-tailed eagles are fairly flexible about where they live: they can be found in almost all habitats in Australia, including rainforest, forests, savanna and mountainous areas. Though they can be found in a wide variety of habitats, they do tend to prefer more open areas, such as woodlands and grasslands.

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An angry-looking wedge-tailed eagle. Image credit: Susan via Wikipedia

Wedge-tailed eagles are big, and are in fact the largest birds of prey in Australia. Like all raptor species, females are bigger than males, measuring up to 2.84 m in wingspan. This is the largest wingspan recorded for a species of eagle. This does not classify wedge-tailed eagles as the largest species in the world, however. Their wings and tails are long for their body size, and so a number of other eagle species outweigh wedge-tailed eagles.

These eagles get their name from the long, wedge-shaped tail that is unique to their species. They are dark brown or black, with reddish brown feathers under their wings and around their neck and shoulders. Young eagles are golden brown or reddish brown, and darken as they age.

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A great picture showing the wedge-tailed eagle’s wedged tail. Image credit: fir0002 via Wikipedia

Wedge-tailed eagles are gliders, soaring at very high heights for hours. They will often be found soaring at altitiudes of over 1,800 m. They spend most of their time perching and surveying their lands. These birds aggressively defend their territory, soaring in arcs and diving to advertise their ownership. If an unfortunate bird does enter a wedge-tailed eagle’s home range, the eagle will dive and attack the intruder. They will also attack hang gliders and paragliders that enter their territory, which is presumably an unsettling experience for the gliders.

Wedge-tailed eagles hunt and scavenge for their food. Their main source of prey are rabbits and hares — both of which are introduced species. Eagles will also hunt foxes, cats, wallabies, kangaroos, koalas and other birds. On rare occasions, wedge-tailed eagles will work together to hunt larger prey, such as red kangaroos. They are known to chase goats off hillsides so that they injure themselves, and will isolate weaker animals from flocks for easy hunting. Wedge-tailed eagles are adaptable, and are not above scavenging. They will chase crows away from carrion and are often seen feeding on roadkill.

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My drawing of wedge-tailed eagle talons. It’s done in charcoal, which I rarely use, but will probably start doing more of, because I really enjoyed drawing this!

Like many birds, wedge-tailed eagles are monogamous. They choose one partner for life, and will stick together until one of the pair dies. Breeding season occurs from June to August. The birds build a nest from sticks and leaves, usually in trees or on cliffs or hillsides. The nests are used from year to year, and can reach sizes of 1.8 m wide and 3 m deep after years of use.

Females lay one to three eggs in the nest, which do not hatch simultaneously. This means that the first chick to hatch has an advantage over its siblings. When food is scarce, the elder chick will often kill the other young, by outcompeting them or through a direct attack. The young fledge at 75 to 95 days of age, and are dependent on their parents for another three to five months. Sexual maturity is reached at about three years of age, but eagles usually will not mate until they have their adult plumage, which occurs around six years of age.

Thankfully this majestic species is not currently threatened, though the Tasmanian subspecies is considered to be endangered. As adults, wedge-tailed eagles have no natural predators, but they were once hunted by humans who wanted to protect their livestock. It has since been shown that wedge-tailed eagles do not have a large impact on livestock populations, so farmers can now leave them alone, which is fabulous news for both famers and the eagles.

Cover image credit: fir0002 via Wikipedia

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Birds of prey have got to be some of the coolest animals around. They are so graceful and powerful and amazing and I love them (in case you couldn’t tell). I’ve written about a number of raptors on this blog, but one I’ve accidentally skipped over is the peregrine falcon, an impressive and beautiful hunter.

Peregrine falcons are extremely widespread, and are some of the most widely found bird species in the world. They are not found in rainforests or extreme polar areas, and do not live in New Zealand. Anywhere else in the world is fair game for peregrines. Many northern populations are migratory, moving to colder areas (such as Alaska or northern Canada) to breed, and then flying south (to Chile or Argentina, for example) in the winter.

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The range of peregrine falcons worldwide. Yellow is breeding visitor, green is breeding resident, dark blue is winter visitor, and light blue is passage visitor. Image source: Wikipedia

There are many subspecies of peregrine falcon, which range in size and colour. Most falcons are between 36 and 58 cm long, with wingspans of 91-112 cm. Females are 15-20% larger than males. Peregrines have blue-gray wings, black stripes on their backs, and black stripes on each cheek. They are quite beautiful birds.

