discussion 13

Urban Raptors

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David Bird is the guest in this Science Forum discussion. He is a wildlife biologist at McGill University in Montreal, and directs the university’s Avian Science and Conservation Center.

Bird is editor of the the new book Birds of Canada.  He also wrote The Bird Almanac: A Guide to Essential Facts and Figures of the World’s Birds.

On our radio program, we aired a story about how raptors — birds of prey — are struggling to survive in Beijing.  You can listen to that story here.
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Unlike Beijing, some cities are providing good habitat for raptors:

  • Peregrine falcons now nest in churches and skyscrapers in North American and European cities.
  • Goshawks are a common sight in Hamburg, Germany.
  • Sparrowhawks are found in abundance in Nairobi, Kenya.

Learn about the thrills and perils of city life for raptors, and bring your own thoughts and questions to David Bird.  He’s our guest in the Forum through Friday, May 7th. The conversation is just to the right.

  • How can you make your community more raptor-friendly?
  • Do you live next door to a bird of prey? Tell us about your experiences.
  • Have you been involved with conserving raptors in your city or neighborhood?

Additional Resources:

Watch live videos of the Peregrine family at Université de Montréal.


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  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    Recently, walking down a Boston sidewalk, I came upon a pile of feathers. People were huddled around on their cell phones, telling friends what they’d just witnessed. Some kind of raptor had apparently swooped down and grabbed a pigeon as prey! This was on a major street in the middle of the day. How common is this? What type of raptor might it have been?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi from Montreal. Based on the scenario you described, my guess is that it was a peregrine falcon. Boston is certainly home to at least one pair and they typically feed upon rock pigeons by striking them in mid-air after stupefying dives at speeds in excess of 250 miles an hour. Usually they knock them to the ground and then land on them to begin the plucking and feeding process right away. I imagine that the busy foot traffic kept the bird away.

  2. Mila Paul

    I would say it could have been one of a few. Although small, peregrine falcons have been found to do well in Massachusetts cities and just might be able to get off the ground with a pigeon.

    Another possibility is one I have seen more of lately in urban settings, the Red-tailed hawk. In the buteo family, the Red Tail is a bigger bird and seems more likely to prey on something big like a pigeon.

    That would be all on the list of liklies, except maybe Barred Owl, but probably not in daylight.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi. You certainly sound like someone who knows a thing or three about raptors. And you are right to state that Red-tailed Hawks do sometimes live in cities (look at the famous PaleMale in Central Park, NYC!). They probably do take pigeons opportunistically, but it is not easy for the larger, more clumsy red-tails to outfly and outmaneuver those speedy pigeons. Even a peregrine cannot cannot catch a pigeon in a tail chase. They need to be higher and behind their prey just like fighter pilots. Another good bet for pigeon hunters is the Cooper’s Hawk. But they tend to dwell in suburbia more than a downtown city core.

  3. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    I have barred owls in my Durham NC backyard–just a few weeks ago they were doing some crazy calls, pair bonding maybe? Or else territorial?

    Anyway, my main question is about peregrine falcons. I seem to remember some turmoil in the conservation community some years ago because some captive breeding programs crossed falcons from different parts of North America and mixed up the genetics of the subspecies or races. This was back when things looked very dire for the falcons, when it seemed like any chicks–genetically mixed up or not–would be better than extinction. How has that played out? Did that happen? To what extent? Is it a problem?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”. That is part of the courtship call of the barred owl. You must have a really nice backyard to have a pair of them nesting there — how lucky for you! Yes indeed, there was turmoil a couple of decades ago when the Americans, i.e. Cornell University, decided that a peregrine is a peregrine is a peregrine and adopted the philosophy of cross-breeding several subspecies of peregrines for release into the northeast with the hope that any of them would refill the empty niche of the traditional anatum or rock falcon. The Canadians went for the pure approach, but in the end, the peregrines did not give a hoot about border crossings and began freely moving back and forth between Canada and the U.S.

