The most thorough study to date of raptor talons reveals their feet to be extraordinarily specialized hunting tools, perfectly suited to their gruesomely amazing killing strategies.
“Despite the ubiquity of raptors in terrestrial ecosystems, many aspects of their predatory behavior remain poorly understood,” wrote ornithologists in a paper published Wednesday in PLoS ONE. “Surprisingly little is known about the morphology of raptor talons and how they are employed during feeding behavior.”
To get a better understanding, the researchers took detailed measurements of the talons from 24 bird of prey species, and linked them to literature on raptor hunting and 170 videos of attacks.
They describe how accipitrids, which include hawks and eagles, have two giant talons on their first and second toes. These give them a secure grip on struggling game that they like to eat alive, “so long as it does not protest too vigorously. In this prolonged and bloody scenario, prey eventually succumb to massive blood loss or organ failure, incurred during dismemberment.”
Meanwhile, the talons of owls, which don’t usually land a killing blow as they strike, are relatively short but strong, and one toe actually swivels backwards. That lets owls crush wounded quarry between two pairs of opposable talons. The animal is then swallowed whole.
Falcons are so skilled at disabling prey with a mid-air, high-speed strike that their talons are smaller than those of other raptors. They just don’t need them as much. Once they’ve landed, falcons “will quickly pluck the neck area and attempt to kill prey swiftly by breaking the neck with a bite attack.”
Osprey have large, curved talons, almost like fishhooks — which is appropriate because they specialize in catching fish, swooping down and hitting them just below the water’s surface.
In addition to expanding understanding of these much-loved birds, the findings could help researchers understand the birds’ dinosaur ancestors. The researchers are now studying how dinosaur claws reflected their hunting and feeding habits.