Thumbnail image: Alex Shipherd/Macaulay Library
[Lisa Kopp] Welcome to today’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Today we’re going to be discussing raptors, a favorite topic for so many people. But before we get started today, this is an event hosted through Cornell University, which is based in Ithaca, New York, and I want to read a statement acknowledging the indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this area. Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohónǫ’, the Caguya Nation. The Gayogohónǫ’ are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York state and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogohónǫ’ dispossession, and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogohónǫ’ people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
And for those of you who aren’t familiar, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, part of Cornell University, is home to a community of researchers and supporters from around the world, who appreciate birds and the integral role that they play in our ecosystems. Our mission is to advance leading-edge research, education, and citizen science that help solve pressing conservation challenges. And this work, including today’s webinar, is funded primarily by people like you, who choose to become a member. So if you enjoyed today’s webinar, I hope you’ll consider joining and becoming a member by visiting by visiting birds.cornell.edu.
And I just want to mention that today’s event is part of a special series celebrating migration. So we are hosting two weeks of all sorts of programs, live and recorded, that you can enjoy by visiting the website that we’ll drop in the chat. So we hope to see you at some of our upcoming programs in the next few days as well.
My name is Lisa Kopp, I’m on the visitor center team at the Cornell Lab and I’ll be facilitating today’s conversation. And with us is Dr. Kevin McGowan. Hi, Kevin.
[Kevin McGowan] Hi.
[Lisa Kopp] We’re really excited to get started with this, last few announcements are tech-related. So for our Zoom audience, we have live captioning available. Select the Live Transcript button at the bottom of the Zoom window, and you can choose to turn them on or off, which would allow you to hide them or show them depending on your preference. So the way that today will work is that I’m going to ask Kevin a couple of questions to get started, but we also want to hear questions from you. So for those of you on Zoom, you can use the Q&A feature, that is also a button located at the bottom of your screen, click that, type in any of the questions that you want us to ask Kevin, and we will be doing our best. This is a large event with a lot of really engaged audience members, we know. So we’ll do our best to answer as much as we can, but be sure you’re also checking out the Answer column because that’s where a lot of really great information is as well. Zoom also has a chat window, which we know many of you are using already. We will only be using the chat for technical support and to share information with you. So if you have Zoom issues or problems, use the chat for that, but please make sure you’re using the Q&A for questions.
I have some wonderful colleagues behind the scenes for helping monitor both of those areas. So some of your questions may be answered live, some of them may be a typed response, and in the chat you’ll get some answered questions typed right there. Finally, we are streaming on Facebook, so hello to all of you joining from Facebook. And if you’re watching on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Facebook page, there are two important things to know. One, please be sure that you do not click on any links, unless they come directly from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’ve had some issues with bots in the past and we don’t want anyone to click on anything that could damage your computer. And then we also will be trying to include Facebook questions. So feel free to add your questions on Facebook, to the comment section. And again, my colleagues behind the scenes will be relaying those to us and we’ll do our best to answer some of those as well.
So with all of that, let’s get started. So Kevin, thank you again for being here with us today. This is such a fascinating topic for so many people. So before we get into talking about the birds, would you mind telling us a little bit about you and your background and how you got into this wonderful work.
[Kevin McGowan] Sure. Well, I’m a professional ornithologist. I got my PhD working with Florida Scrub-Jays, and I currently am a course developer for Bird Academy at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I’d been writing online courses and experimenting with ways to communicate bird information for a decade or so. Before that, I originally came to Ithaca many years ago to be the curator of the bird and mammal collections, and then I moved on to help create All About Birds, the website, back in the beginning. And I’ve done a number of other things. But I’m interested in everything bird, in all topics, and I’m interested in communicating about birds to people. It’s very exciting to me to be able to use new technologies, and get out there and actually share the excitement about birds that some of us are obsessed with.
[Lisa Kopp] So do you have a favorite bird? I like asking birders this question.
[Kevin McGowan] Well, I’ve spent 33 years, and thousands and thousands of hours studying the American Crow, so I guess that kind of pops up to the top of what might be my favorite bird.
