As spring settles over the desert, keep an eye out for birds of prey settling down in their nests and raising their young. Some like great horned owls may already have young while others such as the osprey may just be arriving back onto their nesting territories.
Birds of prey, or “raptors” as they are often referred to, are those predatory birds that feed on small mammals, birds, lizards and even fish. The term “raptor” is derived from the Latin rapere meaning “to seize” or “take by force.” Armed with strong talons designed for such a purpose, owls, hawks, eagles, falcons and osprey constitute the local bird of prey roster. Vultures also make the list, even though these scavengers rarely hunt, but prefer their prey on the already-dead side.
Of all the different raptors that inhabit the Canyon Country of southern Utah, the two largest species are eagles: balds and goldens.
The bald eagle is well known as the symbol of the United States. Though selected for its majestic size and prowess as a hunter, bald eagles can also be found scavenging prey, feeding on roadkill or pirating prey from other raptors like the osprey. This colorful character trait probably wasn’t well known back in the late 1700s, but now seems more representative of our fledgling nation.
Ironically, our nation’s symbol spent time under the protection of the Endangered Species Act due to declines attributed to herbicides and pesticides affecting the development of their eggs, habitat loss and persecution. Protective measures have increased their populations to the point where the birds were delisted back in 2007.
Adult bald eagles are huge, averaging 36” in length and sporting a six-foot long wingspan. Males are smaller than females. Their white heads and tails contrast with the darker body making identification easy. Though more common in winter when birds from other portions of the range spend time here, there are a few pairs of nesting bald eagles that breed along the Colorado River in southeastern Utah.
These nesting bald eagles construct huge stick nests in large cottonwood trees and these nests may be used year after year. Great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks and great horned owls may also nest in nearby trees, but the eagles mostly leave these other raptors alone.
In contrast to the bald eagles, golden eagles have dark bodies with golden feathering on the back of their heads. Large like bald eagles, goldens mainly use ledges on cliff faces for their nest sites. They prefer more open country to nest and hunt in than the bald eagles which are primarily after fish and waterfowl during the breeding season. Golden eagles hunt the drier uplands for mammals like cottontails, jackrabbits and prairie dogs, but they too will consume an easy meal of roadkill or carrion if presented with the opportunity.
Like the bald eagle, the golden may share its domain with other birds of prey such as prairie falcons, red-tailed and ferruginous hawks, and owls. These different species may hunt the same areas but often take different prey. This partitioning of the prey base reduces some competition between the predators and allows them to coexist in a finite space.
So as you travel around between the national parks and other wildlands of Utah, keep an eye to the sky for these large powerful predators, these regal eagles of Canyon Country.