Birds of prey: More than just menaces
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 19:09
Raptors, or birds of prey, are some of the most majestic creatures one could have the good fortune to see in the United States. In fact, the US national symbol, the bald eagle, is a raptor. A raptor is a bird that has a curved beak, strong talons, and is a carnivore. They range all over the US and eat almost anything they can carry off, including snakes, rodents, fish and other birds. It is not uncommon in Tennessee to see raptors such as red-tailed hawks and bald eagles soaring above the landscape or perched on a fencepost. However, it hasn’t always been this way.
Fifty years ago, it would have been rare to see hawks or raptors of any kind in Tennessee. During the 1950s, the bald eagle was especially suffering, and by 1961, there were no known eagle nests in Tennessee. In 1983, eagles finally returned to Tennessee, and now, there are over 100 nesting pairs at Reelfoot Lake alone.
There were several reasons for this decline, but the two main causes were the use of DDT as an insecticide and poaching (illegal killing of wildlife). DDT was an effective insecticide used mainly in agricultural applications after World War II that would thin the eggshells of many bird of prey species. Its use was banned in 1972.
Poaching was also a major cause of the pressure on birds of prey in the 50s and 60s. Farmers and hunters would shoot at eagles and hawks, because sometimes they ate the farmer’s chickens or killed the rabbits that the hunters were after. Many times, these raptors were looked at as pests and menaces. With increased penalties and new legislation, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the poaching of raptors has been greatly reduced.
Most of a hawk or owl’s diet is composed of rodents. They also will pick off snakes, smaller birds and fish. Almost anything they can carry off is “fair game,” as they say. This does include small cats and dogs, as well as chickens. However, large animals such as chickens are not the first choice of raptors. It is much more likely for a raccoon or coyote to nab a chicken then a hawk or owl. It would seem that the nickname of “chicken hawk” is not entirely accurate.
Birds of prey perform an important service for the forest ecosystem by ensuring that the forest is not overrun with rodents. Because the hawks eat some of the rodents, the rest of them have more resources to go around and they are less concentrated, which means the rodents have less diseases and are healthier overall. Usually, hawks, which hunt during the day, and owls, which hunt during the night, can overlap their coverage of an area. This keeps a constant pressure on the rodent population.
Many birds of prey, such as the red-tailed hawk, will mate for life, building a nest in a new tree each year. The red-tailed hawk is the most common hawk in Tennessee. They are intelligent birds; the male and female will work together and strike a branch at the same time in order to break it off for use in their nest. Hawks and falcons have also been tamed and trained to catch prey and bring it back to their keepers. This method of hunting is called falconry, and is legal in Tennessee with the proper permits from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
If you are interested in learning more about raptors, there are several state parks in the area that run raptor rehabilitation programs that you can visit, or you ask the UTM Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society here on campus by emailing the president at email@example.com. edu.
Reelfoot Lake and Natchez Trace State Park both have birds of prey that have been injured and are being cared for. Visiting these parks is a great chance to learn about raptors and to see some up close and personal, and you can mark your calendar for February, when hundreds of eagles descend on Reelfoot Lake to build nests for the year. Once you have seen the majesty of an eagle in flight, it is easy to understand why it is our national symbol.