Raptor Ecology

Those of you who have seen my personal facebook page know that I am in a raptor ecology course here at school and that I’m loving it. So much in fact, that I thought I’d write a blog post explaining some of the things we do.  Unfortunately, since I’m not fond of putting pictures of people on a public blog I will be explaining without photos, so bear with me.

Before I get too excited, I suppose I should explain what I mean by trapping. I want everyone who might read this that we make sure the process is as humane as  possible. We can’t keep the raptors (primarily Redtail Hawks) from being stressed, but at the very least we can reduce the impact we have on them. I’ll explain how we process them latter in the post, but I really do think that the experience is similar to a child getting a physical for the first time. Some of the data we collect is similar and just like a child might be, the hawk is there unwillingly. We may not be able to tell the hawk we mean no harm, but we can also move in a manner that limits how stressed the hawk gets.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so I’m going to try to explain how the trap works. The bottom is made of two layers of rectangular plywood. In between the plywood is weights; the trap needs to be heavy enough that the raptor doesn’t fly away with it, but not so heavy that the raptor gets injured if it struggles. Over the trap wire mesh forms a cage. This is were the bait goes. Lastly, microfilament is used to form nooses that are attached to to the top and sides of the mesh cage. The idea is that the raptor will see the bait in the trap and dive down to get it. The hope is that the raptor will walk on the trap trying to get at the bait.

That, folks, is easier said than done. For the raptor to land on the trap it needs to be placed correctly and even then there’s no guarantee that the raptor will land. Even then placed is a misleading term. What we really do is drop the trap from a vehicle that is moving fast enough that the raptor doesn’t connect it with the trap, but slow enough that the person dropping the trap can do it effectively. Then, if the raptor is still perched after the trap has been dropped, the car dives out of the raptors line of sight and waits. This seems to work best with at least three person. It’s really hard to hear when waiting to drop, so when our professor says drop it works a lot better when someone taps the person who’s dropping when it’s time.

Next comes the waiting game. Sometimes the raptor flies right away, but usually they seem to deliberate. Then, once they land there’s no guarantee that they are caught. This weekend one landed three times and still was lucky. In hindsight we probably rushed things, but in our defense there was a cat in the area and we were worried that if the cat came our way and the raptor was caught things could have turned ugly. The point is, deciding to pick up the trap is a hard call to make. In other words, like most things waiting for a raptor to get caught is the worst part of the experience.

However, if the raptor is on the trap, the longer you wait the more rewarding the experience. Seeing a raptor up close is amazing. On the trap they’re so powerful, yet so vulnerable. I don’t I really understood that until this weekend. We caught a large female and I was able to help take her off the trap. She turned out to be the third largest redtail our professor has caught, but at the time we thought she was the largest. Regardless, of her actual size she was strong. There are no words to describe how beautiful she was. The original plan had been for the other classmate and I to learn how to band her, but it was quickly apparent we would not be able to handle her strength. She was impressive.

I was however, able to help take her blood. This is what I mean when I say it’s a bit like a physical. While processing the birds we not only take blood, but also measurements. This information is useful in studies. For example, the blood we draw is useful in gaining information about avian malaria. Not much is known about raptor migration, so GPS information is also recorded. We try to record as much data as possible, but we also try not to keep them longer than needed.

So after pausing only briefly to snap a couple pictures I made my first attempt to release a raptor. I say attempt because I did not let her go high enough. Oops. Despite the need for him to get out gloves and do a re throw, during which she nailed his wrist with her talon, my professor was very patient with both me and the hawk. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say he deserves a medal. Eventually he was able to try again, and although she may have been a little stunned, she flew off without a hitch.

Latter in the evening we caught another redtail. It was one of the more exciting drops, as we thought that the raptor would fly away. However, we got lucky when the raptor landed nearby and we decided to drop the trap anyway. It didn’t take long to figure out that this raptor was an HY or hatch year bird. Around this time of year hatch year is a misleading term. It simply means that the raptor was born in this year, but the word hatch is often associated with fuzzy little chicks. Despite their age the HY birds that we catch in class are likely done growing, but we can tell that they’re not a SY (second year) or an ASY (after second year) bird due to the pattern of their feathers and the fact that their feathers are uniform. In other words, HY birds haven’t molted.

We were short on daylight, so while my classmate helped me attempted to put a band on (Those bands are stiff!) our professor started getting set up to draw blood. Had I more time I might have been able to get enough leverage to secure the band, but I’m just happy I got to learn the process. As usual, my professor was very patient with us as we learned.

Then, I was able to redeem myself after my release from earlier. I may have held my breath a little while releasing the second raptor. Luckily I was able to learn from earlier, which makes this class rewarding. If it had been another class I think it would have been harder for me to get that second chance. Through my study I’ve had ample opportunities go into the field and I look forward to sharing more experiences with everyone. What do you guys like about the outdoors?

One of the hawks caught on Wednesday.

One of the hawks caught on Wednesday.

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3 Comments »

  1. Joy Said:

    Oh, you get to do such fascinating things! This is all so interesting and your photo is fantastic. Can you tell I enjoy these birds also? 🙂

    We have visited a place nearby which rescues and rehabilitates birds of all sizes, including eagles, hawks, owls. Seeing them up close is quite an experience — the colors in their feathers are beautiful, and the sharpness of their beaks and talons is amazing.

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Learning more about wildlife is always worthwhile.

  2. Sue Said:

    Livi, it was great to read more detail about your weekend with the raptors! What an awesome chance to get up close to animals that usually keep their distance.

  3. Thanks guys. I think people often take for granted the opportunities the Midwest has for wildlife.


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