Raptor Behavior PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jackie Wolfinger   
Tuesday, 26 February 2013 14:03

Six weeks into my internship, the question I have been asked the most by visitors is: “Aren’t you afraid that raptor is going to attack you?” This question usually comes when I am in one of the Bird of Prey enclosures feeding or cleaning, and I think it is a great question. The raptors at the Sanctuary are all wild birds, and they live at the Sanctuary because they have permanent injuries that prevent them from surviving in the wild. Because they are wild birds, they are usually focused on staying as far away as possible from the person in their enclosure. While it is possible that one of the raptors could come at me or the Animal Caretaker, it’s unlikely if procedures are followed correctly and there is communication taking place between the caretaker and the raptor. Before you get too excited, no, the birds don’t talk to us with words. They tell us what they are thinking with their body language and behaviors!

For example, look at the posture of this Barn Owl. He has spread his wings out like a shield to make himself look bigger and he may be swaying from side to side. This tells us that he is feeling threatened or startled. He is trying to make himself look bigger to what he perceives as a threat.

Barn Owl in a defensive pose

This Great Horned Own is also feeling threatened or startled. She has raised all of her feathers to make herself look bigger. She might hiss at you or clack her beak, too. To hear what this sounds like, select the “Calls during nest defense” recording at this website.

Great Horn Owl in an aggressive posture

This Red-tailed Hawk has raised its hackles (the feathers on the back of its head) to tell you that he is alarmed and becoming defensive. If hawks get stressed and hot, they will open their mouths and pant (much like a dog does). If you see one of our Red-tails repeatedly jumping from perch to wall or from perch to perch, that is another way of the bird telling you that she is feeling uncomfortable with the situation.

Red-tailed Hawk with raised hackles

Photograph from Eagles and Birds of Prey by Jemima Parry-Jones

There are several things you can do if you notice that one of the raptors is feeling threatened or startled. The easiest thing you can do is to back away from the enclosure and give the bird a little more space. Consider walking away to give the raptor a few minutes to settle down. Try not to stare directly at the bird for extended periods of time either; it makes the raptor feel defensive.

The raptors don’t just tell us when they are scared. They tell us when they are comfortable and relaxed, too! Take a look at this picture of a Red-tailed Hawk. Her feathers are fluffed up and rumpled looking. This picture was taken while the bird was rousing. Rousing is when a bird raises all of their feathers up and then shakes them back into place. This is a sign of a content bird.

Red-tailed Hawk rousing

This Red-tailed Hawk is preening its feathers. She reaches her head around to her preen gland (located near the base of the tail) and squeezes a little bit of oil out. She wipes the oil on her feathers to fix any gaps and also to waterproof and condition her feathers. Preening is another sign of a relaxed bird.

Red-tailed Hawk preening

This last behavior is one that our raptors exhibit quite frequently. Comfortable and relaxed raptors will stand on one foot and tuck the other foot up into their feathers! Look for just three toes showing on the perch instead of six like in this picture of a Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk standing on one foot

On your next walk on the Birds of Prey Loop, keep an eye out for these behaviors and you too can talk to the birds!