The tiniest detail can tell quite a story. If I were to take a magnifying glass to a raptor, I might look at the shape of the beak, its eye color, or the texture of the feathers. Zooming in on the talons, though, will give me a clear picture of how this bird hunts.
Take a look at the Peregrine Falcon’s talons. Their slender toes end with equally slender talons. These relatively small talons tell me that they don’t have a difficult job to do when catching prey. Falcons often stun their prey by striking it in the air at high speed. Once caught, they will kill the animal with their beak, using a special notch to sever the neck quickly. That means the talons really don’t have to work very hard; small talons are sufficient when their primary job is holding onto subdued prey.
Compare that to the talons of the Red-tailed Hawk. Check out those beefy talons, especially the enlarged talons on the toes labeled “I” and “II” in the photo. These talons have some serious work to do. Red-tailed hawks often catch prey on the ground that are larger than their feet. Imagine a hawk pouncing down on a rabbit. That rabbit will surely be fighting for freedom (and sometimes it succeeds), so the hawk needs a strong, deep grip. Those enlarged talons restrain its dinner until the hawk gets a chance to start eating.
And the Great Gray Owl presents a new set of talons and a new hunting strategy. These medium talons are relatively long on short toes and are less curved than other raptor talons. These weapons are ideal for catching small prey, like mice or voles, that fit in the bird’s foot. By maximizing grip strength, the talons can wrap around and constrict their prey. Unlike hawks, owl talons are just about equal in size. This ensures a uniform grip as they clench their bite-size meal.
You could probably tell the difference between a carpenter and a dentist just by looking at their fingernails. Whatever type of work we choose to do is imprinted on our hands. For birds, the correlation is flipped. The physical tools that raptors have dictate the lifestyle they need to survive.
Photos adapted from the scientific paper, “Predatory Functional Morphology in Raptors: Interdigital Variation in Talon Size Is Related to Prey Restraint and Immobilisation Technique,” by Fowler, Freeman, and Scannella. (2009)