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An adult peregrine eating a meal. Isn’t he pretty? Image credit: Dennis Jarvis via Wikipedia

Peregrine falcons are famous for their hunting dives, known as stoops. They use these to catch other birds, usually pigeons, doves, waterfowl and songbirds. Birds make up 77-99% of a peregrine’s diet. During a stoop, peregrine falcons reach incredible speeds, faster than any other animal on the planet. One falcon was clocked at 389 km/h during a stoop.

During such dives, the falcons need special adaptations to protect their lungs and eyes. Tubercles in the birds’ nostrils direct air flow away from the nose, preventing the increased air pressure from damaging the falcons’ lungs. The birds use their third eyelids to keep their eyes clear of debris and tears during a stoop. After all, you wouldn’t want your vision impaired when you’re travelling at speeds of over 300 km/h.

Peregrine falcons are monogamous, staying in pairs for many years, and often for life. Males and females will fly together during courtship, showing off their aerial skills through dives, spirals, barrel rolls and other fun acrobatics. The falcons ‘build’ their nests in high places, such as trees, cliffs, or buildings. They have simple nests that are depressions dug into the dirt, with no additional materials added.

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A peregrine falcon at its nest with a chick. Image credit: Georges Lignier via Wikipedia

Females lay 2 to 6 eggs in the spring, between March and May. The eggs hatch in just over a month, and the young take another month or so to learn to fly. Both parents help care for the young, and once the chicks start flying, hunting training begins. The adult birds drop dead prey near the nest, making their chicks pursue this ‘prey’ in the air. I guess if you spend most of your life hunting birds on the wing, learning to do it early is pretty important.

Though peregrine falcons are currently abundant, this was not always the case. The use of DDT in the 1950s to ‘70s had a drastic effect on falcon populations, as the chemicals in the pesticides caused the falcons to lay eggs with thinner shells, which meant fewer chicks survived to hatching. Recovery programs and the ban of DDT has led to a surge in peregrine populations, and today they are happily stooping all ‘round the world.

Cover image source: Greg Hume via Wikipedia

Harris’ Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)

I first saw a Harris’ hawk at a birds of prey show at a country fair. He was very well trained, flying from perches to the handler’s arm right above our heads. It was pretty cool. I was pretty impressed by that Harris’ hawk, so I thought I’d blog about his wild cousins.

Harris’ hawks live in North and South America, from the southern US and Mexico to Central America, and as far south as Chile. They are usually found in more open areas, such as deserts and sparse woodlands. They require relatively high structures for perching and nesting. These usually take the form of trees, power poles, and cacti.

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A beautiful picture of a majestic Harris’ hawk. Image credit: Alan Vernon via Wikipedia

Harris’ hawks get to be fairly large, reaching lengths of 46-76 cm, and wingspans 100-120 cm. Females are larger than males by about 35%. Harris’ hawks are covered in brown feathers, with slightly reddish shoulders and wings. There are distinctive white markings at the tip and base of the tail.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Harris’ hawks is their cooperative behaviour. Birds of prey generally don’t work together too much, but Harris’ hawks do, and they are well known for it. They usually live in groups of two to seven hawks, and there is a strict dominance hierarchy maintained in the group. At the head of the group is the breeding alpha female. After her comes any other mature females in the group, though often these are not present. Then comes the dominant male, who is allowed to breed with the alpha female, and after him, any other mature males. At the bottom of the pecking order are the immature birds, which are often offspring of the alpha female and alpha male.

The group hunts cooperatively, which allows the hawks to take bigger prey than they would normally be able to. In one method of hunting, the birds surround their prey on the ground, and take turns trying to scare the prey out of its hiding spot. When the frightened prey animal tries to run, another bird from the group is waiting, and catches and kills it. Harris’ hawks will eat rats, mice, lizards, and birds, and bigger prey such as cottontails and jackrabbits.

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A juvenile Harris’ hawk. They are much lighter than mature adults. Image credit: Reg McKenna via Wikipedia

Harris’ hawks also work together during the breeding season, with males in the group helping care for and protect the eggs. The breeding female lays two to four eggs, and can lay two to three clutches a year. The eggs hatch after just over a month, and fledge after 40 days. Juveniles may stay with the group for a long time, up to three years, to help raise other chicks.

