Hawks and other raptors are impressive predators. Their eyesight can be four to eight times better than ours, for example, and many species are adapted for fast, quiet flight to help them ambush their prey. And then there are those talons.
Birds of prey are wonders of nature, both for their awe-inspiring abilities and for the ecological roles they play in many different ecosystems. Yet when marveling at the hunting prowess of these aerial carnivores, a natural question may occur to some nervous parents and pet owners: Just how much weight could that bird carry?
After all, raptors make their living by swooping down to grab small animals off the ground. And while a hawk clearly couldn't kidnap a full-grown Great Dane, it might seem plausible that some birds of prey could lift a small dog, cat or possibly even a human child. Is that a legitimate concern, or just a flight of fancy?
Red-tailed hawks tend to hunt small prey that weighs less than they do. (Photo: Shanthanu Bhardwaj [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
It depends on the bird and the potential prey, of course, but while the risk can't be ruled out for some smaller pets, in general it's safe to say this is an unlikely scenario.
There are myths and urban legends about hawks stealing 12-pound (5-kilogram) pets, and some prominent hoaxes about eagles absconding with kids, but these are based on mischaracterizations of how much weight these raptors can lift.
Hawks and owls, for instance, can't fly away with prey that outweighs them. And given the light weight of even big raptors like red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls — which average about 2 pounds (1 kg) and 3 pounds (1.3 kg), respectively — they're unable to kidnap most adult dogs and cats, not to mention human children.
Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls are two of North America's most common and widespread raptors. Red-tailed hawks mainly eat small mammals like rodents and rabbits, plus birds and snakes, and aren't considered a threat to most pets. That said, some larger red-tailed hawks may be able to carry prey weighing 5 pounds (2 kg), according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which could include not just puppies and kittens, but also some adult cats and dogs from small breeds.
Great horned owls also focus on small mammals and birds, but they have the most diverse diet of any North American raptor, including larger animals like skunks, ducks and even other raptors. They don't pose a serious threat to pets overall, although they have been known to attack house cats and chickens left outside overnight. Even then, however, they rarely just whisk away such large prey, as wildlife rehabilitator Steve Hall writes in the Adirondack Almanac, instead killing it on the ground and tearing it into smaller pieces first. Fortunately, this risk can be reduced by keeping cats inside at night and letting chickens sleep in a predator-proof coop.
A few hawks in the U.S. are colloquially known as "chickenhawks," a reference to their supposed habit of killing poultry on the ground à la great horned owls. This includes Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks, which may occasionally attack poultry, as well as red-tailed hawks, which are less likely to earn the nickname. In any case, "chickenhawk" is a misleading term for all of these species, according to Avian Web, since chickens do not make a up a significant part of their diet.
Many other birds of prey are even less likely to threaten pets. That could be due to their small size — like falcons and kestrels, plus many common hawks and owls — or their specialized diets. An osprey is a big raptor that probably could steal a small dog, for example, but it would rather catch fish, which make up 99% of its diet.
There are also fish eagles and snake eagles, whose formidable physiques are thankfully focused mainly on their namesake prey, and thus not on pets and kids. That isn't the case for all eagles, though, some of which do hunt surprisingly large mammals. Golden eagles have been known to attack full-grown deer, according to National Geographic, but research suggests their impact on livestock is minimal. Several other eagles also hunt hefty prey like antelopes and monkeys, as well as domesticated animals like dogs and goats, but this isn't typical.
It may be possible for some eagles to lift small children, but despite a hoax video that went viral in 2012, there is scant evidence of this actually happening. Eagles and other raptors do sometimes injure people, although these rare encounters are likely driven by fear more than hunger. Some wild birds may swoop or even attack people if they feel threatened, perhaps because we invaded their territory or put them in a car.
Other cases tend to involve captive birds in unnatural settings, like a wedge-tailed eagle that briefly attacked a boy at an Australian wildlife park in 2016. The boy, who sustained minor injuries, was reportedly playing with his jacket's zipper, making a noise that may have irritated the eagle. As one wildlife guide told Australia's ABC News, it would be "totally impossible" for the eagle to fly off with the boy.
While most pets and kids are probably safe from birds of prey, it still might be wise to take a few precautions, depending on the context. The risk to children is already extremely low, since few bird species could lift more than a newborn and parents don't typically leave unattended infants outside. Still, it couldn't hurt to learn which raptors are native to your area, and to keep an eye out for signs of them.
Again, this is mainly an issue for pet owners, specifically those with smaller dogs or cats, or other outdoor animals like chickens. One of the most effective precautions is to supervise your pets when they're outdoors, which is generally wise anyway, for their safety as well as that of your neighbors and local wildlife. The best practices vary by the pet and the context, though, since an adult retriever likely needs less protection in a fenced-in yard than a chihuahua or a puppy would.
Your pet may be too big for raptors to carry away, but many experts still suggest erring on the side of caution. Hawks Aloft, a New Mexico-based nonprofit focused on raptor conservation, recommends supervising the outdoor activities of any animal weighing less than 15 pounds (7 kg). Even if a small dog is accompanied by a larger dog, or wearing a kevlar or reflective vest, "your pet is still fair game for predators like hawks, owls and coyotes," the group warns. Cats should stay indoors at all times, it adds, citing raptors as well as deadlier risks like disease, vehicles and coyotes, plus the danger outdoor cats pose by hunting native wildlife and spreading parasites.
Some pet owners try to proactively thwart raptors, according to PetMD, using tactics like reflective tape, owl decoys or pie pans hung from trees. Some of these might work, at least for a while, but they're no substitute for human supervision. If raptors swoop at your pet, an umbrella could help fend off some species, while a flashlight can reportedly discourage owls after dark. Don't get too zealous, though — as Dogster points out, it can violate state and federal laws to harm a bird of prey or interfere with a nest containing eggs or chicks.
The best way to keep pets and children safe is generally to stay nearby when they're outside, and to be mindful about your surroundings. Pay attention to local hawks, owls and other raptors, and don't just lazily caricature them as villains. The presence of wild raptors suggests you live in a healthy ecosystem, and if you can bear to share space with them, there's a good chance they'll repay you for your tolerance.
Instead of hunting pets, for example, many birds of prey are far more likely to hunt pests like rats — maybe even more effectively than a pet cat.