Raptors: maintaining nature's balance

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.

by Carolyn Chase
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.

Getting involved

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:

HawkWatch International

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 Channel Foundation.
Memberships, "Adopt-a-Hawks," The Raptor Ecology Booklet and other raptor related books and materials are available from HWI.

Project Wildlife

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.