Harris’ hawks are very commonly used in falconry, as they are easy to train thanks to their intelligence and social behaviour. They are not currently threatened in the wild, though the population is declining thanks to habitat loss. Let’s hope these cool, cooperating hawks can stay abundant, because they are awesome!

Cover image credit: Carlos Delgado via Wikipedia

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

I always thought there were a slew of different osprey species, just like there are many different types of eagles or hawks. It turns out this is very wrong — in fact there is only one species of osprey, and it is just so adaptable that it lives all over the place.

In fact, ospreys can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They are only seasonal visitors to South America and Indo-Malaysia, and are especially abundant in Scandinavia and Chesapeake Bay in the United States. Habitat requirements for ospreys are fairly simple: they need safe nesting sites and fish-rich water. They can use almost any source of water, including salt marshes, mangrove swamps, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

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A lovely map showing where in the world you can find ospreys. Image source: Wikipedia

Ospreys reach lengths of 55-58 cm, and have a wingspan of up to 170 cm. They have dark brown feathers covering their backs, with white underbellies. Ospreys have light grey feet, and black beaks. They are notable for the black stripes that go through both eyes, giving them the appearance of wearing a mask.

As I said earlier, ospreys need to be near some kind of fish-infested water to survive. This is because, unusually for a bird of prey, ospreys are almost exclusively piscivores (fish eaters). They aren’t picky about what type of fish they eat, with North American birds eating more that 80 different species of fish.

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An osprey perched majestically on a tree. Image credit: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikipedia

Ospreys have a number of helpful tools to aid them in catching slippery, slimy fish. They have long legs, each with curved claws and a reversible toe that makes gripping fish much easier. Their feet are also equipped with spicules, which are roughened footpads that also improve ospreys’ grips. Since catching their prey means ospreys will inevitably get wet, these birds have thick oily feathers, and nostrils that can close to prevent water form entering their noses.

Ospreys mate for life, with both males and females working to build the nest. Nest sites are used year after year, with the birds spending some time repairing and maintaining the nest before eggs are laid. Females lay between two and four eggs, which hatch after 40 days. The eggs are laid one to two days apart, which means the first laid egg hatches earlier than the last. This results in chicks of various sizes, and often smaller chicks are outcompeted by their older siblings. During incubation and after the chicks are born, male ospreys are kind enough to bring the females and chicks fish. The chicks fledge between 48 and 76 days of age, and become sexually mature at three years.

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Over the years, osprey nests can get pretty large… Image credit: Sjahanmi via Wikipedia

The nearly exclusive fish-eating habits of ospreys have made it a very unique bird of prey. So unique, in fact, that these birds have been placed in their own family, Pandionidae. And thanks to their ability to eat a plethora of different fish species, these guys have been able to flourish all over the world.

Cover image credit: Simon Carrasco via Wikipedia

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

Birds of prey have always been a favourite of mine. Today’s animal is definitely up there on a list of my all-time top birds, mostly because they combine being small and cute with fierce hunting abilities.

American kestrels are, in fact, the smallest falcons in North America. They only grow to be 19-21cm long, weighing at most 165 grams. The sexes look quite different, with females having rust coloured wings and heads, while males have grey coloured wings. Both sexes have black and white patterns on their faces, which take the form of two distinct bars on either side of the face. Spotted barring may also be present on both sexes.

A male American kestrel.

A male American kestrel, looking as regal as a little birdie can.  Image credit: Greg Hume via Wikipedia

American kestrels are found all over both North and South America, ranging from Alaska all the way to the tip of Argentina. Some areas of the kestrel’s northern range (including most of Canada) are only used during the summer breeding season. As you might guess by the size of their range, kestrels are adapted to a number of different habitats. All they need to be happy is some open ground to hunt in, perches to look out from, and cavities to nest in. Urban environments actually satisfy these requirements pretty well, so it’s not uncommon to see kestrels around cities.

Kestrels are faithful birds, forming pair bonds at the beginning of the breeding season which are usually permanent. To initiate a bond, courtship displays are used, which can include neat aerial tricks and some meals out together. Once a bond is formed, it becomes very strong, and pairs search for a nesting site together. Pairs often return to the same site year after year.

Females lay 3-7 eggs in the nest, which can be in any area protected from predators. Usually they are found in tree hollows, rocks crevices or in man-made structures. Both parents share nest duties, but the female spends much more time around the nest, incubating the eggs or guarding chicks, while the male brings food for both her and the chicks. The chicks hatch after about a month, and fledge a month after that. In another three weeks the chicks become independent and leave the nest.

