Carnivorous bird species encompass many birds, including birds of prey or raptors and birds that hunt for fish or eat insects. They hunt for living food items or scavenge for dead animals as their primary food source. Most birds hunt solo; the only exception is the Harris hawk that hunts as a cooperative family unit. Many birds may swarm a prey item and fight for the food object, only sharing with a breeding partner. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles will steal prey from other birds.
Many predatory birds have similar characteristics that are a hallmark of their hunting or scavenging abilities:
- Excellent eyesight: Most rely on sight more than their other senses to find food at a distance or while high in the air
- Strong feet: Most birds of prey have talons or feet that allow them to grip prey out of the water, on land, or even the air; their nails can also pierce prey, delivering a killing blow
- Curved beaks: Birds that tear into flesh need curved beaks to pierce the meat, scoop it into their mouth, or dig into the earth for insects
What Is a Carnivore?
A carnivore describes an animal that primarily eats meat, though not always exclusively. Food or prey items typically include mammals, birds, insects, amphibians, fish, or reptiles. Animals gather the food item through hunting or scavenging.
Birds of prey such as hawks, falcons, eagles, osprey, vultures, and owls are familiar carnivorous birds. However, many types of birds also consume a fair amount of meat and could be classified as carnivores. While the term carnivorous refers to any general meat diet, more specific variations where a predator consumes only a particular type of meat have more specialized terms, including:
- Piscivorous: Fish-eating, such as penguins, herons, egrets, and ospreys
- Insectivorous: Insect-eating, including flycatchers, warblers, swallows, rollers
- Avivorous: Bird-eating, such as accipiters, peregrine falcons
- Molluscivorous: Mollusk-eating, including mergansers, sandpipers
Birds rarely eat just one type of meat, and many will choose whatever prey is convenient or most accessible to catch. When a bird's diet has a majority of one kind of food, it is appropriate to refer to the bird by the specific type of food it prefers.
Carrion is a dead animal that has already started to decompose. It is a popular food source for scavengers, particularly buzzards or vultures. It could be a discarded hunting carcass or entrails, roadkill, or any animal that may have died from an illness, accident, or injury.
Opposite the predatory birds are the herbivores or vegetarian birds that primarily eat seeds, fruits, nuts, and vegetation.
How Birds of Prey Hunt
Carnivorous birds may hunt for food on the ground or catch prey in midair. Most birds will use different hunting and feeding techniques as other circumstances warrant.
- Soaring and swooping: Slowly circling; using their keen eyesight to seek out prey; staying far enough away from potential victims until ready to strike with a steep dive
- Perching quietly: Staying still or being camouflaged; perch in wait for suitable prey to approach; dropping onto the target from a height or pouncing to catch its food
- Scent or sound: Turkey vultures use scent to find decaying flesh; birds like nocturnal owls can detect faint sounds with remarkable accuracy and glide to a prey item silently.
- Dine and dash: Birds eating off a large carcass can perch, look on, find a moment, steal food, and return when it notices an opening.
- Watch for predatory behavior in other predatory birds or animals: Some birds watch for feeding activity by other carnivorous birds or animals, chasing away or overpowering the competition, then steal the prey
An example of a swooping and diving hunter is an osprey. It captures fish at shallow depths. Dives start by gliding over the water or hovering in flight. It thrusts its talons forward, holding its wings directly back. Sometimes birds disappear into the water to come up with a fish.
During the nesting period, birds that are vulnerable prey items have developed a defensive warning system. Mobbing is a crucial form of protection for birds like crows, blackbirds, and jays. Mobbing starts with noisy calls to warn of approaching predatory birds or animals. They harass the predator as a team, often dive-bombing the predator, aggressively coaxing it to move on to easier prey.
Carnivorous Birds in the Backyard
Many backyard birders dislike visiting carnivores, but attracting backyard hawks is an excellent test of bird-friendly landscaping and can help manage a wide range of other backyard wildlife, including mice, lizards, snakes, and snails. Minimizing insecticide use in the yard will also maximize prey for insectivorous birds; thrushes, warblers, and other insect-loving backyard birds can be great natural pest control. For birders who prefer not to provide a feathered feast for airborne carnivores, it is also easy to take steps to protect backyard birds from hawks and other birds of prey.
Any small pet can be at risk from a bird attack. Raptors like hawks or owls have been known to attack animals that weigh up to 20 pounds. One of the best ways to prevent your pet from being hunted is to stay with your pet. Hunting birds of prey will usually stay away when people are nearby.