[Lisa Kopp] Great. So let’s jump into talking about raptors. Raptors are one of these sort of gateway species, a lot of people are familiar with them, they see Red-tailed Hawks flying above or sitting on telephone lines, especially in our area here. But I don’t know very much about raptors, broadly speaking. Why do you think people find raptors so interesting, or so engaging?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, I think there are a couple of things. One is that they are big and obvious, they’re not little flitting birds up in the treetops. Sometimes you do see them sitting on telephone poles, and stuff like that, and so you can actually get a look at them. They don’t move particularly quickly, so it’s a chance to actually see something. But they’re also big, tough guy birds, they eat other birds. So it’s just something that, there’s a mystique about that, the big predator thing, that I think draws people in as well
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, they do have that powerful presence, those talons, and those beaks that definitely draw attention to them.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, I mean, chickadees are cute but a Bald Eagle is impressive.
[Lisa Kopp] So there’s a ton of diversity with raptors, right? How do we know what is a raptor and what isn’t a raptor? How do we define that category?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, let me start with a couple of slides here too, so we can talk about that. Technically a raptor is any bird that eats meat. And that can be a couple of different things, not all of which are related. So especially we’re talking bird and mammal meat, so hawks, eagles, falcons, and relatives, are included and the raptors, as well as owls. And owls, and the falcons, and the hawks, are not closely related to each other. They’re very separate, but they look a lot alike. They have the same kind of adaptations for handling meat and so we lump them into this category. We used to think they actually all were related, but we now know they’re not.
Today we’re not really going to discuss owls, but we’ll be talking about the others; the day-flying or diurnal raptors. And in Canada and the United States, there are 34 species of diurnal raptors and they can be categorized into seven basic groups, sometimes related, but primarily I make these groups up by shape. And it’s the vultures, eagles, buteos, accipiters, falcons, kites, and others, which is a grab bag of stuff. And let me just quickly introduce everybody to the ones we’re talking about. The first group are the vultures and–
[Lisa Kopp] I just want to check, are you showing your slides right now?
[Kevin McGowan] No, I thought I was but I guess I’m not, am I? Thank you.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s OK, it always happens with Zoom, right? You always have to have a little, tech something, going on.
[Kevin McGowan] It’s hard to remember this stuff sometimes. That better?
[Lisa Kopp] There we go, got it.
[Kevin McGowan] OK, very good. So again, I’m talking about seven basic raptor subgroups that you can think of these, because there are 34 species and it’s hard to– you can’t get into all of them today. But essentially, the first group are the vultures, and they have really long broad wings, and a relatively short tail, and a small head. Those big broad wings are used for soaring because that’s how they find their food. They fly high, looking for something dead on the ground. And so they spend a lot of time not flapping their wings, but soaring.
Next up is the eagles. None of these are related to each other but I include the Osprey in here with a Bald Eagle and the Golden Eagle, because Osprey is similar and it also is sometimes called the Fish Eagle. So these are very big birds, very long and broad wings for soaring, with a medium length tail, and a relatively large head in contrast to the vultures. The biggest group are the buteos with 12 species, and most of these hawks are in the genus Buteo, which is where the name comes from, although I’ve added three others because they’re similar in shape that aren’t in Buteo, but they look like them. They have moderately long, broad, rounded wings and a short tail.
Next come the accipiters. These are the bird eating hawks, and they have relatively short, broad, rounded wings and a long tail; three species of these.
Then the falcons. We have six species of falcons in the US and Canada, and they all have long, pointed wings and a long tail. And although they look like the hawks, they’re not closely related to them. In fact, they’re more closely related to parrots than the other diurnal raptors.
Next up are the slender-wing kites. And like the falcons, the kites have long pointed wings and a long tail. But the kites’ wings are even longer than the falcons, and it makes them very graceful fliers. The falcons are fast-and-furious flying. Falcons, they go someplace in a hurry, and in direct line the kites do a lot more soaring and acrobatic flight.
And then finally, the last group are the others, and these are four species in this group, they all look kind of different. The two things that are called kites, again– they’re not all related to each other but we use the term kite. And they have very broad, rounded wings, and a moderate tail. The Harrier has long, rounded wings, and a long tail. And then the Crested Carara is actually in the falcon family, but it looks like a hawk. It has long, broad, rounded wings, a long tail, and a relatively long neck.