A young kestrel. Isn't it cute? Image source: Wikipedia

A young kestrel. Isn’t it cute?
Image source: Wikipedia

Kestrels are quite vocal birds, and have three types of calls that they use: a ‘klee’, a ‘chitter’ and a ‘whine’. The klee is used to express excitement or distress, while the chitter is mating-specific and is used during courtship and copulation. Finally, the whine is a feeding call, used by males, females, and hungry chicks.

Due to their small size, kestrels tend to eat small prey, primarily insects. They will also kill small rodents, snakes and frogs if they can get them. Kestrels are also vulnerable to predation themselves, especially from other raptors. The black bars on the kestrels’ faces are thought to be a defence mechanism against this, fooling any predators into thinking he back of the kestrels’ heads are their faces. I’m not sure how well that works for the kestrels, but I do think their markings look pretty cool.

Most people probably don’t consider falcons cute, but those people should just look at the kestrel. Yes, they’re fierce hunters with sharp beaks and talons, but they’re also little and have big eyes. Isn’t that the definition of cute? In any case I think they are adorable birds, and you should too.

Cover image credit: Greg Hume via Wikipedia

Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius)

Earlier in the week, I was talking with a friend about my blog, and I don’t how it came up, but he mentioned the secretary bird. All I knew about these birds was that they were African, and I only knew that because of the wonderful game Sim Safari. Of course, when I come across an animal I don’t know much about, my instinct is to look it up and then write about it. So here we are!

What little Sim Safari taught me seems to have been accurate; secretary birds are found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. They mostly live in grassland or savannah, though they will live in semi-deserts or wooded scrub areas. They are not, however, found in the extremes of these climes – i.e. extreme deserts and thickly wooded areas. Secretary birds also like to hang around places where they can see, which means being in grasses less than a meter in height. They are in their own family, Sagittariidae, though they are related to raptors such as buzzards and harriers.

Secretary birds earned their names from the black feathers on their head, which resemble things secretaries used to wear (apparently).  Source: http://www.itsnature.org/ground/birds-land/secretary-bird/

Secretary birds earned their names from the black feathers on their head, which resemble things secretaries used to wear (apparently).
Source: http://www.itsnature.org/ground/birds-land/secretary-bird/

These birds are quite large, standing between 0.9-1.2 meters tall, and weigh from 2.3 to 4.3 kilograms. They have wingspans of over a meter. Secretary birds are usually grey all over, with black wing tips and a black crest on their heads. The eyes are surrounded by orange or red skin. A distinctive feature for the secretary bird is its long legs – these are unusual for a raptor.

As birds of prey, secretary birds are hunters, eating insects, mice, hares, mongooses, and some reptiles and birds. They are unusual among raptors in that they hunt on foot instead of on the wing. They travel through vegetation stomping as they go, to flush out any prey hiding in the bushes. If prey is small, the bird will run in with its long legs and catch it in its sharp beak. When the bird finds large prey, it will stamp on the victim until it’s knocked out enough to be swallowed. They have extremely powerful kicks, with a kick having the capability to shatter a human hand. They also usually hunt in pairs or family groups, so watch out!

Secretary birds are famous for eating snakes, as seen here. They stop on snake's back to break their neck, and some reports even have them dropping snakes from great heights to kill them (these are unproven). And in spite of  popular myth, secretary birds don't actually eat snakes all that much.  Image Credit: Francesco Veronesi

Secretary birds are famous for eating snakes, as seen here. They stomp on snakes’ backs to break their necks, and some reports even have them dropping snakes from great heights to kill them (these are unproven). And in spite of popular myth, secretary birds don’t actually eat snakes all that much.
Image Credit: Francesco Veronesi

Secretary birds generally mate for life, with pairs making nests in the tops of flat trees, such as acacias. They reuse the nest from year to year, and constantly add to it, so nests can get quite large (up to 2.5 meters in diameter!). Females lay from one to three eggs, though in clutches of three the smallest chick usually dies as the older chicks outcompete it. Secretary bird chicks are slow to develop, and are only able to stand on their own after six weeks. They fledge at two to three months, and are dependent on their parents until six months of age.

With their funny crests and powerful kicks, secretary birds have definitely become one of my favourite birds. Hopefully they’re now one of yours, too!

Cover image source: davidephoto on Flickr