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My understanding of raptors changed forever the day a hawk first landed on my fist.

Her name was Jazz. She was a 4-year-old Harris’s hawk, a species native to the desert Southwest, but she was living at the New Hampshire School of Falconry in Deering, where I was taking a lesson. At the toot of a whistle, the powerful bird of prey flew toward my outstretched arm. Her wings, spanning nearly 4 feet, blew back my hair at her approach. It made my heart sing.

Smack! Her huge yellow feet and ebony talons gripped my leather-gloved hand with shocking strength. Then she began the work for which her kind is named. Birds of Prey — raptors like Jazz — are meat-eaters, and the reason she had flown to me was to eat the piece of cut-up partridge that was waiting for her there. Her piercing, mahogany eyes focused on the job of tearing into the flesh with her sharp beak and feet with an intensity stronger than rage and brighter than joy. Inches away from my face, I beheld in this bird of prey, a pure wildness more blindingly alive than I had ever before seen.

But here’s the most amazing thing: As you read these words, not far from your house are thousands of birds of prey of 15 different species flying over your head.

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A harris’s hawk is a species native to the desert Southwest.
A harris’s hawk is a species native to the desert Southwest. Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Though the fall migration of day-flying raptors — hawks, eagles, peregrine falcons, kestrels, kites — is one of New England’s great wildlife spectacles, most people never notice them. And fewer still realize what these birds really are.

They are tigers of the air.

Though many birds hunt — robins eat worms all summer, after all — raptors are the only birds who are exclusively predatory. They are such good hunters that they may have hunted and eaten our prehistoric ancestors. Recently, reexamination of a famous fossil hominid, known as the Taung Child, discovered in South Africa in 1924, concluded that it was not killed by a leopard as previously thought, but by an ancient relative of the crowned hawk eagle. (The modern hawk eagle still hunts monkeys in the same way.)

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Wild raptors don’t hunt children today, and you’re in no danger. But to capture prey that may be large, fast, and smart, birds of prey employ powers that should leave us in awe.

They literally see the world in a different way than we do.

All birds need excellent eyesight to fly; but in birds of prey, who hunt on the wing, the sense of sight is developed to a superpower. An eagle flying at 1,000 feet can spot a rabbit across a distance of nearly 3 miles.

In birds of prey, the eyes weigh more than the brain; they have better distance perception than other birds. With forward facing eyes, they have binocular vision like ours, only better. Fields of view of the left and right eye overlap — which allows the raptor brain to calculate distance instantly by comparing the different images from each eye.

Such accurate eyesight is essential when you might be diving upon your prey, as does a peregrine falcon (the fastest bird on earth) at more than 200 miles per hour. But during the autumn, raptors are displaying not only speed but also endurance. Migrating eagles and hawks may cover more than 200 miles a day on their autumn journey to central and South America.

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It’s a feat that demands some of them store as much as 10 to 20 percent of their body weight in fat before they undertake the migration. They conserve their fuel wisely. Migrating raptors soar on winds deflected up and over hills and mountains. They ride high on rising currents of warm air called thermals. Dozens to hundreds of raptors of different species may gather to take advantage of a good thermal in large, swirling aggregations called kettles. These kettles of hawks are amazing to see — but it’s easy, if you’re patient and know where to go.

The American kestrel is the smallest falcon in the US.
The American kestrel is the smallest falcon in the US.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

There is probably a hawk-watching site near you: for a list, visit www.battaly.com/nehw/sites.htm. Daily counts at each site are posted www.hawkcount.org, the database managed by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.

Each September, my husband and I visit New Hampshire Audubon’s raptor observatory atop Pack Monadnock in Peterborough’s Miller State Park and join the crew of hawk watchers there. On a recent Saturday, an hour went by and we saw only one kestrel. But last Monday, hawk watchers counted more than 3,000 broadwing hawks alone, and another 1,858 broadwings were counted on Thursday. Without a spotting scope, most of them looked like mere specks. But we knew what those specks really meant: thousands of tigers flying over our heads.


Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and the author of several books. Send your questions about animals to syandlizletters@gmail.com.

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