When people hear the word raptor, one of the first physical attributes which comes to mind is sharp talons! In fact, the word “raptor” originated from the Latin word rapere which means “to seize”. When you look at a raptor’s talons, what you are seeing is a hard covering made up of keratin that protects the bone underneath. This covering, or sheath, is made up of layers of keratin, a structural protein similar to human nails. In the wild, raptors maintain the length and shape of their talon sheaths by normal daily wear and exposure to moisture (humidity, rain, etc.). When raptors are under human care, we help maintain their sheaths by regular trimming and filing.
One feature that distinguishes raptors from other types of birds is that the talon on their second toe is similar or greater in length than the talon on their third toe. For other birds, the “claw” on the third toe is significantly longer.
Raptors, like most birds, have a ridge on their third talon that helps them maintain their feathers through preening. For most species, this ridge is solid, but common barn owls have taken it to the extreme and develop comb-like serrations on these ridges at about one year of age.
The size and shape of talons tell us a lot about a raptor's hunting style and what they eat. Hawks and eagles have large thick talons, especially on their first and second toes (their “power” toes) to secure large struggling prey. Falcons have relatively short, narrow talons as they often strike their prey to severely disable it before securing it and don’t need large talons to do this. Owls have relatively long talons compared to the shorter length of their toes to give them maximum leverage for securing small prey. Osprey have long, strongly curved talons that act like fish hooks to help them catch and hold on to slippery fish. Additionally, owls and osprey have an opposable toe which can move to either face forward or backward depending on the situation and better grasp.
So, talons are just more than sharp – they are specialized tools that determine what raptors can catch and eat and help to keep feathers preened and healthy!