Talon Talents

(A) goshawk (B) red-tailed hawk (C) peregrine falcon (D) great grey owl (E) osprey. Courtesy of PLoS ONE

Magnificent hunters, raptors tear open bodies, crack necks, and squeeze their prey to death. Yet no one had studied how eagle, hawk, owl, osprey, and falcons’ feet affected how they hunt—until now. Three graduate students who conduct research at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies measured the size and shape of raptors’ talons. Then, by watching about 200 videos, many of them from YouTube, they analyzed the way various birds of prey kill and eat. Their results, which reveal more about bird of prey behavior, might also give researchers insight into how dinosaurs lived.

“All birds of prey have strong feet,” says paleobiologist Denver Fowler, one of the paper’s authors. “This study gives us a greater understanding of how feet work, of how the different proportions of feet relate to different predatory ability.”

Every raptor constricts its small prey. Many owls rely primarily on smaller animals, like mice. Their strong feet and claws allow for strong grips so they can efficiently squeeze their prey. Hawks and eagles have very large talons compared to other raptors, making it easier to hold large prey as they stand over them and dismember their bodies. Falcons have what ornithologists call a tooth on their beaks, which is good for breaking the necks or smash the heads of their prey in flight, so their talons are used to hold their dead kills. The curved talons on osprey are particularly adept at catching fish.

The research may also be valuable for understanding dinosaurs because, like birds, they had claws that they used to catch their meals. Dinosaurs gave rise to modern birds, a theory first posited by Jack Horner, a paleontologist at Montana State University and the authors’ supervisor. Horner is hopeful that one day he’ll be able to create a dinosaur, according to a “60 Minutes” interview with the scientist.

“The best way is just to use a modern dinosaur. The chicken,” he said. “Because evolution works, birds are actually carrying ancestral DNA.”

Although chickens aren’t raptors, seeing dinosaurs in person may give us an even better idea of the connections between birds of prey and prehistoric carnivorous creatures. Until then, we may just have to wait until Fowler and his peers uncover more about how dinosaurs used claws, a subject of their next paper—the second half of the two-part project. And if Horner ever fulfills his dream of creating a dino-chicken, let’s just hope that whatever hatches from the shell isn’t a velociraptor.