A Case for Birds of Prey and the Importance of Raptor Conservation

Have you thanked a raptor today? If not, read on to see why you should.

Barred Owl
Pearl, a female Barred Owl rehabbed and released in Normandy, Tennessee after being hit by a pickup truck. (photo: Alan MacFarland)

A farmer who sells their bushels of grain to market should thank raptors for their pest control services. Just as dogs are considered man’s best friend, hawks and owls could be considered a farmer’s best friend. One mouse in a grain storage bin can ruin up to 3,000 pounds of grain in a few days. On average, rodents destroy 1% of the world’s cereal grain supply, with 3-5% loss reported in developing countries (“Rodents”). A single Barn Owl can eat one rat or up to one dozen mice per night. Imagine that statistic with a breeding pair of Barn Owls along with two owlets in the nest for approximately five months. They can consume 1,030 rats and/or 9,780 mice in a year (“Barn Owl”). Hawks are just as voracious, preying on a high number of rodents and rabbits during daylight hours. While open acreage makes for prime hawk hunting habitat, many acres of old family farms are being converted into subdivisions. Raptors are being pushed out by development that is bringing the built world into conflict with the natural environment and shrinking those ever-important hunting grounds. This loss of habitat and increased negative human interaction creates unsustainable competition for dwindling food sources, and for unrecoverable injuries in vulnerable bird of prey populations. Farther reaching protections should be enacted in areas where wild raptors are in decline due to negative human interaction that impacts habitat loss and environmental quality, natural prey availability, and preventable human-caused injuries.

Barn Owl
Remington is an education ambassador for the Barn Owl ‘Tyto alba’ species that visits over 1,000 schoolchildren per year in education outreach programs.

Raptor populations are in decline around the world, and that is cause for great alarm (McClure et al). A new analysis of data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and BirdLife International found that 30% of 557 raptor species worldwide are considered near threatened, vulnerable or endangered, or critically endangered (Larson). A primary driver of this decline is the poorly planned spread of human developments and invasive built environments. In the last several hundred years, the North American landscape has changed greatly because of human development, and suitable raptor (and wildlife in general) habitat has decreased in turn (“Hawkwatch International”). A secondary driver of the decline in raptor populations is a sharp downturn in environmental quality. Prairie landscapes that intersperse the continent are the least protected biome worldwide, which has resulted in the large-scale loss and desertification of habitats and the species that rely on them (Wallen and Bickford). Without these critical prey species being able to flourish, declines in prey population will certainly result in a sharp decline of their predators.

American Kestrels
These orphaned American Kestrel fledglings were raised by a surrogate Kestrel mother and successfully released back into the wild. Kestrel populations are in decline worldwide, especially in North America. (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

The western plains states in the U.S. have experienced extensive grassland conversion to agriculture, and temperate grasslands have suffered greater species loss than any other North American biome (Wallen and Bickford). Non-native invasive plants, such as aggressive-growing Cheatgrass, have caused a decline in the native grasses which rodent and rabbit populations feed on. Those losses have depleted natural prey for raptors, like Prairie Falcons and Harris’ Hawks, to feed on (“Hawkwatch International”). In addition, humanity’s insatiable appetite for expansion has resulted in those prey species populations finding fewer places to succeed. Where prey populations do thrive, humans then deploy pesticides and rodenticides to eradicate them. Irresponsible use of these poisons then kills off the natural predators and destroys the ecosystem.

Harris's Hawks
Cobra and Stark, a hunting pair of Harris’s Hawks native to the southwestern United States, scan a grassland for prey. These birds hunt in cooperative casts (groups) for greater hunting success and share prey when caught. (photo: Ian Turner)

Due to these compounding challenges, many raptor conservation organizations, such as the North American Falconers Association (NAFA), are undertaking focused efforts to preserve these sensitive environmental areas to reconstitute quarry populations. By taking a prey-centered focus, the efforts broaden an organization’s conservation perspective as it does not exclude raptors in the plan but allows raptor conservation to be viewed with a different lens; one that includes and prioritizes quarry habitat as well as primary and secondary prey consumers (Wallen and Bickford). An alternate approach to habitat and prey conservation is occurring in Future Farmers Association (FFA) clubs in high schools. At Coffee County High School in Manchester, Tennessee, one ninth grade FFA student is undertaking a personal project to restore habitat for wild quail—a staple food source for wild raptors—on his family’s 48-acre farm in rural Coffee County. In addition, he is funding his project by breeding and selling captive live quail to falconers and other consumers. Grassroots conservation efforts such as this are the lifeblood of launching larger movements that will help establish greater protections not only for birds of prey but also their quarry.

Red Tailed Hawk
Lady, a Red-Tailed Hawk, enjoys her quail snack (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

While all animals are subject to natural threats such as disease and predation, raptors suffer far greater harm from human causes (“Hawkwatch International”). A resident of Winchester, Tennessee brought a wounded Cooper’s Hawk to Middle Tennessee Raptor Center for treatment. The mid-sized predator was shot through its wing and side with a .22 caliber rifle by a homeowner defending their favored songbirds from becoming a meal: a federal crime punishable under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (“Migratory Bird Treaty Act”). The bird survived its wounds and was released back into the wild, but not all who suffer from negative human interactions are so successful. Small amounts of lead can cause fatal poisoning in raptors, which can consume lead fragments from scavenging on carrion, or from eating birds or fish that have accidentally ingested lead or have been shot like the Cooper’s Hawk mentioned above (“Raptor Conservation”). While shooting is an extreme example, it is a common occurrence in rural areas and a reportable offense to wildlife authorities.

