What is a Raptor?

Past definitions meant that certain species were in and others were out. New research helps clarify the term based on scientific descriptions and traits of predatory ancestors.

By Carolina Raptor Center

Red-tailed Hawk III (2013-08-17/2013-08-17) by Bobby NicksCarolina Raptor Center

Are raptors and birds of prey the same? In the past, ornithologists have used them to describe different groups of animals. Recent scientific research started with the notion that the terms "raptor" and "bird of prey" are interchangeable.

Rough-legged Hawk (2009-05-04/2009-05-04) by John BlatonCarolina Raptor Center

The Traditional Definition of a Raptor

The traditional definition of a raptor defines them as diurnal birds that combine razor sharp talons for hunting, a curved beak, and great eyesight to make them well suited to their role as apex predators.

Aplomado Falcon (2018) by Joseph Amodeo Jr.Carolina Raptor Center

This definition allowed us to include falcons, hawks, osprey, kites, and eagles in the group of animals that we named "raptors."

The razor sharp talons of this falcon are built perfectly for hunting. Their talons are lethal weapons that are designed to catch and hold on to prey. The grip strength of even the smallest of these birds is significantly stronger than that of humans.

Peregrine Falcon IV (2008-04-23/2008-04-23) by Lynn PilewskiCarolina Raptor Center

Raptors' distinct hooked beak is another feature that sets them apart from other birds. Their sharp, pointed beaks allow them to rip apart their next meal.

Bald Eagle, portrait (2005) by Diane RocheCarolina Raptor Center

Raptors are known for their keen eyesight. Some raptors have evolutionary benefits such as indented foveae (the center of the field of sight) that magnify their vision as they soar through the sky searching for a snack.

Spectacled Owl (2013-03-21/2013-03-21) by Francine DollingCarolina Raptor Center

What about OWLS?

Well, what about owls? Are they raptors? At first, owls were not considered raptors because they were nocturnal birds, but due to their predatory lifestyle experts changed their minds and now they are included in the group.

Eastern Screech Owls II by Brian HochmuthCarolina Raptor Center

The classification of owls as raptors opened up the possibility for other species to be considered raptors, too.

Barn Owl in Flight (2005) by James MillerCarolina Raptor Center

Other Species Considered

Considering many of these birds' habits, features, and lifestyles, we started to see the classification of raptors broaden. 

Loggerhead Shrike (2019-05-29/2019-05-29)Carolina Raptor Center

Don't judge this book by its cover. The Loggerhead Shrike is a honorary raptor, commonly known for impaling its prey with thorns or even barbed wire!

King Vulture (2012-11-30/2012-11-30) by Brian HochmuthCarolina Raptor Center

Even with studies that show the vulture is more related to storks than birds of prey, they are considered raptors too! They are known to eat carrion (decaying flesh, yuck!).

Barn Owl in the Woods (2017) by Rebekah McleanCarolina Raptor Center

Today's Definition of a Raptor 

But wait, how sharp does a talon have to be? Today's definition focuses more on a scientific definition and a common ancestor. This new definition clarifies the confusion that the traditional definition caused. 

King Vulture IV (2015-11-03/2015-11-03) by Carolina Raptor CenterCarolina Raptor Center

Dr. Chris McClure, Director of Global Conservation Science at The Peregrine Fund, and his colleagues classify raptors by looking at their evolutionary history.

Bald Eagle, perched (2009) by Shari LambethCarolina Raptor Center

In short, raptors evolved from raptorial land birds. Most species from the group have maintained that same vertebrate-eating lifestyle!

Saker Falcon II (2015-08-08/2015-08-08) by Brian HochmuthCarolina Raptor Center

What species are included today?

With this modern definition of a raptor, we have added more birds to the raptor family!

Peregrine Falcon (2015-08-08/2015-08-08) by Brian HouchmuthCarolina Raptor Center

Falconiformes

This Falconiforme order includes many falcons and caracaras that originate from Australaves, which is a clade of birds.

"Slamming," Red-legged Seriema (2020-06-05) by Joeseph Amodeo, Jr.Carolina Raptor Center

Cariamiformes

With this new definition we can happily welcome the Seriema to the raptor family! Seriemas are Australaves but are in the Cariamiformes family. They eat plenty of vertebrate prey and descended from "terror birds." Luckily they aren't as terrifying today!

Leucistic Turkey Vulture, close-up by Bill MuggCarolina Raptor Center

Cathartiformes

The order of Cathartifomes raptors includes birds such as New World Vultures. This order steams from the clade of birds, the Afroaves.

Northern Goshawk (2017-07-19/2017-07-19) by Joe AmodeoCarolina Raptor Center

Accipitriformes

The order of Accipitriforme raptors include most diurnal birds of prey like this Northern Goshawk, such as eagles, hawks and kites. They also stem from the Afroaves clade of birds.

Great Horned Owl by Diane RocheCarolina Raptor Center

Strigiformes

Strigiforme is an order of birds of prey comprised of mainly owls. this order also stems from the Afroaves clade of birds.

"Head shot," Red-legged Seriema (2020-06-05) by Joeseph Amodeo, Jr.Carolina Raptor Center

Why is it important that we have a new definition?

It allows for new research priorities, funding decisions, and conservation actions. Some examples of these priorities include the vulture which is critically endangered in some areas of the world and the seriema that has not been studied extensively.

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