In the film directed by Steven Spielberg, we saw monstrous raptors that were portrayed as fearsome reptiles with heads similar to that of a lizard or crocodile, curved claws, and pebbled, leathery skin.

Pure fiction one would say, but in the Jurassic timeline, they probably were indeed fierce, bigger than man meat-eaters, which has been verified by fossils since unearthed by palaeontologists. Today’s raptors are feathered predatory birds, and there are many species, from the smallest in the world weighing in at 35g, to the heaviest, a whopping 15kg.

Treacherous Beaks and Claws

Predatory birds are primarily carnivorous, who share similar characteristics - curved and pointed beaks, strong claws and long-range vision. The word raptor in Latin means ‘to grasp or seize’, and this is exactly what they do - with their hooked upper beak, they tear off small, bite-sized pieces from their prey. Their large eyes and well-developed sight give them the ability to see great distances, eight to ten times better than us humans.

All birds of prey mostly eat some type of animal flesh, such as reptiles or small mice, with some groups favouring certain foods. Nocturnal birds of prey will feast on anything from rodents and small birds down to moths and insects.

Birds of Prey in Portugal

Throughout the year, it is possible to spot a wide variety of birds of prey in Portugal such as the Common Kestrel, the Iberian Imperial Eagle, the Bonelli's Eagle and if you are lucky, the majestic Golden Eagle, a bird with an enormous wingspan of up to 230cm.

Falcons are a resident species throughout the majority of Portugal and are a universal symbol of strength, speed and audacity. You can watch flight exhibitions, participate in medieval parades, visit the birds’ installations and get to know more about them in thematic exhibitions, or even become a falconer yourself for a few hours. One of the best places to see falconry displays in Portugal is at the Royal Falconry (Falcoaria Real) in Salvaterra de Magos, a town located around 60km northeast of Lisbon.

Of the 250 nocturnal birds of prey known throughout the world, apparently, only seven can be found in Portugal, and include two that are only here part of the year: the Short-eared owl, which winters in Portugal, and the Eurasian scops owl, which arrives in spring to breed.

What good are raptors?

Raptors play a unique role in the ecosystem because they are predators. Being at the top of the food pyramid in most areas, they help keep the biological community in which they live in balance, by keeping their prey species’ populations within the limits their habitats can sustain. For example, plants provide food for, say, mice. The mice consume the food and produce more mice until all the food is gone. This would result in the devastation of the biological community unless the mouse population was kept stable, which is where the predators step in. Raptors also help us track the health of the ecosystem, as they sometimes unwittingly collect pesticides, passed on to them from what they eat, and by observing raptors we can see how much pollution is in the environment and how it affects other wildlife and humans.

Credits: envato elements;

One you won’t see here is the Vulture

Vultures eat carrion - dead and rotting meat - and lack feathers on their heads so that they can more easily keep themselves clean when eating, as they often insert their entire head inside the carcass they are eating. They are nature’s clean-up crew, the sanitation workers of the wild, and are the only species of raptor that has a sense of smell. Turkey Vultures in particular track the stench of decaying flesh, and this keen sense of smell has even been exploited to pinpoint leaks in oil pipelines. But in Portugal, there aren’t a lot of big carcasses lying around, although you will see them in Spain - and despite being on the same landmass, Portugal regulations demand that farmers remove and incinerate animal carcasses in part of an effort to prevent the spread of infections that might be transmissible to humans.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan