Talons vs. Beaks

Why do you think eagles carry their prey with their talons instead of 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:

  1. Carrying things in their mouths would make eagles' heads less streamlined, so flight would be more difficult.
  2. Carrying things in their mouths puts too much weight in front of their wings, so flight would be much more difficult. It's easier for them to carry things between their wings in the area that scientists call their "center of gravity."
  3. Prey animals might not move for a bit after attack, but they might still be alive. If a prey animal suddenly revived and attacked, it would be held far away from the eagle's face in the talons. (Even a tiny mouse could bite an eagle's eye if it were held in its beak.)

Problems With the Beak (Students' Answers):

  • Another eagle or strong bird could grab the fish out of an eagle's beak more easily than out of his talons.
  • Holding prey in their beak would get in the way of an eagle seeing where it is going.
  • It leaves their air passage clear so they can breathe with more efficiency.
  • If eagles carried their prey in their beak then the weight would be far forward, throwing off their center of balance to make it harder to fly. By carrying it in their talons they are pulling the weight rather than pushing it through the air.
  • If the eagle had to make a call, it would open its beak and lose its food.
  • The beak might not be big or strong enough to hold big fish or ducks.
  • If they pant with the fish in their mouth, then the fish will fall out.
  • Their beaks are specially adapted to tear food, so the edge of the beak is sharp and could slice or break things, and if the eagle bit down on the fish with its beak, it would cut through the fish and the pieces would drop while the eagle is flying.

Advantages of the Talons (Students' Answers):

  • The legs and talons are designed for holding so they are much stronger than the beak and make it easier to grab and grip the food
  • They don't catch the fish in their beaks because if they did catch it with their beaks they would crash into the water or have a harder time pulling up in the nick of time.
  • Since they catch their food with their talons, they don't want to switch to the beak in midair because they might lose it.
  • It is easier for them to fly with greater speed with the food in their feet.
  • Their 4th rear toe, called the "hallux," helps to grip the prey.
  • A slippery prey would slip out of their curved beak. The talons have a better grip on slippery fish.
  • Two feet are better than only one beak.

Also, an eagle would have to carry a fish sideways in its beak, while it can fly with the fish head-first in its feet by pulling one foot forward of the other. This cuts down on the wind resistance as it flies.

Eagles don't have spicules (spiny scales) on their feet the way osprey do, but those mighty feet are strong and the claws are sharp even without the extra grip of those scales.

Read this and other fascinating facts about eagle feet, toes, claws and talons:

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.