So those are the raptors we’re talking about today, or considering today, and that we consider in our raptor course.
[Lisa Kopp] So Kevin, just want to clarify something I think is really important that you said, when we talk about raptors, these are not all necessarily related birds, right? And these categories that you’re coming up with, or that you’ve shared, they’re sort of categories for learning, as opposed to relational categories, right?
[Kevin McGowan] Exactly, the taxonomy of these things is quite different. And again, we have these common names, the five kites, they’re not each other’s closest relatives, they’re separated. I mean, actually, Golden Eagle fits between some of the kites in the taxonomy, the actual phylogeny of the birds. So, yes, there’s a lot of convergence here, a lot of birds that look similar for functional reasons, not because they’re related to each other.
[Lisa Kopp] Great, and do you have a recommendation for people who are interested in learning more about the relations of where these raptors fall, from a taxonomic standpoint? Is there a website or a resource that you recommend for that?
[Kevin McGowan] Actually, if you go into the eBird list, the eBird Taxonomy checklist is pretty good. That has things there, separated out.
[Lisa Kopp] And we can put that in the chat.
Great, so also, since we’re talking about these fun, charismatic birds, do you have a favorite raptor? You’ve dedicated, I don’t know how many hours of your life, to coming up with a course and to really trying to educate people about raptors. Is there one that’s stood out as most interesting or engaging to you?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, if I had to name a favorite raptor would probably be the Caracara. They’re just interesting birds, they’re different, they’re actually very smart and social, kind of like crows and they’re just cool. They aren’t your standard everyday hawk, they’re a slightly odd-looking, exotic-looking kind of raptor.
[Lisa Kopp] Where are they found most commonly?
[Kevin McGowan] In the United States, they’re found in Florida, Central Florida, and then Texas to Arizona. But they actually have a range that goes all the way down throughout Central and South America.
[Lisa Kopp] I feel like you are well-qualified to be the authority on which of these is most interesting because I see your name attributed to most of the photo credits on these, which means you’ve seen most of them in person.
[Kevin McGowan] I actually have seen all of the ones that we have listed here in person.
[Lisa Kopp] Very cool, I’m sure you’re making some of our audience members a little jealous with that. So let’s shift things just a little bit and talk about why raptors are a part of our Migration Celebration. Again, I don’t really think of raptors as those kind of birds that migrate, especially, in those big flocks that you sometimes see or hear, like geese or something like that. Do raptors migrate, if so, what does that look like? I’m really curious to learn about migration related to raptors.
[Kevin McGowan] Sure. Yes, raptors do migrate, and they do it in a couple of different ways. You have to understand that migration is all about food, and that if you can find enough food all year round then you don’t move. But if you’re something in the north that is feeding on insects, you’ve got to get out of there in the winter. And that’s true for the raptors.
Let me show you a couple of examples here of raptor migration, let me get you oriented to the map. This is a range map from Birds of the World, which you can find on All About Birds if you don’t subscribe to Birds of the World. And essentially, what it’s showing is, the orangish area is where they breed only and then leave, and the purple is actually year round. And what we can see for the Red-tailed Hawk, which is the most widespread and probably the most common and commonly seen raptor in North America, it breeds all across Canada to Alaska, but they leave the northern part of the range and then join the southern residents that are not moving around. And we just found out this morning, confirmed, that Big Red and Ezra, I guess are the– no, Big Red and Arthur, the Red-tailed Hawks that breed on campus, actually do stick around and are found on campus all through the winter as well. So a resident population, and then a migratory population that comes south into that. And that’s one way that the raptors migrate.
And there are other ones that have an even more distant movement. The Broad-winged Hawk for example, is a common forest hawk of Eastern North America, and they completely leave their breeding ground and move into another area to the south. You can see the blue is where they’re spending their non-breeding time, and the orangish– breeding. And you can see they completely move out of where they are. Now, it just so happens that there are a couple of populations in the Caribbean, in Cuba and in Puerto Rico, that actually don’t move, they’re permanent residents. But the rest of them move completely out of there.
