Raptors: The Reality Show

By Stuart Thornton, National Geographic

On the main stage at the BioBlitz Biodiversity Festival, Jenny Papka of Native Bird Connections has the full crowd in the palm of her hand. She showcases three birds of prey during her “Raptors: The Reality Show” presentation.

Papka begins by showing the crowd a live American kestrel—a bird she calls the “F-14 fighter of the raptor world.”

The American kestrel, the F-14 of the raptor world, is able to dive at 60 miles per hour. Photograph by Will Elder, courtesy National Park Service

The American kestrel, the F-14 of the raptor world, is able to dive at 60 miles per hour.
Photograph by Will Elder, courtesy National Park Service

Next up is a striking snow-white red-tailed hawk. This hawk is leucistic, which means its light coloring is a result of reduced pigmentation. While Papka holds the hawk, she shares interesting some facts about raptors.

“Birds don’t sweat like we do,” she says. “They pant like a dog.”

This red-tailed hawk is leucistic. Leucism is a genetic mutation that simply means the animal has reduced pigmentation. (Albinism means an entire lack of pigmentation.) This red-tailed hawk may lack the feature that gives it its name (a lovely red tail), but its eyes are typically dark and it retains a smattering of color on its head. Photograph by Greg Hume, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This red-tailed hawk is leucistic. Leucism is a genetic mutation that simply means the animal has reduced pigmentation. (Albinism means an entire lack of pigmentation.) This red-tailed hawk may lack the feature that gives it its name (a lovely red tail), but its eyes are typically dark and it retains a smattering of color on its head.
Photograph by Greg Hume, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

There is an audible gasp in the audience when the star of the show, a Eurasian eagle owl, is brought out of its cage.

“She weighs about five pounds,” Papka says. “This bird can carry off three times its body weight in prey.”

Eurasian eagle owls like this one are so familiar and awesome throughout Scandinavia that that the Finnish national soccer team is nicknamed the eagle-owls. Photograph by Stuart Thornton, National Geographic

Eurasian eagle owls like this one are so familiar and awesome throughout Scandinavia that the Finnish national soccer team is nicknamed the eagle-owls.
Photograph by Stuart Thornton, National Geographic

Margot Latham and Ian Plymale, two four year-olds in the audience, were clearly amazed by the raptors. Latham was most impressed by the Eurasian eagle owl, but not because of its size. “I was happy,” she says, “because it had orange eyes.”

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