Turkey Vulture

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Gary R. Graves, Ph.D.

Dr. Gary Graves had an early childhood fascination with birds that eventually led him to his role as curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History.

Photo by Don Hurlburt, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Gary Graves is a research zoologist and curator of birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where his research focuses on the ecology, biogeography, and evolution of birds. His early childhood fascination with birds led to graduate studies at Louisiana State University and Florida State University: "I am unapologetically curious about natural history and the ways that natural history observations catalyze important ecological and evolutionary discoveries." His dissertation work focused on speciation of birds in the Andes Mountains of Peru. He has also conducted fieldwork in Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, Polynesia, Canada, and in more than half the states in the USA. His current research efforts are split between the analysis of complex data sets based on the collective resources of the World's great museums and conducting field research in Jamaica, the great forests of the eastern USA, and in the Sonoran Desert.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) eating its prey
Courtesy of U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain


About Raptors (Orders Falconiformes and Accipitriformes): Feeding

The classic raptor is an eagle with its sharp claws (talons) clutching a fish. Most raptors are powerful flyers who swoop down and use strong legs and talons to carry prey off (raptor = one who seizes and carries away). However, feeding varies depending on habitat. Raptors that live in open habitats with a view of the ground glide (soar) in the sky looking for prey. Some close their wings to plummet like missiles towards prey. Raptors who live in bushy habitats may hunt from perches, waiting on a branch until prey is spotted. A common rural sight is raptors perched on power lines along highways, watching for prey below. Some raptors have camouflaging plumage and rely on ambushing their prey from a hidden position. A subset of raptors, the vultures, feed on dead animals (carrion). All raptors have keen eyesight, allowing them to spot prey from as far as several hundred meters.

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) taking off
Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain


About Birds (Class Aves): Locomotion

Most birds fly. Wing feathers are spread out to increase surface area and generate lift like airplane wings. Soft contour feathers overlap rigid flight feathers to make a streamlined but firm surface. Stiff tail feathers are used to steer and break. Unlike an airplane, a bird flaps its wings to generate thrust for forward movement. A typical bird body is adapted for flight. Hand bones are fused together to support the flight feathers. A downward extension from the breastbone provides a place to anchor large chest muscles that power the wings. Bird bodies are surprisingly light, thanks to thin-walled, hollow bones. For strength, the hollow channels are filled with bony struts like the scaffolding of a building. Many birds also spend a lot of time standing and walking. Their pelvic girdle is strong, supporting the bird's weight on just two hind limbs.