They’re other things that raptors do as well that aren’t quite so easy to characterize. Like the Prairie Falcon shows some different kind of movements, many of them don’t move during the year, they stay, are residents. And then some of them move out of the mountains into the Great Plains, basically to prey on abundant Horned Larks. They specialize on small to medium-sized mammals and birds, especially ground squirrels. But the ground squirrels in the northern part of the range, they hibernate in the winter. And so, they’re not available and the Prairie Falcons have to find some other kind of food. And so, they actually move from mountainous terrain out into the flat Great Plains where millions of Horned Larks spend the winter, and that’s what they specialize. So that’s kind of the range of migration strategies or types of migration for the raptors.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, it’s really varied. For these birds that behaviorally have quite a few things in common, are there any really unique or surprising raptor migration stories?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, there are a couple. For example, take things to extreme, look at the Swainson’s Hawk. It doesn’t just move into the first available place that’s warm enough in the winter in Central and Northern South America, they go from all over the west, from Alaska and to Mexico where they breed, all the way down to the Pampas of Argentina. And these are open country birds, and so they’re skipping over the tropical rainforest kind of areas to get to another temperate grassland sort of thing– way, way, way far away from their breeding grounds.
And then here’s one of the more surprising stories, is the Gyrfalcon Falcon, which is the largest falcon and the world, and it’s found in the highest latitudes all across the Northern Hemisphere. I’m going to zoom in on North America so we can look at this. They live on the arctic tundra, and check it out, they do get off of Greenland and Baffin Island and all, but most of the Gyrfalcon spend the winter in the High Arctic, at the upper edge of the North American continent. They spend the winter in the High Arctic in the dark and cold, and only occasionally do they come down to into southern Canada and the northern US, very few of those. Most of the birds are spending the winter at the top of the world. It’s just amazing to think about it. And again it’s all about food, right? They can find food up there in the winter, they feed primarily on ptarmigans which is a kind of grouse. And the ptarmigans actually spend the winter in the High Arctic because they can find enough food. And it’s just amazing to me to think, that wow, these birds are– why would they do that? It just doesn’t sound like fun to me, to spend the winter up in–
[Lisa Kopp] In the dark and the cold?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, no, not really. But that’s what they do. And then, one other topic I’ll mention, not just with the way they migrate, I mean, the migratory path, but there are a few birds, a few raptors. Raptors are usually pretty solitary, and they usually move around on their own or in pairs, or something like that. But a few species, Swainson’s Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and several other kites, actually migrate in groups. And these groups can be hundreds or even up to thousands of individuals coming together in one spot. And it’s really pretty amazing to see when the Broad-wings come through, they’ll come by in what we call– these kettles, of dozens of birds all flying together. And it seems odd for raptors, but that’s actually that’s what they do.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, if I saw a big group of soaring birds, I would assume, Turkey Vultures or something, I would not assume that they were all a number of hawks. So wow, that’s amazing.
[Kevin McGowan] They also get concentrated in areas, when raptors migrate they tend to funnel to good locations that are conducive for migration, and so you can get clusters of birds like this. But the broad-wings actually fly– definitely, they’re not just all going to the same place, they actually seem to be getting something social out of the whole thing and cluster together. Same thing for the Mississippi Kite and Swallow-tailed Kite, they get in these flocks that actually roost together and move together.
[Lisa Kopp] So one question that a couple of people have asked for some clarity on is a little bit more definition on breeding or nesting. So what’s– backing up a little bit, when we’re talking about breeding grounds, what’s actually happening in that period, or in that time?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, for most birds, their year separated into certain events and we essentially can look at a typical bird as having three jobs to do, or four jobs to do. And one of them is to reproduce. Everybody has to reproduce. And that takes a certain set of requirements, that you can have enough of a certain type of food, you have to raise young, you have the proper places to build a nest, and that kind of stuff. And that usually takes place in a certain part of the year. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, that’s the spring and summer. And then the needs change as you don’t need to feed young. Adults can get by on different food, not as good food perhaps, than the nestlings need. But growing nestlings need high protein, very abundant food source to grow and thrive.
