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  • Sharron Montgomery Pena

Talons, What are they? (And how do I get some?)

Close up of a Red tailed hawk's talons
Red tailed hawk talons

Talons, they are what makes a bird of prey stand apart from other birds. Most birds have nails at the end of their toes which may be used to hold onto branches when perching, grasping food, or scratching in the dirt to uncover tender morsels of worms or other insects. The nails of a bird of prey are structurally the same as a chicken’s nails, the main difference is that talons are designed to seize or grab, as most dictionary definitions of a raptor explain.

Birds of prey are also carnivores and must subdue their prey. The tip of a talon is sharp as a dagger to penetrate the victim, but can also be used for slashing to disorient or slow the prey in preparation for the final kill. Think of the big battle scenes in Game of Thrones. All that slashing and stabbing could have been so much more effective had the soldiers been equipped with talons. Wait what? Well, maybe not in an epic battle of that size, but let’s consider the final “point” (couldn’t resist) about what makes talons so effective.

While it’s true that talons are sharp, anyone who has ever had a pet parrot will tell you that the nails of a parrot can pierce the skin and leave some itchy welts for a few days. All birds have tendons in their feet that “lock” so that they literally don’t fall off the perch while sleeping. In raptors, the locking mechanism serves a vital purpose in securing their kill. Imagine that all the stars have aligned for one of our raptor friends and they have managed to find and catch its chosen prey, not always a guarantee by the way. The sharp talons have successfully grasped the prey and now penetrate it. The prey struggles to escape, and those locking tendons are triggered to grasp more firmly. Any attempt to pull away, results in the tightening of that ratchet type grip. In many cases that tightening response is exaggerated and hawks will often repeatedly hammer those talons into the vital organs causing massive damage and even shock. Ultimately this leads to a rapid death and life sustaining meal for the carnivore.

American kestrels eat insects
American kestrel on grasshopper

At this point you are either happily engrossed in learning about how talons function, or you are completely turned off about what happens in this cycle of life. This is where the talons would come in handy for a writer such as myself. You are getting ready to leave my article, when kapow! I reach out, grab you, and say “Oh no you don’t.” You say, “ I don’t want to read anymore.” But I am locked onto you and I repeatedly stab you with my pointy talons. You simply cannot escape and must finish reading my article. Oops sorry, daydreaming. But you are here still reading unless you managed to escape, and if you did, you are like many who escape the clutches of the raptor. But if you escaped, you aren’t reading this anyway.

Red tailed hawk

So do all birds of prey use their talons the same way? Not exactly. As already stated, hawks and eagles will repeatedly stab or “foot” their prey as those of us who work with birds of prey say. To be “footed” by a hawk for the first time is a life altering experience. If you are lucky, they will strike you lightning fast like a ninja “hiya!” This often leaves between 1 and 4 puncture marks which can range from annoying to moderately painful. The experience of having a raptor lock onto you with a death grip is all at once heart pounding and excruciating, especially if you are by yourself (more on that in future writings). This should serve as a warning against assisting or handling any wild raptor without proper hand protection, and one of the best arguments against why birds of prey are not considered suitable for pets. Even the most careful handlers (raises hand) sustain painful injuries occasionally

Falcons have long toes for grasping prey before the kill
Falcons talons

Falcons, because they have a specialized beak to kill their prey, do not have the repeated “footing” technique. Make no mistake however, the falcon talons are fierce. The anatomical shape of the falcon foot is slender with long, exaggerated toes. It is quite effective at wrapping around the body of its prey while it delivers the fatal bite that severs the spine resulting in instantaneous death.

Play is part of a young owls development
Juvenile great horned owl pouncing

So what about our friendly, cute owl friends? Who? Not if you are a rodent or other prey. They are considered to have one of the strongest talon strengths of any of our birds of prey.

Owls have a reversible toe
Barn owl talons showing reversible toe

Sources report up to 500 psi of crushing strength, and other reports claim 28 pounds of pressure is required to open the grip of a great horned owl. Likewise, the have the ability to swivel the outer toe behind resulting in a vise grip that can quickly subdue, crushing or suffocating struggling prey.

I am reminded of a question that children often ask. "Who would win in a fight between a hawk and an owl?" "How about a hawk and falcon?" You get the picture. Which leads me back to imagining an epic battle scene from the Game of Thrones series with raptors substituted for the various warring factions for the crown. Instead of dragons, wolves, and lions, we have hawks, falcons, and owls. Who’s up for one more season?

All kidding aside, birds of prey are not only fascinating, but a vital link in our ecosystem. Without birds of prey the populations of their prey would explode putting all of nature’s resources out of balance. Get to know your local birds of prey and how you can contribute to their survival by subscribing to our ongoing articles. It's easy, it's free. It's at the top of our blog page (only says subscribe on mobile devices)! See you soon!

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Jan 11, 2021

What a great article, Sharron! Entertaining as well as educational. Looking forward to the next one!

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