The word "raptor" is a Latin word, meaning “to carry away.” This is precisely what birds of prey do; they carry away their prey. People watch in awe as an eagle soars across the sky or a hawk swoops down to catch a field mouse. This group of aerial warriors is made up of owls, hawks, eagles and osprey. Not only are these birds astonishing to watch, they also perform important tasks for our world. Ecology benefits from raptors in more than one way.
Raptors feed at the top of many food chains. Mice, field rats, rabbits, squirrels and other rodents, as well as fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles may have years when their population explodes due to good weather and a surplus of food. This is a common experience with fish, amphibian and even snake populations. Birds of prey help to balance the size of these populations. Scientists monitor raptor populations carefully. An increase in the number of raptors within an ecosystem is an indicator that a species population is too high. High populations of any one species can destroy the delicate balance in an ecosystem.
Raptors have been called “ecological barometers,” which simply means they help us gauge how healthy a habitat is. Birds of prey are extremely sensitive to many environmental changes in an ecosystem. They can even sense chemical and pollutant levels that can give people an early warning of any impending airborne threats. Pesticides and other chemicals can build up in our environment and are passed on to animals. This can lower raptor populations due to birds ingesting prey riddled with toxins, which in turn signals scientists that a possible problem exists.
Since many of the smaller raptors feed on insects and larger ones prey on rodents, many farmers truly appreciate them. The American kestrel, a smaller falcon, and the Eastern screech owl feed on insects. The great horned owl and the red-tailed hawk feed on rodents. Grasshoppers, cutworms, as well as rabbits and field mice are capable of destroying entire fields of crops if left to reproduce freely without any birds of prey to feed on them. Controlling pests through this method is called biological control. If a farmer can control pests by natural predation, he has no need to use pesticides or insecticides, which helps protect the environment.
Some of the larger birds of prey like the turkey vulture feed primarily on carcasses of dead animals. Occasionally, they will prey on weak or sick animals. This feeding habit actually helps the environment by getting rid of diseased animals or their carcasses to prevent further spread of any disease the animal was carrying. The stomach acids of the turkey vulture are so powerful that it is resistant to most bacteria and germs. This is probably why the turkey vulture has been around 40 to 50 million years. Several species of vultures and condors besides the turkey vulture practice feeding on dead animals and making the environment safe for other animals.