  4. Rhitu and David,

    Great to hear this story on PRI! I’ve been following the peregrines in New York City, endlessly fascinated by their ability to thrive in the urban environment. Perhaps your readers might be interested in a couple stories I’ve written, one about a falcon web cam in lower Manhattan ( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/15/nyregion/thecity/15falc.html?_r=2&ref=thecity&oref=slogin ) and one about watching a peregrine hunt from atop the Empire State Building, at night! (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/The-Worlds-Fastest-Animal-Takes-New-York.html ) To the wild!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi. Thanks for the tip on yet another web cam on peregrine falcons in cities. They are such a great tool for educating the public. I had heard about peregrines hunting at night too; a paper was published on this subject a decade or so ago. I have seen American kestrels, a smaller cousin, catching flying insects in the lights of the Olympic Stadium in Montreal during an Expos baseball game. I have also read that migrating ospreys will capture fish during the night too.

  5. Zak

    The story of the Eagle rescue is particularly poignant to me. As a boy, now a man, growing up in the N. Ca coastal woods the sight of Ospreys is a frequent beauty. Once a young Osprey was caught in a dense canopy and couldn’t free itself, struggling fiercely, in danger of breaking it’s wings. Upon freeing it the bird was clearly confused. Ultimately we caged it and put it out on our porch which looks into the Redwood forest over a meadow. I was young, 11, and seemed less threatening to the bird so I put the cage on the porch and opened the door. The bird walked out, took off circled around twice and then landed back on the porch where we stared at each other for a time. Then the Osprey took off again and was gone, exemplifying the same vital communication between Humans and Raptors.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Wow, that is a really neat story! I have had a couple of graduate students studying ospreys over the years, both in Canada’s maritime provinces. You know, it is getting more difficult for me as an academic scientist to explain to my students exactly what is going on in the minds of wildlife, like your osprey for example. I used to think that everything could be explained by science and that wild animals, save for the primates, did not have any emotions, but having recently seen video of polar bears playing with sled dogs, I am no longer so sure of myself.

      • Zak

        Ospreys are particularly emotional and expressive, so sumo-dominant in their territory because no other fish hawk has the same ability. Yet they are as gentle as song birds, and indeed they love to sing. 2 seasons ago I had the fortune to photograph a young male as he called and strutted for a mate in a series of a few dozen photos. Again in the Redwoods outside my home: http://homepage.mac.com/muzak1/.Pictures/ospreylove.jpg

  6. David-
    I met you a couple of years back at RRF. Just curious for the latest on the American Kestrel decline from your vantage point. It is a species that we see less of each year here in South Carolina it seems. Interested to see where this interesting discussion of raptors heads!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi Stephen. Yes, I remember meeting you. And we are no further ahead in knowing what is precipitating this serious decline in the American kestrel, particularly in the east. We used to have 15-20 pairs breeding in the Montreal area, but are now down to five or so. In contrast though, Robert DeCandido and colleagues are annually monitoring a thriving population of city-loving kestrels in New York City. It is possible to get onto their free newsletter distribution list.

  7. Phillip Brown

    FYI

    http://www.onlymelbourne.com.au/melbourne_details.php?id=12833

    A group of Peregrine Falcons considered to be the fastest bird in the world have been found nesting on a window ledge outside the Optus Centre in Melbourne’s CBD.

    Three years after poison claimed the last birds of prey to nest in the city, a pair of the falcons and three fluffy chicks have made a home for themselves 35 floors above Collins St.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      That is fantastic news, Phillip! I had the great pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Melbourne several years back on my sabbatical leave. While I did not see any peregrines then, I will keep a sharp eye out the next time I go there. I wonder if Jerry Olsen, one of Australia’s top raptor experts living in Canberra, knows about this nest.

  8. Tsu Dho Nimh

    In Phoenix we have redtails, peregrines (winter visitors mostly), great horned owls, and several others.

    http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1170456 was taken in my back yard. The hawk had raided a dove nest, carried away one fledgling to eat, and was back for a second course. It doesn’t show in the pictures, but a hummingbird was also harassing the hawk.

