Eagle Talons
Get a Grip!

Reading Writing Selection
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Like other birds of prey, eagles have very special feet, which are different from those of other animals. We call those special feet talons.

What Makes Talons Special
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.

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.

Journaling Question

  • Can you think of some reasons why eagles always carry items in their talons rather than in 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: Link to Talons Vs. Beaks.

Eagle Feet are Second Best
Eagle talons are among the largest and strongest in the bird world. However, their feet aren't quite as well designed for capturing fish as ospreys' feet are. One reason has to do with their toes. Both eagles and osprey have three front toes and one back toe. But one of an osprey's front toes is opposable, like our thumbs, and it can rotate backward.

How does an opposable toe help an osprey catch fish? When an eagle holds a fish, it has the front toes from both feet on one side of the fish (6 toes) and just the back toes (2) on the other side of the fish. Ospreys catch their fish with two toes from both feet on each side of the fish. This is more balanced. Fish thrash their bodies back and forth when they are struggling against being caught. If they thrash away from an eagle's front toes (with no back toe pushing the opposite way), the fish may actually jerk itself out of the eagle's talons. If the eagle is over water, it's even possible that the fish will survive the fall and its injuries may heal. A fifth-grade boy in Duluth, Minnesota once caught a walleye that had six scars on one side of its body, and two scars on the other, exactly the size and shape of eagle toes!

Journaling Question

  • How do eagles' physical adaptations help them survive?

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.