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9 – Raptors

Birds of prey catch and eat animals like lizards, snakes and mice. These birds are called raptors. Here at the Refuge, the most common raptor is the red-shouldered hawk. Florida has its own sub-species of Red-Shouldered Hawk. It is paler in color than Red-Shouldered Hawks living in other states. You may see one swoop across a pond and capture a newborn alligator for a tasty meal or see one return to tend to its chicks in a nest. Hawks are diurnal or daytime feeders. With their specially adapted eyes, some hawks are believed to be able to spot their prey a half mile away.

Other raptors that visit the Refuge during the fall and winter months include the Cooper's and Sharp-Shinned Hawks, Northern Harriers, and the much smaller American Kestrel. Beautiful Swallow-Tailed Kites with their long forked tails have been spotted on the Refuge. And Bald Eagles nest in the large interior area of the Refuge. The Osprey is a raptor that feeds primarily on fish. This bird is seen frequently on the Refuge; resting on snags of trees or hovering over open water, looking for a fish to catch. Osprey will turn the fish around in their talons for improved aerodynamics as they fly to a tree to eat their meal. Great Horned Owls and the smaller Screech Owl nest here at the Refuge. Owls are very effective nocturnal or nighttime feeders. They have specialized hair-like feathers along the edge of their wings which allow them to fly in complete silence and ambush mammals and smaller birds. In addition, owls’ have one ear located higher than the other, enabling them to pinpoint the location of their prey with great accuracy. Great Horned Owls are one of the few birds that can take over a mighty Bald Eagle nest and use the nest to fledge their own young.

Two birds extremely common on the Refuge, the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture, were previously thought to be birds of prey. They have now been shown through genetic examinations to be more closely related to the Wood Stork. They feed on dead animals or carrion, performing an important service in the hot semi-tropical Florida climate.

The critically endangered Everglade Snail Kite, or Florida Snail Kite, is a raptor found in this country only in the state of Florida. While snail kites can be found in the Caribbean, Central and South America, the Florida population is estimated to be only 900 individuals. They range from central to south Florida and can be spotted at the Refuge. Snail kites depend on apple snails for most of their highly specific diet. Apple snails thrive in aquatic environments. This makes snail kite survival directly dependent on the water quantity, quality, distribution and flow. These birds prefer open water with submerged vegetation to search for apple snails. They hover over the water and pick up apple snails with their talons, then fly to a perch to eat the snail with their thin curved beak, which is perfectly adapted to eat its favorite treat.