    The redtails regularly pillage pigeon nests in the large palm trees’ skirts of untrimmed fronds. I watched one systematically working its way down a row of trees, rummaging around and flying off with squabs. He/she returned every half hour or so and checked another tree. I assume there was a nest full of hungry babies.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Terrific photo! That mockingbird attacking the red-tail likely knows that it has an aerial flight advantage over the slower-moving hawk. And despite my earlier comments about red-tails not preying upon pigeons, I am not at all surprised that they would routinely visit pigeons to grab and eat those plump squabs. We once had a snowy owl spend the winter on our Montreal campus and it fed itself by flying up under the eaves to grab pigeon babies off the ledges. It has been my experience in studying raptors for almost four decades that they are quite opportunistic in their hunting habits. Just like your palm-tree raiding red-tail!

  9. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Peter Thomson

    Hi David,

    Peter Thomson here, The World’s environment editor. Thanks for being our go-to scientist this week.

    I had a similar experience to David Baron, also in Boston–I was walking on Boston’s toniest thoroughfare, Commonwealth Avenue, when I saw a pile of what could only have been, well, the guts of a small animal at the base of a crossing signal. I looked up and standing atop the signal was a big brown hawk, tearing a pigeon to bits. I could only laugh at its bravado and utter indifference to its posh surroundings. I’ll never forget it.

    But here’s my question: as we learned in Ari’s piece, some cities are more hospitable to raptors than others. Why? What makes for good urban habitat for birds of prey? And what different kinds of habitat and prey do different raptors need?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi. In my experience, most people seeing a raptor tearing apart one of its victim’s up close are totally and morbidly fascinated. It somewhat smacks of the rubber-necking behaviour thst most humans undergo when they drive by road accidents. As for what constitutes a hospitable urban environment for city-dwelling raptors, you ask a difficult question. We do not yet know this, as it has only been in the last couple of decades that ornithologists have turned their gaze toward these birds. Whether a young peregrine fledges prematurely into city traffic from a building that is 40 floors high or only 10 makes little difference. I suppose that cities or towns with less wind shears, the lack of open chimney stacks and no pigeon poisoning programs would be inherently safer.

  10. Zak

    The Red tail story reminds me of a flock of Ravens defending their young against a Red Tail, and a Coopers Hawk at the same time. The Ravens knew how to divide up these 2 separate predators and keep them off guard. Darting in and around above and below at tremendous speed this quarrel flew through Cypress trees right at the mouth of the Gualala river near the Pacific ocean. This is interesting because right across the river is the town of Gualala which is by no means a city, but a downtown center. Hawks seem to thrive on the abundance of food driven away from this center. All down the pacific coast you can see Raptors, on the Presidio coast of San Francisco even. Makes me wonder if Norway is getting more Raptors as they reintegrate forest back into their cities?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Your comments on the anti-predator behaviour displayed by the ravens does not surprise me. Along with some of my colleagues, I believe that crows and ravens are the smartest birds in the world. Having said that, hawks and falcons are a close second. It is hard to comment on the prey situation in Gualala, as I do not know the habitat there. I do know that large raptors like red-tails and even small ones like American kestrels hang around the edges of highways to catch the numerous voles, mice and insects found there. I do have some Norwegian raptor biologists as friends and perhaps one of them will comment on your last point.

  11. Marc Weinmeister

    Several years ago I had an office in downtown Oklahoma City on the 25th floor of a building. My window faced the south, overlooking a park and several buildings. We had a small, very wary group of pigeons and a few nesting red tailed hawks. The pigeons would fly warily and directly from cover to cover in the downtown area. The hawks would wheel high above the buildings on the thermals and lift from the building updrafts.

