You’re out owling and through your binoculars, you witness a great horned owl swoop in and snatch a scurrying squirrel. And just like that, the owl with his captured prey quickly flies away.
The claws on the owl’s feet look quite sharper and longer to you than most birds you see. Your veteran birding friend Jay tells you they are called talons.
Now, which birds have talons?
While all birds have claws, pronounced claws are referred to as talons on predators such as owls, eagles, hawks, and falcons. Known as birds of prey or raptors, they primarily use their powerful feet and talons to catch and devour prey.
What Are Talons Used For?
A bird’s talons are another name for having sharp claws and often deadly, but amazingly useful tools. These serve a number of purposes and come in different sizes and shapes.
Raptors use their large and powerful talons to grasp their prey’s skin or body and are often strong enough to cut or strike a severe or mortal wound.
Falcons have smaller talons than other raptors because they use a different method for catching their prey. They attack their prey using force by swooping down at incredible speeds and striking their victim.
In general, birds use their talons for several purposes:
- Cleaning and preening areas they cannot reach with their beak.
- As weapons against predators or threats to their nest.
- Gripping or grasping branches and surfaces and providing balance.
- Carrying items in flight.
- Catching fish and holding them.
- Building and rearranging nests, and slightly moving eggs as needed when nesting.
- When searching the ground for food by removing foliage.
- Cracking nuts and seeds, and grasping food.
A bird’s talons will become worn by daily use. They regrow constantly to combat this, much like human fingernails.
Talons grow differently depending on the species of the bird and the primary purpose it uses them for. Since larger birds of prey use their talons as hunting and killing tools they are identified with having much thicker and stronger talons.
Smaller birds have claws because they are less defined and often much smaller in proportion to the bird’s feet. They are far less powerful and are applied for more basic purposes, like grooming and grasping branches or unstable surfaces.
The Birds of Prey
Below are the more well-known birds known as raptors or birds of prey.
What Are Talons Made Of?
Like human hair and nails, talons are always growing and made of the same hard protein called keratin. Although much bonier and sharper, they grow and develop similar to the nails of a dog.
Keratin is also what composes a bird’s beak and feathers—it is the level of an amino acid called cysteine that creates the difference between soft (feathers) and hard (talons).
The keratin’s hardness in the talons is what enables the birds of prey to be the vicious predators they are.
The main differences between talons across bird species are size, curvature, and color. Which birds have talons for the purposes of hunting, generally determines a lot of these factors.
If a bird has thick talons this indicates it relies on these for catching prey, with the largest of raptors having the most powerful talons.
In contrast, a smaller bird will have claws that are soft and small.
Birds with long talons are often very good at climbing and grasping objects, prey, or food. An example of a large taloned bird is the American Harpy Eagle which has up to five-inch-long talons.
Birds with an extreme curve in their talons are often expert climbers. Other reasons species have curved talons are to grasp prey, uneven surfaces, and other objects.
Bird talons often vary in color depending on their age and maturity. They range in color from dark brown to black, to a pale gray color in some species.
The bald eagle has gray talons when it begins its life. By the time it leaves the nest the talons are black and will remain this color for the rest of its life.
All bird species have talons well-adapted to suit their habitat, how they interact with it, and the food they eat.
Which Bird Has The Largest Talons?
Of the roughly 10,000 species of birds in the world, the deadly Harpy Eagle has the largest talons.
Male and female harpies have talons of three and five inches in length respectively and are capable of carrying prey of equal weight to their own body like sloths and monkeys. Now that’s frightening!
So the next time you run into your friend Jay, you’ll now be able to impress him with your newfound understanding of the difference between talons and claws.
If you’re both discussing a bird of prey, it’ll be about a bird with talons. A conversation about chickadees, and you’ll be talking about claws.