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The People’s Raptors

Passion for birds of prey drives nationwide conservation efforts.

Peter Stangel, Ph.D
Posted: June 7, 2013, 1:45 p.m. PDT

WildBird Magazine LogoPerched along the northern border of Grand Canyon National Park at 6,000 feet, the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona typifies the rugged beauty of the Southwest. Sunsets scour deep reds from the rocks of Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, offset by lush, green forests along rivers below. The Kaibab contains the largest remaining tract of old-growth ponderosa pine — and the densest population of Northern Goshawks — in the Southwest.

Lucky visitors might catch a glimpse of recently re-established California Condors, which join Northern Goshawks as one of 20 species of raptors and vultures in the area. Until recently, this haven seemed destined to fall victim to livestock overgrazing, water development, old-growth logging, fire suppression and other activities that degraded nearby areas.

Fortunately, this will not happen. In 2005, The Conservation Fund as well as Grand Canyon Trust purchased ranchland including 850,000 rented acres that encompass large chunks of the Kaibab Plateau. This acquisition, made possible in part by a grant through Wal-Mart’s Acres for America program, permanently protects the pines and other habitats on which the Northern Goshawks depend.

Northern Goshawk
The Kaibab Plateau in Arizona contains the densest population of Northern Goshawks in the Southwest.

Through science-based management programs implemented by Grand Canyon Trust, the habitat on this ranch will improve — as will the goshawks’ fortunes. Wal-Mart customers can appreciate that a small portion of the company’s profits helped to protect this area and its Northern Goshawks and California Condors.

"People power” now spurs conservation efforts for birds of prey across the continent. Once maligned and persecuted, birds of prey now drive a passion for protection.

It’s difficult to believe, but in the concrete canyons of many large cities, Peregrine Falcons nest and raise young, reminding us just how resilient nature can be given half a chance.

Research Rescues Raptors
Peering down into Idaho’s Snake River Canyon, it was like seeing a completely new bird species. We trained our binoculars on a Prairie Falcon coursing along cliffs a couple hundred feet below us.
 
Against the dark hues of the river and its vegetation, the falcon’s plumage came to life with colors and patterns that I’d never experienced. As an Easterner, I previously spotted only a couple Prairie Falcons, and those had been departing our area like jets from an airport – usually backlit, offering little more than a racy silhouette.

On this day, we were touring the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, established in 1993 to protect one of the densest nesting concentrations of raptors in North America. Throughout the vast NCA — some 600,000 acres — birds of prey appear everywhere. Sixteen species nest here, and eight more migrate through or winter on the mix of federal, state and private lands that comprise this refuge, managed as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System.

Like the Kane and Two Mile ranches farther south in Arizona, the fragile NCA habitats were vulnerable to mismanagement and development. Falconers and scientists used research and surveys to convince BLM of the area’s importance to birds of prey. An estimated 1,000 pairs nest in the area.

In 1971, nearly 27,000 acres were set aside to protect the birds. Continued studies revealed that this area protected only a portion of the major nesting habitats and hardly any of the raptors’ foraging territory. Federal programs encouraging conversion of the surrounding lands to agriculture threatened the raptors.

Over the years, 482,000 acres of federal land were protected — a landscape large enough to protect birds’ nesting and feeding sites.

What would this area look like now if not for those first University of Idaho research projects and the lobbing by falconers to protect the raptors? It’s difficult to say, but it’s a good bet that crops and development — not eagles and falcons — would dominate the area.

My Hero, Richard Pough
Never heard of Richard Pough? He’s the birder I want to be.

Pough, an amateur ornithologist living in Philadelphia, heard about a place called Hawk Mountain and decided to visit one fall. The stories he’d heard were no exaggeration. Birds of prey were streaming by — right into the sights of gunners stationed along the ridge, shooting eagles, hawks and falcons for sport.

Pough publicized the slaughter but was unable to stop it. Fortunately, a national conservation activist named Rosalie Edge heard his story, leased about 1,400 acres of land on the mountain and installed a warden. The shooting stopped, and the land was opened to the public to watch the passing birds of prey.

Today, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary employs a full-time staff of 16 and involves close to 200 volunteers annually. Since 1976, 309 young conservationists from 58 countries have worked as interns at Hawk Mountain. Each year, thousands of visitors from around the world visit the sanctuary, contributing money to the local economy and pointing out the value in this national treasure.

When Pough first visited the mountain in 1929, the Pennsylvania Game Commission paid a $5 bounty for a Northern Goshawk head. We’ve come a long way.

Raptors represent some of our most impressive bird conservation success stories, but they continue to need support. You can help.

Downtown Peregrines
Just a couple blocks from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s offices in Washington, D.C., sits a tiny park called McPherson Square. It couldn't contain a Tiger Woods chip shot, but it’s a pleasant place to eat lunch amongst lush grass and shade trees.

If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a Peregrine Falcon perched on the ledge of one of the nearby office buildings. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to see one violating all traffic laws in hot pursuit of a pigeon.

It’s difficult to believe, but in the concrete canyons of many large cities, Peregrine Falcons nest and raise young, reminding us just how resilient nature can be given half a chance. Once teetering on the edge of extinction, Peregrine Falcons flew off the list of federally endangered species in 1999.

Thanks to leadership from groups such as Cornell University and The Peregrine Fund, these raptors continue to increase their numbers. Along the way, thousands of amateurs volunteered time to monitor and safeguard the birds as they returned to their former haunts.

Don’t Stop Now
Raptors represent some of our most impressive bird conservation success stories, but they continue to need support. You can help. Options include membership in bird conservation organizations and the purchase of a duck stamp — officially known as a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp — online or during your next trip to the post office.
 
Educate your friends, too. I’m still astounded to hear birders talk about shooting hawks to keep them away from backyard feeders.

Every little action counts. Just witness what Richard Pough did.

For More Information ...
Acres for America
Federal Duck Stamp
Kane and Two Mile ranches, Arizona
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area
The Peregrine Fund
The Conservation Fund

How fast are Peregrine Falcons? Experts weigh in.

Excerpt from WildBird May/June 2009 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird, click here.

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