Couple of years ago, I was walking to work on a sunny morning day. The busy streets of the Bronx filled my ears with the sounds of accelerating cars, rushing pedestrians, and elevated subway passing overhead. Typical morning commute commotion.
Out of nowhere, with a lighting speed, a big raptor fell from the sky. In mid air, he grasped an unsuspected pigeon with its long tarsals and landed on the ground. The tarsals could pierce and slice with ease through the toughest flesh. They demanded respect. Once a hawk gripped on the prey, it would not let go. It’s a reflex. The unfortunate pigeon stood no chance.
His powerful beak and tarsals signaled the message very clearly “Do not approach me. I am having breakfast.”
He ripped through the flesh of the pigeon without any struggle. Pigeon’s feathers surrounded the crime scene, or rather the buffet feast, as he continued to splurge on its flesh.
Unapologetic. Powerful. Hungry.
For a bird of prey, he had no fear of people who began to surround him as if he was a circus performer. All stood there in awe. Some felt disgusted looking at the flying feathers. Most knew to respect the power of the bird. The power of Nature. Several phones were recording this rare encounter.
Unlike other birds, raptors’ eyes are positioned more forward in their skull, a feature similar to humans and unknown to many other birds, giving them excellent binocular vision. They can see in 3D. Imagine an IMAX quality picture, but eight times better.
Hawks have excellent vision. Their fovea, an area of the eye with the highest concentration of photoreceptors, contains about a million of photoreceptor cells per square millimeter. We, humans, aren’t as lucky. Humans have about 200,000 receptors in our foveae. On top of that, they have two of them, equipping the raptor with a visual acuity we can only imagine and envy.
To stress the extreme of this ocular excellence, we have to acknowledge how they catch food: mid-air, usually diving downward at 120 to 150 miles per hour depending on the species, focusing on a bird in the shape of a small dot underneath them. A visual location skill mastered to perfection.
Raptors, similarly to marine creatures, when hunting have to account for the third dimension. This requires continuous adjustments in speed and direction. A bird can fly right and left, up or down. A raptor has to adjust its flight to any change of direction in milliseconds, or he will go hungry. It’s a matter of survival.
Even the fastest land animals, such as cheetahs, usually hunt only in two dimensions. The prey runs right or left, sometimes jumps. Their motion is more predictable.
What do you see when you look at a raptor?
Many bird lovers would answer: a dinosaur. Evolutionarily they are right. Birds are the only branch of prehistoric creatures most closely related to the dinosaurs. Their evolution dates back to about 140 million years ago, to the Mesozoic era. Hawks are thought to evolve around 100 million years ago. In comparison, modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved from Africa about 200,000 years ago.
As I stood there watching the hawk indulge himself with the pigeon, I could not help to imagine how they are surviving in a city, but then the answer was quite simple, there are plenty of pigeons and rodents to feast on.
Hawks, like many other birds, are threatened by habitat loss, fires, and pesticides. We need to do better to protect them.
I hope next time you see a hawk high in the sky, you think of its natural history, and its importance to the environment. Hawks are one of the apex predators allowing you to admire its fight.