Red-tailed hawks are no longer on the endangered species list
January 30, 2008
You see red-tailed hawks everywhere nowadays — big, bulky hawks, with pale fronts and dark backs and tail feathers that glow bright russet in the sun when the hawks circle in the sky.They’ve set up shop in downtown Danbury, coolly watching humans pass by while waiting for lunch to show up along the banks of the Still River, or taking out a squirrel in a city backyard.
“A few weeks ago, I saw some crows eating carrion in the road,” said Frank Dye, a professor of biology at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. “Two red-tailed hawks flew in and buzzed the crows, trying to intimidate them off the carrion.
“It seems like I’m seeing red-tails much closer to the ground and in more densely populated areas than I ever have before,” Dye said.
They are a fixture along the interstates. The highway medians that serve as a greenway for mice and voles are like a cafeteria line for hawks.
“One time I drove along I-84 from Connecticut to New York to Pennsylvania,” said Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society. “I counted 62 red-tailed hawks along the way. They’re doing quite well, not only in Connecticut but nationally.”
There are several reasons for this red-tail boom. In the early decades of the 20th century, hawk populations in general declined because people shot them as varmints. National and international laws stopped that practice.
In turn, the environmental movement taught people that these birds — along with
being beautiful — play a useful part in the ecosystem by killing mice and rats.”We’ve learned that predators don’t control the numbers of things they feed on — they follow them,” Bull said.
But perhaps the most important part of the return of the red-tailed hawk is this: They’ve learned they can coexist with people. They’re still wary. They still keep their distance. But they seem to have learned that in general people will leave them alone.
“They seem to have adapted quite well,” said Joan Morrison, a professor of biology at Trinity College in Hartford who has been studying urban hawks.
“They nest in my neighborhood, and I live in Meriden,” said Patrick Comins , director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut.
It’s hard to know how many red-tails there are in Connecticut today — the most accurate count of birds, the Breeding Bird Survey, is keyed to counting songbirds, not raptors.
But Comins said all anecdotal evidence — which has value — shows the red-tail population in the state is climbing.
That evidence shows up in the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. In the late 1930s, birders almost never saw red-tailed hawks in their Christmas counts. Since then, if you plot the numbers of red-tailed hawk sightings on a graph, Christmas after Christmas the line just keeps climbing.
“It goes up the way you’d like your stock to go up,” Comins said.
Morrison said she’s been surprised to find red-tails nesting in front yard trees in urban neighborhoods. A pair now nest on the windowsill of the State Office Building in downtown Hartford.
“They’re a predator in an urban environment,” she said. “They’re feeding on rodents and pigeons and squirrels and things they find in the river.”
That’s a lesson in how generalists — species that can live in a lot of different places and eat a lot of different things — can survive in a place that’s now largely a mix of suburbs, cities and woods, with the occasional open field thrown in.
Comins said among the state’s other hawks, it’s the generalists that are doing well. Cooper’s hawks and red-shouldered hawks seem to be on the rise, he said, with Cooper’s hawks being dropped off the state list of threatened species. Like red-tails, they’re able to live in different habitats.
Once DDT levels in the environment dropped, peregrine falcons learned they could hunt pigeons from the tops of office buildings as well as from mountain ledges. They’re also off the federal endangered species list.
Because of the DDT ban, and because humans built nesting platforms along the coastline, the osprey — striking, fierce, white-headed fish hawks — have returned as well.
Other raptor species are emerging in the state, but more slowly. Merlins — chocolate-brown falcons — may be extending their range south into Connecticut, Comins said.
The northern goshawk — the state’s largest hawk — needs a forest habitat to thrive. In the 19th century, there were almost no woods in Connecticut, because it was almost entirely an agricultural state and trees were sawed down to make pastures. As a result, goshawks totally disappeared from the scene.
It’s only in recent decades, as abandoned fields have grown back to woods, that these big gray hawks have returned.
But the loss of grassland habitat has made the American kestrel — a small, beautiful falcon of the fields — almost nonexistent in Connecticut. They need open country.
Likewise, Comins said, the northern harrier — a low-soaring hawk that cruises over pastures and marshes looking for rodents — is hard to find in the state, nesting in only a few places.
One reason red-tailed hawks are doing well is that they can eat a lot of things — mice, voles, rats, pigeons, squirrels, chipmunks, pigeons, domestic chickens, carrion, and the young of other birds.
The national highway system has also given them a surprisingly useful place to hunt.
“They have great eyesight, and the highways give them nice long sight lines,” Comins said. “There are a lot of rodents along the highways.”
Because people see them as an everyday bird, as part of the morning commute, the red-tails can be easy to pass by. But when you see them circling in the sky in wide loops, or hear their sharp, wild, one-note cry, it’s hard to be blase. Everyone should have such a surplus of riches.
They’ve also proved to be great ambassadors for the state’s wildlife.
“So many people get involved in birding because they see a red-tailed hawk,” Bull said. “They call our office and say, ‘I’ve seen this big bird with a pale breast.’ They go home and look it up, and they get excited about birds.”
By Robert Miller Staff Writer – The News Times.com