How Can Birds Of Prey Actually Lift and Carry Small Dogs?

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It’s a news headline that can send a chill up the backs of pet owners. A small family pet is outside when a bird of prey swoops down and attacks.

In Colorado, an eagle preyed on a Pomeranian while it was in the family’s fenced-in yard. In Canada, home security cameras captured a Yorkie puppy escaping an eagle’s grip. And in a Philadelphia public park, a hawk came up behind a small dog with its talons extended.

These stories can prompt a pet owner to fear for their animal’s safety. Ornithologists say the threat is real but highly unlikely, and there are precautions pet parents can take to limit the risk.

What Do Birds of Prey Eat?

All birds of prey are raptors and are organized into distinct groups — hawks, eagles, falcons, kites, owls and vultures. Raptors range in size and have distinct features, but they do share some characteristics. As birds of prey, they have forward-facing eyes. They also have blade-like talons they use to grab hold of prey, as well as curved beaks that enable them to rip into meat.

Raptors differ in the type of prey they prefer. Some, like the peregrine falcon, are avivore raptors and typically prey on other birds. Most vultures, in contrast, do not hunt for their food and are exclusively attracted to carrion.

Depending on the raptor’s habitat, they might hunt small mammals such as ground squirrels or mice. Or they may be on the lookout for reptiles like lizards and snakes. Some small raptors snack only on insects.

Other raptors, like the bald eagle, have a preferred diet of fresh fish snatched directly from a body of water. But they are considered opportunistic feeders, and if their preferred menu item isn’t available, they will look for other options.

(Credit:Georgi Baird/Shutterstock)

Read More: In the Bird World, It Takes Big Brains or Big Guts to Survive in Extremes

Can a Bird of Prey Lift a Pet?

Most raptors in the U.S. are not large enough to pick up a small dog or cat. Many owl species, like the barn owl, weigh less than two pounds. The Northern saw-whet owl doesn’t even weigh half a pound and preys on mice.

Similarly, many hawks and falcons aren’t large enough to lift a pet. Red-shouldered hawks have an impressive three-foot wingspan, but they weigh less than two pounds. White-tailed hawks can have more than four-foot wingspans but weigh less than three pounds.

However, there are several raptors in the U.S. that can pick up prey weighing several pounds.

How Much Weight Can an Eagle Carry?

Bald eagles and golden eagles can carry several pounds, depending on wind resistance. In a 1940 study in Nature, scientists wondered how much weight an eagle could carry. Given the birds’ relatively large size, they were curious if they could carry their own weight or more. They found eagles can only lift a fraction of their own weight.

Working with a trained golden eagle, the researchers strapped various weights to its legs and measured how far it could fly. The bird flew easily with two-pound weights but strained with four-pound weights. It couldn’t fly past 14 yards when carrying an eight-pound weight.

Depending on a pet’s size, a raptor could pick up a small cat, puppy or small dog. But they may not be able to carry it as intended, and the animal could be dropped from a deadly height.  

In Austin, construction workers said they heard a dog crying and saw a hawk-like raptor drop a one-pound chihuahua puppy. The workers rushed the puppy to the emergency vet, where it received treatment for its puncture wounds. The puppy survived and was placed with a foster family while it healed.

Read More: Why Do Small Dogs Live Longer Than Large Dogs?

What Can I Do to Protect My Pet?

(Credit:Rianna M. Hill/Shutterstock)

Raptors typically seek food they recognize like fish, mice and rabbits, and it’s highly unlikely they will take the risk on a cat or dog, says Katie Warner, the director of the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey.

“Nevertheless, for pet owners who remain concerned, your presence should be more than enough to discourage any raptor, so simply accompany your pet outdoors when you might be concerned,” Warner says.

Keeping animals inside at night is also key. Owls are nocturnal hunters, and not letting an animal out at night eliminates the threat of a great horned owl or snowy owl mistaking a pet for prey. 

Should I Worry a Bird of Prey Could Steal My Pet?

(Credit:Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock)

Pet owners should probably focus on other risks such as infectious diseases or injury from getting loose in traffic, Warner says. 

Although it’s not impossible that a bird of prey could target a pet, Harris says it’s unlikely.

Bird attacks on pets are rarely documented, but Harris says pet attacks on birds are a noted problem. Outdoor cats kill as many as four billion birds per year, and bird enthusiasts ask that people keep their pet predators indoors to help protect the avian population.

Read More: Dogs Have Co-Evolved With Humans Like No Other Species

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