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Seeing a hawk perched in a tree or soaring overhead is a common sight, whether it’s at your local park or driving down the highway. These raptors or birds of prey are active during the day, always on the lookout for something to eat. It’s common knowledge that hawks will take rodents of various sizes. Some will even take birds or, unfortunately, small pets sometimes.
It may surprise you to learn the menu also includes snakes occasionally.
There are several things to understand about these birds’ behavior that may explain their varied diet. We’ll start by defining what a hawk is and then delve into the details of life as a raptor.
Several birds have the term hawk in their common names, such as the Nighthawk. However, they don’t fit this definition of a raptor, which eats other animals for food. The word has also described some species incorrectly. Looking at the taxonomy of the birds will provide some clarification. Hawks are members of the order Accipitriformes or accipitrids, which means just that in Latin.
This group includes other familiar birds, such as vultures and eagles. However, it does not include falcons. They belong to a different order called Falconiformes. Distinct differences in body structure and behavior exist between the two categories that warrant the separation of the two. It’s worth noting that one species of the latter, the Laughing Falcon, is well-known for its preference for snakes.
Hawks are well-equipped to take any kind of prey they would choose, with their sharp talons, hooked beaks, and forward-facing eyes. The latter is a trait usually seen in species higher on the food chains like predators. They are also relatively strong for their size and have keen vision, which may explain why your mom watched you like a hawk as a child.
Hawks are a diverse group of raptors that live in a broad range of habitats. It includes 233 species worldwide, of which 24 live in North America. These birds often adapt well to the presence of humans. You may even see them in your backyard occasionally. If not by sight, you’ll often detect them by their distinctive calls. They use both senses to communicate with other birds.
By their nature, predators, such as hawks, are opportunistic hunters. Their habitat typically decides what they eat. Whereas falcons often hunt on the wing, taking songbirds, hawks use different strategies to find food. Many will take whatever is around, including snakes. Others focus on specific prey species, often dictated by what lives in their habitats.
Many hawks will scan their surroundings from a perch and bounce down on prey they spot. Others will soar or hover overhead, taking advantage of the warm thermals of open grasslands and prairies. Either method gives them an advantage if an unsuspecting, slow-moving snake slithers along the open ground. Hawks usually hunt alone, which also helps them attack prey first before being detected.
Like many mammalian predators, hawks often have a distinct way of taking different prey, making it easy to identify what species did the deed. Broad-Winged Hawks provide a textbook example. When they kill a mammal like a field mouse, they will devour the animal whole. If a bird is on the receiving end, it is plucked clean of its feathers, presumably to aid digestion.
However, when a Broad-Winged Hawk catches a snake, it’ll skin the reptile before consuming it. That behavior distinguishes it from the many other animals that may take snakes, such as herons, owls, bobcats, and even chickens. Remember that warm-blooded animals like mammals and birds have a competitive edge over cold-blooded reptiles like snakes. Cool temperatures don’t slow them.
Other hawk species that will take the occasional snake include:
Availability and timing are the things that might drive a hawk to hunt snakes. Of course, it’s not without its risks, especially if a raptor decides to tangle with a venomous species. Unfortunately for the bird, these animals are just as poisonous to them as people and other mammals. Juveniles are most likely to fall victim to these snakes. Scientists believe that hawks learn to tell them apart.
It’s not unheard of that a bird would know instinctively what signs mean trouble or potential death. For example, researchers have documented the so-called hawk-goose effect where young goslings recognize the characteristic silhouette of a raptor flying overhead and will seek cover right out of the egg—literally! Therefore, the suggestion that hawks would have a similar instinct makes sense.
Evidence supports this assertion, too. Scientists documented three cases of dead raptors found near the dens of venomous snakes. Examination of the bodies found at the scene confirmed signs of poisoning consistent with venomous snakebites.
Interestingly, researchers have also shown that hawks have a strategy for dealing with these dangerous reptiles called the matador move. Using their wings like a matador’s cape, a raptor can distract the venomous snake and kill it without getting hurt themselves. If anyone wanted evidence of the intelligence of these birds, this offensive tactic makes a compelling case.
The essential thing to understand about hawks is that their diet is driven by survival. They aren’t always successful when they hunt. It’s often a case of taking what you can to live to see the next day or feed your young. That’s how it is with hawks. If a snake happens along at the right time, a raptor will spring into action without hesitation.
Featured Image Credit: Eric Amoah, Shutterstock
Chris has been writing since 2009 on a variety of topics. Her motto with all of her writing is “science-based writing nurtured by education and critical thinking.” Chris specializes in science topics and has a special love for health and environmental topics, and animals of all shapes and sizes.
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