    I witnessed a red-tailed hawk kill a hapless pigeon. The pigeon was traveling at about twenty floors elevation, directly below me by 50 feet or so as it traveled from one building to another. The distance the pigeon needed to travel was about the distance of a block. The pigeon was flying rapidly and directly when the hawk slammed into its back from high above, probably breaking the pigeon’s neck. This collision created an explosion of pigeon down feathers that surrounded the pigeon who fell lifelessly through the sky. The hawk, flared, and was now below and in line with the pigeon. The hawk rolled onto its back, flew upside down for a couple of seconds and plucked the pigeon from the sky with his talons. The hawk then flew to a rooftop with his kill. It was such a beautiful, ruthless and magnificent display of natural competence. I shall never forget it.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Well, you have just given me new-found respect for the agility of the red-tailed hawk. And for those of you who feel sorry for the pigeon as victim, let me tell you from personal experience that in the case described, that pigeon was totally out of it as soon as it was struck. I had the misfortune of once being hit in the side of the head by a captive American rough-legged hawk, which not only has much smaller feet than a red-tail but only had a 20-foot distance to build up speed. The force was so great that I felt like someone had hit me with a claw-hammer. I stumbled to the ground with blood pouring out of my head at a rapid rate. If I had not managed to get to my house across the street within minutes, I would not be writing these words today.

  12. K.A. Dixon

    For those who live in the NYC area, there is a raptor conference taking place May 7 and 8 in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Monitoring and Managing Raptor Populations” will feature great speakers and panelists from the U.S., Panama, and Verecruz Mexico, and will focus on how professional and volunteer conservationists can work together to protect raptors. For more information, you can visit http://greenwich.audubon.org/News.html

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Thanks for passing that on! I am actually in Boston right now, where I met Tom French who knows a lot about peregrine falcons in Springfield and Boston. He told me that there are now more peregrines in Boston than ever before. Cheers.

  13. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hi again David,

    Your answer to Peter’s question makes me wonder—what are some of the key things scientists have learned about urban raptors in the last 10-20 years? And is any of that new knowledge helping conserve raptors in cities or even rural and natural environments?

    Thanks, Rhitu

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi. What we have learned is that raptors in cities are highly opportunistic birds both in terms of breeding and feeding. Despite that, peregrine falcon chicks still fledge into busy city traffic and adult falcons still fly into windows chasing prey. It is exceptionally difficult to study raptors in a downtown environment because it is hard to get access to their nests and not easy to observe them in one place due to the presence of the tall buildings. And it is virtually impossible to use radiotelemetry to track their movements.

  14. Allison

    Hi David,

    I live along a coastal canyon in central California. From our back deck overlooking the canyon we regularly see red-tailed hawks (often being harassed by crows), red-shouldered hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and Cooper’s hawks. It’s a birdwatching paradise.

    The Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group (www.scpbrg.org) has nest cameras in two peregrine falcon “nests” on buildings in San Jose and San Francisco. I’ve personally watched peregrines fledge from a hack site where I work. They are truly amazing birds, and it’s great fun watching them learn how to use their wings.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi. I am very familiar with the good work of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group and I considered Brian Walton, its founder, to be a good friend before his untimely passing. However, I did not know about their two web cams and I thank you for passing that on. You are indeed a lucky person to be able to see the birds on a daily basis! Cheers

  15. Wendy Hart

    I live on Miami Beach and a pair of hawks (I believe Coopers hawks) are nesting in a large tree across the street. They have been there about a month. One of the pair spends most of the day in the large oak in my front yard – they seem to eat their lunch on one of the branches. Recently a jay has taken to harassing him – but it still remains his spot….
    When the young fledge am I likely to get to see them flying in the same area?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Absolutely! You should see them quite a lot. They are likely going to be quite noisy begging food from their parents. They will probably hang around Mom and Dad for about three weeks and then slowly move further afield as they learn to hunt food on their own. Enjoy!

  16. Heather Fenyk

    What a fun forum topic! Last year in our particularly urban section of New Brunswick, NJ we had a Barred Owl and either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Red-tailed Hawk alternating kills. And for a few weeks the Hawk seemed to make its home on top of our 3-story apartment building. We still find a pigeon carcass in the yard every other month or so, but haven’t seen the birds themselves. A few years ago a Peregrine Falcon was hanging out on top of the Rutgers policy school downtown, making its presence known. What adaptable birds!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi Heather. That is an impressive array of raptors you have there in your urban jungle! Prior to this forum, I would have suggested that it was a Cooper’s hawk rather than the red-tail making those pigeon kills. However, I have now learned enough from others’ experience to realize that red-tails have no problem catching pigeons either. Cheers.

