Raptors: maintaining nature's balance
by Carolyn Chase
The word "raptor" historically signifies plunderer, robber
of thief. Pretty accurate still, if you're a field mouse. These birds of
prey play a critical role.
e revere them in our symbols and our songs. They are
on our money and on our uniforms. But what about
the genuine article? Have you ever marveled at the beauty of a soaring hawk
or eagle? These majestic birds, called raptors, are among the most beautiful
creatures on Earth. These birds are also very easy to see and enjoy in nature
- you can find them in many types of habitats including some urban environments.
There are ten different families of raptors. They are:
buteos, accipiters, eagles, falcons, vultures, osprey, harriers, kites and
two families of owl. The bald eagle is the most well-known of raptors, while
kites and harriers are probably the least known. Different types of hawks
are members of the buteo or accipiter families. Raptors have large, powerful
feet with sharp curved talons, hooked upper beaks and sharp eyesight.
Why study raptors?
Raptors are important because they help control animal
populations and are an integral part of keeping natural systems in balance.
If raptor prey such as mice, rabbits, rats and prairie dogs become too abundant,
they can damage crops and lands and transmit diseases to humans, domestic
livestock and pets. Raptors help to prevent prey population explosions that
can lead to habitat problems.
Raptors are also important environmental barometers.
Since raptors feed at the top of nature's food pyramid, their population
provides a good indicator of the underlying health of natural ecosystems.
Like the canaries kept in coal mines to indicate poisonous
air-quality for miners, eagles and other raptor populations provided the
first indication that pesticides were entering food and reproductive cycles
in damaging ways. Raptor populations have increased when the use of particular
toxins is curtailed.
Threats to raptors
As with all wildlife, loss of habitat is the most significant
problem facing raptors. While raptors are able to migrate and some can adapt
in certain urban environments, the continued loss of areas to human use
is putting pressure on many species.
Thousands of raptors die each year because of illegal
shooting, trapping and poisoning. Raptors are protected by federal and state
government and the penalty for shooting a raptor can be as high as a $10,000
fine plus a year in jail.
A third threat comes indirectly, from man's attempts
at "pest" control by use of poison. Poisoning of mice, prairie
dogs, feral (wild) dogs and coyotes can be eaten has been proven to kill
raptors. Many pesticides can cause ongoing problems.
Because raptors play a role in maintaining healthy ecosystems,
everyone benefits by helping these majestic birds. There are many things
that can be done that will help raptors in your area. Take the time to learn
about raptors and what is threatening them and their habitat. Teach your
children to have respect for raptors, wildlife, and the natural world.
To have a sustainable future for generations to come
there must be a balance between short-term needs and the long term health
of our environment. Here are some groups that can use your support:
Phone (800) 726-HAWK
HawkWatch International (HWI) is a non-profit, member-based
organization which conducts migratory raptor monitoring and education programs
in the Western United States. HWI's mission is to protect birds of prey
and the ecosystems that support them for the benefit of all: raptors, humanity
and the earth. The two important facets of their work are the scientific
research and environmental education.
HWI field studies are currently maintained at six sites
in five western states. Each year an average of 30,000 raptors of 18 species
are observed, with roughly 3,000 captured, banded and released. When banded
birds or their bands are encountered again, clues are provided that enable
scientists to determine raptor movements, habitat use and factors that threaten
or contribute to their survival. Like most serious environmental problems,
the effects may not be noticeable over a year or two, but can be discovered
and dealt with if studied over time. HWI has monitored and counted raptor
populations for more than twelve years, maintaining the type of data that
is necessary to discover long-term trends in raptor populations and health.
Education starts with awareness. HWI has developed Raptor
Ecology: a Teacher's Guide to Classroom Activities (Grade 4 - 8). The focus
of the booklet is to provide a thematic unit with cross-curricula activities
for students and teachers. Topics covered include: What is a Raptor?, Types
of Raptors, Special Raptor Adaptations, Habitat and Feeding, Migration,
Raptor Ecology, Birds of Prey and Humans, and Student Activities. Although
the main target for this booklet is teachers, it can also be used by other
organizations such as Scouts, 4H and ecology clubs. The booklet is only
$5 plus postage and was created with the generous support of the Crystal
Memberships, "Adopt-a-Hawks," The Raptor Ecology Booklet and other
raptor related books and materials are available from HWI.
Phone: (619) 225-WILD
Raptors are often victims in encounters with people
and their machines. Project Wildlife has been caring for injured, orphaned
or sick wildlife for 20 years. In 1993, Project Wildlife took in 9,000 animals
and 650 raptors. Each animal has a separate recovery team composed of volunteers.
Their release rate is 70 percent and their motto is "A second chance."
If you find an injured, orphaned and sick wild animal
be sure to call a specialist at Project Wildlife! Keep the animal warm,
dark and quiet. A cardboard box is the best thing for any injured animal
and please don't feed or give them anything to drink.
Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
Phone: (619) 789-2324.
The Center occupies a 5 acre facility in Ramona. They
work with all species of native California wildlife, from hummingbirds to
mountain lions and all species of birds, particularly raptors. Each year
they handle more than 1,000 indigenous raptors, including numerous golden
eagles. Each year, the numbers of raptors that they have to take care of
increases. They believe the main reason for the increase is a steady loss
of habitat. They maintain indoor and outdoor mews (raptor enclosures) for
birds of prey and a gigantic free-flight enclosure - one of the largest
in the country.
They are a State licensed, wildlife medical and rehabilitation
center and they network with similar organizations in California and Arizona.
The public is invited to visit on Saturdays and Sundays from 10a-4pm. The
facility is located at 18740 Highland Valley Road, Ramona (one mile west
of Highway 67). Call 24 hours in case of emergency.
Iron Mountain Conservancy
Phone: (619) 789-8136
During December and January, interested folks meet every
Sunday and watch the annual raptor migration in and around Ramona. Several
projects threaten to develop grassland habitats that are used by raptors
for foraging. This is a very much unrecognized resource in San Diego County.
We have fantastic displays of birds of prey as part of their winter migratory
habitat. But as the habitat is developed, the birds have no places left
to hunt and nest. People interested in helping save local raptor habitats
please call Fred Sproul at the above number. Since this is an all-volunteer
effort, be patient; Fred will return your call.
Carolyn Chase is a director of HawkWatch International, Executive
Director of San Diego Earth Day, and recipient of the mayor's 1994 Spirit
of San Diego award.