Red Tailed Hawk
Shelby, a Red Tailed Hawk, was admitted to rehab at Middle Tennessee Raptor Center in 2022 with a gunshot wound in his right wing and right side. He fully recovered and was released. (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

Urban areas are also fraught with significant chances for negative interactions with humans and built environments, such as collisions with cars and trains, window strikes, and accidental electrocution. Due to these recurrent events, licensed wildlife rehabilitators are frequently overburdened, leaving many raptors and other wildlife to suffer or die through no fault of their own. Though dedicated and passionate, rehabilitators are not veterinarians. They are usually underfunded and minimally equipped citizens assuming the heavy mantle of care for wildlife (“Middle Tennessee Raptor Center”). The best way to help conserve both raptors and their caregivers is to be responsible stewards of the local environment and reduce as many controllable conflicts between humans and wildlife as possible. Another simple way to help is to support legislation and enacted protections for wildlife.

Middle Tennessee Raptor Center logo
Consider donating to your local wildlife rehabilitator. A little bit can go a long way in helping our raptors and other injured wildlife.

An alternative method to boost raptor conservation efforts without the arduous task of becoming a wildlife rehabilitator is through the installation of habitat nesting boxes. In urban areas where there is a shortage of suitable nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds, installing nest boxes can help support raptor populations, such as the American Kestrel in particular, and give the unique opportunity to possibly observe the birds up close (“Raptor Conservation”). Plans and videos for boxes that suit different species the best are readily found with a quick internet search. Providing raptors with nest boxes is an excellent method to facilitate a natural form of rodent population control on adjacent properties. Even in rural areas, suitable nesting and breeding sites may be lacking, and nesting boxes could make a tremendous difference. There is also less opportunity for boxes in rural areas to be disturbed often by humans, giving the species an even better chance of thriving.

Barn Owl nest box
This Barn Owl nest box was installed near a municipal airport for a pair of nesting Barn Owls in a nearby hangar with the assistance of the local Fire Department in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

The human population continues to grow, and with that growth comes more opportunities for conflict with the natural environment. It is inherent on people to manage economic growth and urban sprawl responsibly, and with more than just humans in mind. Being better environmental stewards is incumbent on all nations and peoples. For some species or countries, the conservation action that likely could bring the most immediate change is to improve legislation—including implementation and enforcement, and policy changes, such as improved regulation in the use of poisons or mitigation of dangerous power lines (McClure et al). With minor adjustments in behaviors, humans can significantly reduce the negative impact on raptors and their prey, helping preserve these magnificent creatures for future generations (“Raptor Conservation – Raptor Inc”). If up to 5% of the world’s grain supplies are already lost to pests, imagine the percentage without raptors doing their natural jobs. The world’s food supply may be dependent on increased protection measures for raptors. Without them, farmers may end up with nothing left to sell, and humans with even less to eat.

To help and support raptor education programs, you can donate to Middle Tennessee Raptor Center at www.middletnraptorcenter.org.

Lucy, a female Great Horned Owl, wows kids at summer camp in 2022. (photo: Bean Acres Farm Camp)

Works Cited

“Barn Owl – The Peregrine Fund.” Barn Owl | the Peregrine Fund, 21 Jan. 2001, peregrinefund.org/explore-raptors-species/owls/barn-owl.

“Hawkwatch International – Threats to Raptors.” Hawkwatch International – Threats to Raptors, hawkwatch.org/learn/threats-to-raptors. Accessed 25 Nov. 2022.

Larson, Christina. “Birds of Prey Face Global Decline from Habitat Loss, Poisons.” AP NEWS, 30 Aug. 2021, apnews.com/article/health-environment-and-nature-birds-science–0c7d627f236fe1ff86aa4fc34b22916c. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

McClure, Christopher J.W, et al. “State of the world’s raptors: Distributions, threats, and conservation recommendations.” Biological Conservation, Volume 227, 2018, Pages 390-402, ISSN 0006-3207, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320718305871.

“Middle Tennessee Raptor Center.” Middle Tennessee Raptor Center, http://www.middletnraptorcenter.org/rehabilitation. Accessed 29 Nov. 2022.

“Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” FWS.gov, 26 Apr. 2020, http://www.fws.gov/law/migratory-bird-treaty-act-1918.

“Raptor Conservation – Raptor Inc.” Raptor Inc, 2022, raptorinc.org/raptor-conservation. http://raptorinc.org/raptor-conservation/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

“Rodents.” Rodents – IRRI Rice Knowledge Bank, http://www.knowledgebank.irri.org/step-by-step-production/postharvest/storage/storage-pests/rodents-as-storage-pest. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

Wallen, Kenneth E. and Nate A. Bickford. Stakeholder Perspectives on Raptor Conservation and Falconry in North America, Global Ecology and Conservation, Volume 24. 2020.

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