Baby raptors also take longer to develop than smaller birds, and require an additional effort on behalf of their parents to successfully catch enough game to feed the whole family. Even if a young raptor successfully makes it to the point where it’s ready to fly and to hunt on its own, its problems are far from over. If anything, it’s far more likely to die as a juvenile than it was as a nestling, because at least at home it had the benefit of its parents to provide for it. On their own in the wild, juvenile raptors face two alternatives: either learn to hunt with regular success, or fail and die. And that assumes that the bird doesn’t fall victim to man-made dangers like pesticides, speeding cars, power lines, or bullets in the meantime.
Even if mankind was removed from the equation, the life of a juvenile raptor would still be taxing in the extreme. Young birds of prey face especially high mortality rates. A hawk that survives its first year finds its chances of living a long life dramatically increased, because that initial period of survival honed its ability to consistently score game to feed itself. A hawk that can’t consistently catch prey, or one that is unable to locate a food supply that is sufficient to sustain it, is as good as dead. Even if food is present, it’s hard to keep a full belly when even the tiniest snack is giving everything it’s got to avoid being devoured.
While that all sounds dire, young raptors that do develop successful hunting techniques demonstrate just how intelligent birds of prey are. They learn different tactics to deal with different kinds of prey, in different kinds of terrain. The question whether these are learned behaviors or instinctual tactics is resolved simply by watching a year-old hawk tackle certain game, and then seeing how a seasoned adult does it. Young raptors demonstrate clumsiness and uncertainty in new situations, just like the young of our species. Whereas a first-year bird might throw itself at a mouse with all it has, only to watch its would-be prey scurry underground, an experienced bird would fly low and carefully, using ground cover to mask its approach until the very last second. As raptors gain experience, their hunting habits change to reflect what techniques have succeeded in the past, while avoiding those that have failed.
Juvenile birds of prey may face a gauntlet of challenges from the moment they take flight for the first time, but those challenges serve as nature’s way of ensuring that only the fittest survive. Those that do are among the most graceful, beautiful, and efficient examples of our wild world at its very finest.