And so, typically something like a Broad-winged Hawk, the birds come north then turn up here in late April or early May in New York, breed through the spring, raise their chicks, get them off, in the out of the nest in the summer, and then they leave in late summer, early fall. And they go down to Central and South America where they’re, again you see them, in the forests down in Central America. And they’re just trying to basically survive, they’re just spending the year down there and then when the seasons change again, they head north again to go back and meet up and another bird, and raise their young.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great that’s helpful. So you mentioned, at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, or those of us especially related to the Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, that there’s something happening this time of year. So is it true that most raptors are following that sort of traditional spring and fall migration? And are there any other unique things– how does migration occur for them? So many other birds I know migrate at night, which is something that not everyone is aware of, do raptors tend to do that as well? We already know that they tend to be solitary, does that mean things are higher risk for them? Just curious about what migration looks like, and when it happens for raptors.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, that’s something people don’t know. It’s always a surprise to people to find out that most songbirds migrate at night, that they’re flying high overhead while you’re sleeping. And raptors don’t do that, and I’ll get into that in the second, but they do have a migratory season, and it is, yes spring and fall again. If we were just talking about the middle latitudes, where we are at Cornell, in Ithaca, the main migration seasons are March, April, and May, and then end of October through November in the fall. They’re not in such a hurry to get anywhere in the fall, so it spreads out over a longer period of time.
Raptors do not migrate at night. And one of the reasons might be that they soar a lot, and so, they use, they get an assistance from the winds. And they take advantage of updrafts that are created in a couple of ways. There’s two ways that they create updrafts, and one is that the sun heats up the Earth when it beats down on especially bare ground, it makes the air hot near the surface of the ground, and that hot air rises. And so we get these updrafts that give lift, and what a hawk can do– and this is where they do this circling thing, you’ll see them doing that, where they’re actually getting higher, and higher, and higher as they circle because they’re staying inside this elevator of up moving air. And so they cannot beat their wings at all, and get boosted way up in the air and then they just kind of glide down. And then you find another updraft, and then you glide down to the next, and it’s a big energy-saving technique. And so there’s that, and that doesn’t happen at night, right, so that’s one of the things.
You can get this updraft by the wind hitting a cliff or a mountainside and pushing the air up. And a lot of hawks use that as well, they migrate along ridges of mountains where the wind is blowing favorably, and it gives them– again, they’re hitching a ride on the elevator of air that is created in these situations. Now, because thermals don’t form over water, raptors kind of prefer to fly around rather than over large lakes and the ocean. So when they migrate, these features on the landscape actually concentrate the raptors into specific places where it’s good to be. Going around The Great Lakes in the spring, there are a couple of really good hawk migration spots to watch. Hawkwatches along the Lake Ontario to the north of us, because the hawks come up and they hit Lake Ontario, and they’ll fly over it, so they go around, and around the corner of those things, the hawks concentrate into large numbers. And you can see, these places, in a day you can see hundreds of hawks flying over it’s really pretty cool.
[Lisa Kopp] Wow, you’re talking about so much related to the Earth and to temperature, and then also seeing some of those raptors that go way far north– we’re getting a lot of questions related to climate change. And I know that this is not necessarily your area of expertise, but I’m curious if you have any information, or if we’re seeing any evidence of human activity or climate change affecting these birds and their behaviors.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, well, it’s a useful question to ask and something to be watching, for sure. Exactly what the effects are or will be, I’m not really well versed in that. Yeah, I mean everybody is going to be affected by this, but I’m not sure I have any simple predictions, or certainly, I don’t know of any studies yet that have looked at effects on raptors of climate change and their migration
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, it’s such a complicated topic, and something that, there are so many issues arising because of climate change that are going to need a lot of study and attention.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, but as you said, raptors are affected in their migration by what happens in the local landscape. And easily, we could imagine some effects that are probably going to happen on this. And whether it could be that it makes more updrafts, because the land’s up more. It could be easier sailing for them, but that would be an optimistic prediction.
