In some ways, hawks hunt like humans

Shinta the northern goshawk

To study the head movements of a hunting hawk, scientists strapped a camera atop Shinta, a northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis).

R. Musters

A hunter’s gaze betrays its strategy. And looking at what an animal looks at when it’s hunting for prey has revealed foraging patterns in humans, other primates — and now, birds. 

Suzanne Amador Kane of Haverford College in Pennsylvania and her colleagues watched archival footage of three raptor species hunting: northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis), Cooper’s hawks (A. cooperii) and red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis).  They also mounted a video camera to the head of a goshawk to record the bird’s perspective (a technique that’s proved useful in previous studies of attack behavior). The team noted how long birds spent fixating on specific points before giving up, moving their head and, thus, shifting their gaze. 

When searching for prey, raptors don’t turn their heads in a predictable pattern. Instead, they appear to scan and fixate randomly based on what they see in their environment, Kane and her colleagues report November 16 in The Auk. In primates, a buildup of sensory information drives foraging animals to move their eyes in similar patterns.

Though the new study only examines three species and focuses on head tracking rather than eye tracking, Kane and her colleagues suggest that the same basic neural processes may drive search decisions of human and hawk hunters.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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