We’re also saluting five kings of the sky today with the release of the Birds of Prey stamps. Aren’t they simply spectacular?! Which one is your favorite?
Birds of prey, also known as raptors, thrive in diverse habitats and live on every continent except Antarctica. The roughly 500 species of raptors include birds that hunt by day, such as falcons, eagles, and harriers, and birds that hunt by night–the owls. They share several common characteristics. Birds of prey are carnivorous and use their powerful talons to capture prey. Their exceptionally keen eyesight allows them to see small objects in detail, even from a great distance. As predators high on the food chain, raptors play an important role in maintaining the balance of nature.
The northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) is adapted for hunting in forests. The bird’s short, rounded wings allow it to accelerate rapidly, and its long, narrow tail helps it maneuver among trees when pursuing such prey as grouse and smaller birds, squirrels, and hares. Throughout history, people have used the northern goshawk for falconry because of its exceptional agility. Today, this raptor is sparsely distributed from Alaska to Newfoundland and New England, and also occurs in the western states. Most northern goshawks remain in their breeding range throughout the year, but some migrate farther south in the winter, especially when their favorite prey becomes scarce.
When a northern goshawk reaches maturity, its eyes change color from yellow to a distinctive orange-red. Its feathers also change from brown to a silvery blue, the color depicted on the stamp. The adult northern goshawk bears white eyebrow markings complemented by a black crown.
The word “peregrine” means “wanderer.” In keeping with its name, the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) makes itself at home in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from tropical forests to ocean cliffs, tundra, deserts, and even cities. In North America, it breeds from Alaska and the Canadian Arctic southward, and many migrate along the coasts as far as southern South America. The peregrine falcon population declined steeply after World War II due to the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides, which caused the eggshells of many birds of prey to become too thin to support the weight of a mother bird. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. The peregrine population eventually rebounded, and the American peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list in 1999.
When the peregrine falcon accelerates into its aerial hunting dive, its speed can reach 200 miles per hour. These high-speed stoops allow peregrines to catch a variety of birds on the wing, from city-dwelling pigeons to ducks. Immature peregrines are brown with buff-colored, heavily streaked underparts. Adults are slate-gray in color, with black, helmet-like markings on their heads, and buff-colored, lightly barred bellies. Peregrine coloring can vary by region. Peregrines in northwestern North America often have the darkest feathers, whereas those in the Arctic are notably pale.
The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is one of the largest raptors in North America. Its impressive wingspan, often exceeding six-and-a-half feet, makes it one of the most powerful and graceful birds in the sky. Aside from the golden feathers on its nape, the adult bird’s plumage is dark brown. Its legs are feathered all the way down to its toes.
The golden eagle is common in western North America but rare in the east. It ranges from Alaska to northern Canada and south through the western United States to Mexico. Alaskan and Canadian eagles typically migrate south for the winter when their food supply declines, but more southerly breeding eagles remain in their nesting territories all year round. The golden eagle generally prefers to live in open country, particularly in hilly or mountainous areas. It uses a variety of hunting techniques, usually spotting prey from the air or an elevated perch. Often, it will fly close to the ground to surprise the small mammals, such as rabbits and squirrels, which constitute its favorite prey. Large golden eagles are powerful enough to overcome small deer and antelope.
Sometimes called the “fish hawk” or “sea hawk,” the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) lives almost exclusively on fish. When an osprey spots a meal, it dives feet-first into the water and snatches the prey in its talons. Several adaptations help the osprey catch its specialized diet. A reversible talon and sharp spikes on its feet called spicules help the bird keep a firm grip on slippery fish. Oily feathers help waterproof the osprey when it dives underwater. Ospreys are the only raptors that will completely submerge themselves to capture prey.
A large raptor with long, narrow wings, the osprey is blackish-brown above and white below; it has a white head with a dark eye stripe and eyes colored a bright, golden yellow. The osprey lives near lakes, rivers, marshes, mangroves, and seashores throughout the world. In the United States, it is found mostly along the coasts. The North American osprey population declined in the 1950s and 1960s due to the use of DDT and similar pesticides, but has rebounded since the chemicals were banned.
Unlike most hawks, the northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) can use its sense of hearing to locate prey. A ring of stiff feathers around its face, called a facial disk, serves to amplify sounds. Northern harriers hunt by cruising low over marshes and grasslands, searching for mice, snakes, frogs, and small birds. In North America, it breeds from Alaska to eastern Canada and in parts of the West and Midwest. It winters from Central America north to British Columbia.
Male and female northern harriers look quite different, an unusual trait in raptors. The male has a pale gray back and hood with lighter underparts; the female, shown on the stamp, is larger than the male. Her breast is tawny colored with dark streaking and her back is brown. The female’s coloring helps camouflage her while she sits on the nest, typically a mound of dead reeds and grass on the ground. Northern harriers tend to nest in groups and are sometimes polygynous, with a single male mating with two or more females. Although males hunt to feed their chicks, they don’t deliver to the nest. Instead, they drop food to the females, who fly up to catch it in mid-air.
Illustrator Robert Giusti worked with art director Howard E. Paine on this issuance. Giusti painted the original designs in acrylic on canvas board.
The 85-cent Birds of Prey stamps are being issued in self-adhesive sheets of 20 at a price of $17.00 per sheet. They are also available in blocks of 4 ($3.40) or 10 ($8.50) stamps. Sets of five First Day Covers are available for collectors.
These stamps are designed for heavier single-piece First-Class Mail weighing more than two ounces and up to and including three ounces.