[Lisa Kopp] So you mentioned that there are sometimes special spots to spot hundreds of hawks or gatherings of them. Because we’re approaching, or in a time of migration, how can people watching from home find some hawks to observe over these next few months?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, the first thing is to be watchful, especially in open country like agricultural areas, and watch the power line poles for objects that look out of place. I mean, this is a favorite perching spot for raptors. And one of the ways that I see most raptors is, it’s mostly Red-tailed Hawks perching on telephone poles and things like that. So watch for that, be aware that that’s where the hawks are going to be. But because of what I said of the funneling effect of landscape features, there are specific locations that are really good to go to see migrating hawks. Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, Cape May, New Jersey Goshutes in Nevada, there are a number of these places that are really well known for having concentrated hawk migration. And usually there are people who are actually counting the hawks at these, and they’re officially called hawkwatches. And they’re trying to keep track of year-to-year fluctuations of the various species that come through. People get really into this. And these locations are usually open to the public for non-hawk watchers to come participate.
And there’s actually a hawk migration association of North America. Has a searchable database where you can find hawk migration sites state-by-state, or province. And I think we’re going to put a link to that in the chat, where people can go. And it’s actually fun. So if you want to know, OK, I live in Oregon, are there any hawkwatches concentration spots in Oregon? And then you just click on the map of the North America with it, on Oregon, and you’ll find it. Yeah, they’re two, in the eastern mountains of Oregon that you can go to. And if you go to New York, you’ll find they’re like 35, or something like that, in various places around. So that’s a real nice place to check up on something near you.
They usually have websites– that particular database gives an overview of the particular hawkwatch, including, is it good in spring or fall? Because some of these things, because of the landscape features, the hawks go in different directions. And sometimes it’s good for going south but not so good for going north, and that’s like Hawk Mountain is great for in the fall, but not so good in the spring, same thing with Cape May. They don’t really get a concentration of hawks going north along the coast, but you do in the fall going south. So this has all that kind of information, directions, and all that stuff. It’s a really nice place to explore what’s going on around you.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great, and I should mention that actually, next week, as a part of our migration celebration series, we’ve also got two webinars that could help people learn more about how to spot hawks along with many other birds migrating this fall. One on eBird, especially looking at status and trends. And then the other one on BirdCast, which is actually forecasting migrations. So again, we’ll post in the chat how you can sign up for those webinars as additional resources to check out what birds are migrating near you.
So I want to make sure we have time for audience questions. But before we shift gears to that exclusively, I was hoping to have you talk a little bit more about the course that you just created, because there is obviously so, so much to talk about related to raptors. We have 65 questions in the Q&A right now, so there is obviously a thirst for information about these birds. And so I was hoping that you could share a little bit about what that course covers, give people a little sense for that. So that they can maybe check that out for additional information beyond this webinar.
[Kevin McGowan] The course is mostly about raptor identification and how to think about raptors. Not just– here’s this, and this, and this one, but what to look for, what’s really important, and all of that. So there are nine videos, and the first five lessons cover identification techniques and strategies, including using size, shape, color pattern, markings, behavior, sounds, and habitat, and range, to help make an identification. The next seven lessons cover the 34 raptor species found in the US and Canada, one by one. Each raptor has its own page where you can learn what it looks like, how it sounds, how it behaves, and where it’s found. They include a video that goes over the important marks, characteristics, of each species. Then, there are charts of important field marks. And a chance to build your skills with an interactive tool to see if you can pick out the raptor of interest using photographs from Macaulay Library
And this is a really, a really cool thing, we call it SnapID. And so what it does, if we’re on Red-tailed Hawk, you’re looking for a Red-tailed Hawk and we put up distractors with it. But it’s randomly pulling these images out of Macaulay Library so every time you play it, you get a different set of photographs. And so, you can play it over and over, and over, and you won’t be having the same match ups. It’ll be giving you different match ups all the time. So it’s like a bottomless tool to practice with.
[Lisa Kopp] A digital version of flashcards.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, and it’s not just it’s not just a quiz. So it’s not like, oh you just go through and answer 10 questions, and see if you know it or not. This isn’t the point, we’re not quizzing you, we are helping you learn. And that’s actually a really exciting tool.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, and we should mention that we’ve got a special discount on Kevin’s raptor course, which we will put the promo code to in the chat. So if you’re interested in taking that course, you can get a 20% discount through the end of September on that. So Kevin, anything that you want to mention before we jump to this really active Q&A?
