- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Raptors are birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, and owls, that capture other creatures for food.
Similarly sized red-tailed hawks and great horned owls and equally sized American kestrels and screech owls are adaptable, common counterparts to raptors in southeastern Pennsylvania and through much of the United States.
Red-tails and kestrels are daytime hunters of rodents and larger insects in this area’s farmland, woodlots, and suburban areas, all human-made habitats. Horned owls and screech owls hunt the same prey in the same habitats, but at night.
Those hawks and owls are counterparts of each other, and those raptors don’t compete directly with each other for the same prey animals, allowing them all to live in the same habitats.
And the majestic red-tails and horned owls capture larger prey than kestrels and screech owls can, again reducing competition among these local raptors.
Though these beautiful birds represent different families, they all have several traits in common, which is an example of convergence. All hawks and owls have long, sharp talons for seizing prey. They have excellent vision and hearing to locate potential victims. And they all have hooked beaks to tear meat off their prey animals.
All these attractive raptors have camouflaged feathering, cryptic beauty that makes it difficult for the prey to spot them. And the handsome kestrels and cute little screech owls avoid larger predators because of their blending into their habitats.
All these raptors, as species, are permanent residents in this area, though some red-tails and kestrels migrate through here in spring and fall, sometimes in impressive numbers. When I suddenly see red-tails and kestrels in farmland where they had not been before, I guess they are migrants.
The 2-foot-tall, stately horned owls and red-tails begin courting in December and January. One sometimes hears pairs of owls hooting to each other during that time. And red-tails are spotted perched together in lone trees in fields at that time.
Each female of both species lays two to three eggs in an open, stick platform in a tall tree by early February. The young of both kinds hatch in March and are on their own by June when prey species are abundant.
The 1-foot-tall kestrels and screechers court during March. Sometimes one can hear the “killy, killy, killy” of the kestrels during the day and the descending whinnies of the screech owls at dusk.
Kestrels and screechers lay three or four eggs per brood in tree cavities and nest boxes erected specifically for them. Again, the offspring of both kinds are on their own by June.
These beautiful raptors are spotted in southeastern Pennsylvania the year around. Look for horned owls secluded among tall, suburban conifers; red-tails perched majestically on lone trees in cropland; kestrels gripping roadside wires; and dozing screech owls in tree cavities.
We have been thrilled to have all these species in our suburban neighborhood at one time or another.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.