What makes a raptor - Part 1, hooked beaks
October 29, 2020
The Raptor Center

The word raptor comes from the Latin rapere, which mean to seize or plunder — an apt way to describe birds that swoop down on their prey.

All raptors have three key distinguishing characteristics: a hooked beak, sharp talons and keen eyesight. In the weeks leading up to Give to the Max day on Thursday, November 19, we will explore in greater detail these unique features. We hope you enjoy reading this series.


bald eagle

All birds in the world have a beak (or bill). This incredible adaptation helps a bird eat, preen, kill prey, court a mate, and feed young. In addition, beaks are actually an adaptation for flight. Birds need to be relatively light in order to fly so instead of “heavy” teeth, birds evolved beautifully designed lightweight beaks that are powered by strong jaws.

The outer covering of a beak (what we see) is made from layers of keratin, a structural protein like human hair and nails. Underneath this keratin layer is bone. This seems like a simple combination but it is far from it! Every grouping of birds has a beak shape, color and style that is used to help them live and thrive in the world.

As a group, raptors have beaks that are curved and come to a point. This shape allows raptors to bite, tear and sometimes kill their animal prey after catching it. To make these actions even stronger, raptors, like all birds, have a specialized jaw. It hinges at the base of the beak allowing a bird to raise its upper jaw while keeping its head and lower jaw still. This allows the jaw to close faster which provides power when biting and tearing.   

American kestrel showing tomial tooth on beak
American kestrel, a small falcon species,
showing the "tomial tooth" and notch in
its beak

In addition to being curved and sharp, some raptor beaks have additional specialized adaptations. Falcons for example,

have a tomial tooth, a sharp protrusion in the upper beak with a matching notch in the lower beak. When a falcon places the neck of a bird in the notch and twists, it can quickly kill its prey. This tomial tooth is an identifying characteristic of falcons.

Snail kite
Snail kite with specialized beak
for eating snails

Another example is snail kites.  These raptors evolved to eat small snails in the southern part of the United States like the Florida Everglades. Their beaks have an extremely long and narrow tip designed especially to get into the snail shell.

Beaks are a wonder of nature but also an incredibly important tool so birds can eat, preen and even fly!



Give to the Max 2020



Infinite Spider- A Science and Nature Blog: https://infinitespider.com/featured-feature-raptor-beaks-adaptations/


The Raptor Center: https://raptor.umn.edu/about-raptors/learn-about-raptors


Further reading:

Proctor, Noble S. and Patrick J. Lynch. Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure and Function. Yale University 1993.