Eagle Adaptations:The Legs and Feet

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Get a Grip!
In order to grasp and carry live fish, eagles need strong legs and toes, and a powerful grip. An ornithologist looking at an eagle's feet would know that this bird is a hunter that specializes on underwater prey. How? Because eagles have talons and no feathers on their legs.

  • Eagle feet have claws, but so do the feet on dogs, cats, squirrels, raccoons, robins, and even tiny hummingbirds. What makes eagle feet different? First, the claws must be extremely strong and sharp. When an eagle catches a fish, those claws have to slice into a stiff, strong fish with thick scales protecting its body. (All birds of prey use their feet for killing, from the tiniest Elf Owl and American Kestrel to the largest eagles.)

    But sharp claws are NOT the reason eagle feet are called talons; after all, cats have sharp claws, too, but they don't have talons. What makes talons different? They are designed to carry things. An eagle foot is made up of four muscular toes, powerful enough to hang onto a fairly large fish as the eagle carries it through the air. A cat can't carry a mouse in its claws!

  • Most hunting birds have feathers on their legs to protect them from cold. Eagles do not because they prey on fish; feathers on the legs would drag on them, slowing them down.

Eagles, hawks, and owls have very sharp beaks as well as talons. Many of them use their talons to grab prey animals. Next they use the sharp points of their beaks to bite the animal at the base of the skull or in the neck to kill it. Eagles don't bother with that when they're carrying a fish, but ones that learn to hunt rabbits or ducks may do so. Although an eagle's beak is strong, powerful, and huge, it rarely if ever carries sticks or fish in its beak.

Can you think of some reasons why eagles always carry items in their talons rather than their beaks?

Journey North students came up with at least 14 different reasons! Here are three answers from bird expert Laura Erickson, followed by the terrific ideas students provided:

National Science Education Standards

  • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, reproduction.
  • Living systems at all levels of organization demonstrate the complementary nature of structure and function.