Book Review: Raptors: Portraits of Birds of Prey


Reviewed by Priscilla Feral

Returning from a late afternoon walk, I stopped in our driveway, startled to see a motionless medium-sized Cooper’s hawk staring at me among a pile of white feathers before she flew away with a rock dove. I found it both alarming and humbling. It’s nature at its most efficient and violent, yet I’m unable to judge the process.

Like Peregrine falcons, ancient birds who almost didn’t survive the 20th century, Cooper’s hawks declined due to the effects of DDT and other pesticides. Following a DDT ban, recovery for peregrines and some hawks has been underway.

In 2017, author Traer Scott, who defines herself as an animal person, released her eighth photography book, Raptors: Portraits of Birds of Prey —a gorgeous, fascinating collection of birds—to inform and help identify 25 different species of hawks, owls, falcons, a bald eagle, kestrels, a Mississippi kite, a turkey vulture, and more. Scott regards raptors as “uniquely graceful, intelligent, fluid and fierce.” It’s impossible to disagree.

Paging through the book is effortless and intriguing. We learn that barred owls remain within a six-mile area for their lifetime, and that their biggest predatory threat is the great horned owl, which are known to reside in my Connecticut neighborhood. At Friends of Animals, we’re litigating to protect barred owls from an experimental government shooting scheme that purports to assist spotted owls by blasting barred owls in Oregon and California. 

Scott also shares characteristics about raptors to illustrate their power, social depth or unusual characteristics, such as:

●Golden eagles have been clocked in aerial dives at 200 miles per hour.

● Groups of soaring or migrating hawks are called kettles.

●Brown and red Harris hawks form complex social groups of up to seven birds who hunt and nest cooperatively. One of their biggest threats is accidental electrocution from perching on unprotected power lines.

●In contrast, the Northern goshawk usually lives in solitude, and although widespread across the Northern Hemisphere, goshawks are not often seen.

●Black vultures mate for life.

● Rough-legged hawks, like the one featured on the book’s cover are so well adapted to hunting voles, it’s thought they may see ultra violet light, or have X-ray vision since they see a vole’s urine or scent markings.

● Short-eared owls are the only owls who build their own nests, as other owls typically recycle the nests of other birds.

Among other portraits of individual birds, Scott says the red-tailed hawk’s cry sounds like a rasping scream, and it’s the most frequently used and misused ‘raptor’ sound effect in movies and

television. These hawks are known to New York City dwellers, as they perch on tall buildings, but they’re also victim to poisoning campaigns that target rats and pigeons.

Through the author’s lens, the raptors she introduces emerge as personalities, not just types: wise, mysterious, and fiercely confident. It’s impossible not to be in awe of their intensity and challenges to thrive in our complicated environment.