Behavioural Ecology of Raptors



The eminent ornithologist Ian Newton lamented almost 40 years ago that research on birds of prey had made little contribution to the mainstream of ecological thought. Since then, and to prove Newton wrong, a plethora of raptor studies have tackled questions of broad interest, particularly in the realm of behavioural ecology, including investigations on mate choice, mating systems, sperm competition, dispersal decisions and foraging behaviour. Raptors may all look alike and mostly brown in colour. They do not seem to be particularly vocal, either. However, raptors have become model species in sexual selection studies and numerous works testify of their variety of strategies for communication and signalling. Raptors are special in showing reversed sexual size dimorphism. Size matters for birds of prey, with the females being typically larger than males. Numerous species are also sexually dichromatic, and again many species show delayed plumage maturation. In addition, a number of species present different colour phases. Eleonora’s falcons, booted eagles, many harriers and still other species come in colour morphs during the adult phase. Most of them typically present a “light morph” and a “dark morph”, this revealing differential deposition of melanin. But this is not all for raptor colours. Bearded vultures are famous for using cosmetic colours on their otherwise snow-white plumage in the underparts. They apply iron oxides on their feathers and stain their plumage intensely orange in colour. Deception is yet another strategy used by certain species: hobbies, for instance, display a false face in the nape – as with many small owls. This might be used for self-protection or for eliciting mobbing by small passerine birds and gain access to elusive prey. Recently, some plumage mimics have been identified. Two snake-eating species in Africa have been said to imitate the plumage patterns and proportions of heavily armed species. The reason for this is still unclear. The behavioural repertoire of raptors is also diverse and complex: their noisy and visually conspicuous copulations have been said to advertise the limits of the territory. There is even evidence of nest ornamentation in species such as the black kite to minimize aggressive encounters with conspecifics.


Bearded Vulture Color Cosmetics Piranha Egyptian Vulture World Vultures 
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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Evolutionary EcologyDoñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC)SevilleSpain

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