  17. Marc Weinmeister

    One more story from Oklahoma – not a raptor story, but a night hawk one. In the summers we have many insects active at night. We also like our upward shooting high-power lights to illuminate flags, signs, etc. Summer insects really swarm in these shafts of brilliant light. Throughout the summer night hawks, with their distinctive white bars on the outer part of the top and bottom of the wing, are readity visible weaving and darting through the clouds of insects with agility. I am sure they compete with our large bat population for food! No “lazy circles in the sky” for these swift-like birds.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      I must say, Marc, that you are a very fortunate person to be able see nighthawks flitting about in your suburban skies. We used to have them on our university campus two decades ago, but they have disappeared, just as they have in many other places. But that is another story. Cheers.

  18. Susan Wittel

    Hi David, Our neighborhood has a pair of broadwing hawks nesting in an old squirrels nest located in a vacant lot. The lot is right behind my house, and the nest is very easy to see. the female has been sitting on the nest now for about a week. My neighbors and I feel very lucky to have these hawks feeling very much at home here. I have been trying to find out info about these hawks and have not come up with alot of material. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Hi Susan. While the best place to get information on any North American birds is the Birds of North America online series from Cornell University, you have to be a member to get access. I checked out Wikipedia and they have some good solid info on broad-winged hawks. The URL is:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broad-winged_Hawk

      We have quite a few of these hawks in Quebec and a number do choose to nest in people’s backyards, but mostly in very green neighbourhoods. cheers.

  19. Hi David,

    Really wonderful that a scientist of your stature is taking part in a popular venue.

    My natural world is NYC where I have been studying raptors since the early 1980s. We have seen major declines in Eastern Screech-owls, but increases in Great Horned Owls. (Overall, three owl species still breed here, and five have bred historically). As for the diurnal raptors, the Red-tailed Hawk and Peregrine Falcon are truly 21st century urban dwellers – well suited to modern cities as long as there is enough food available. On the other hand, the American Kestrel is a 19th century urban throwback – this falcon can do well in cities if sufficient house sparrows are available to capture/eat, but overall we know almost nothing about their ecology in urban areas in North America.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

      Well, hi there, Robert! I was hoping that we would hear from you. I was telling the good folks at the Nuttall Ornithology Club in Boston this past Monday night about your wonderful work with the city-dwelling American kestrels in New York City. I had tried many times to encourage my graduate students to include the downtown Montreal kestrel pairs in their field studies, but as you well know, it is not often easy to gain access to the buildings. And since house sparrows are now on the decline, possibly due to increasing competition from house finches, it will be interesting to see what happens with the city kestrels relying on the sparrows. Perhaps they take more house finches. Keep up the great work there in the Big Apple!

  20. For the 38 past issues of the NYC Kestrel Newsletter (2008 through 2010), see the web site of the NorthEast Hawk Watch/Migration group:

    http://www.battaly.com/nehw/AmericanKestrel/news/

    They are available as a free download.

    And for Kestrel information flyers in 14 languages, see: http://www.battaly.com/nehw/AmericanKestrel/

    I’d love for anyone with info about kestrels in cities in North America to send info to me.

    Robert DeCandido PhD
    rdcny@earthlink.net

  21. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Bird

    Well, I must say that I really enjoyed my web-based discussion about urban raptors on World Science! I doubt that there is an urban centre anywhere in the world that does not have at least one raptor species breeding opportunistically within its concrete jungle. I estimate that world-wide, there are at least 30 or 40 species of birds of prey that are adapting to breeding in city centres or in suburban neighbourhoods. Is this a good thing? Despite the inherent dangers in urban habitats, as long as food and nest sites are availabile, birds of prey will continue to invade our cities whether we want them to or not. While awaiting the answers from future scientific studies, I urge the public-at-large to not only share their habitat with the raptors, but enjoy them too!

  22. Morgan

    I was reminded of this forum just last night while at the Minnesota Twins baseball game. Evidently a pair of Kestrel Hawks have nested in the Target Field downtown. One spent a good part of last evening’s game on the right field foul pole, adding entertainment to an otherwise lackluster game. http://bit.ly/90Ro27

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