[Kevin McGowan] No, I think we’ve covered a lot, and there’s a whole lot more to cover. But yeah, I think we’ve got a good start here.
[Lisa Kopp] Great, so one thing that I’m seeing come up repeatedly is, how or when or is it possible to see raptors in urban areas? I know, we live in upstate New York, we see them on telephone poles, you mentioned open fields. But I do hear stories here and there about raptors showing up or being very active in urban areas.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, it’s actually, it’s an encouraging trend. So you have to understand that basically, the lowest point for raptors in North America was in the late ’40s and ’50s, 1940, 1950s. They’ve been shot with impunity forever, and we cut down all the forests, and so the raptors kind of stayed away. And there’s DDT around that affected them as well. And once we ban DDT and actually covered the raptors under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, that provides protection for every other bird basically– that happened in, I think the ’60s or ’70s. And then we started being more friendly to wildlife, stopped shooting them, and a lot of birds that had population declines started coming back.
And that was great, and raptors are one of those. And one of the things that’s happened as human attitudes have changed over the last 50 years is that we’re not shooting, and we’re not doing anything. And the birds are coming in closer, and close. And so yes, there are a number of species of raptors that have successfully come into towns. Peregrine Falcon is the most obvious one, right, they basically only breed on east of the Mississippi. They pretty much just breeding on big skyscrapers, and big cities, and on bridges. And so they make a living in New York City, and Rochester, and all of that. So that’s the most classic example, but there are other things that are coming into towns too, I mean, everybody’s heard of Pale Male, Red-tailed Hawk in Central Park, and there are a number of red-tailed hawks in the parks in New York City. But in the suburbs areas, probably the most common bird that’s moving in and nesting near people is Cooper’s Hawk. And that’s one people may not know. There are some very well-established Cooper’s Hawk, urban Cooper’s Hawk populations too.
Trying to think, what else is another one that’s moving in? I know there’s another one that I’m forgetting– oh, Merlins, a small falcon. They also really like to nest in town. And they eat a lot of House Sparrows, which also nest in town. So it works for them, and they’ve become another big urban specialists, not special– well actually, are sort of specialists.
So Merlin is a boreal forest bird. They breed across Canada. And they started moving southward and they came into New York in about 1988, or something like that. Into the Adirondacks, which is also boreal forest so that seemed normal, that they were moving south into other boreal forest.
But then all of a sudden, they started turning up in– the next thing I heard about, it was in Binghamton. The one was breeding in along the southern tier of New York, in a cemetery in the city. And what we found is that they have spread all across New York state to breed, but only in cities. And so it’s like they’ve found, that’s a good habitat to use, and so that’s what they’re doing, is they’re skipping– there is no other boreal forest outside of the Adirondacks, so it’s like it’s OK we’ll just go to town and eat House Sparrows.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, and that does sort of speak to, maybe not the climate change piece, but the human behavior piece affecting birds. They’ve adapted to now, instead of being in the boreal forest they’re now in neighborhoods and towns.
[Kevin McGowan] Yep, that’s one of the things that it’s really interesting to me is that, human behavior, not just– we know that the things we do, like cut down forests or pollute the air, and all that, have consequences with birds. But just a change in attitude? It’s just like, I like birds, I’m not going to scare them out of my yard. And that has become very pervasive in our society. And it’s made for huge changes in bird populations.
[Lisa Kopp] The birds that you’re mentioning are either moving to or finding success in cities, I’m curious, and seeing some questions related to how territorial raptors are. Are there issues with raptors going after each other, or do they seem to be OK cohabitating in places where there’s an abundance of food?
[Kevin McGowan] So are you asking different species, or within a species?
[Lisa Kopp] Well, I guess both. I’m seeing questions about how territorial raptors are, and I’m not sure which of those they’re asking. But I’m curious about both as well.
[Kevin McGowan] Well, most raptors are pretty territorial around their breeding sites and so yeah, most species are rather spaced out across the landscape. And they don’t really like other raptors coming into their hunting grounds, and that kind of thing. There are some exceptions to that. Some of the kites actually are fairly social and will cluster up a little bit. And this again, is a lot related to food. And that is, if you have a defendable food source, and a dependable food source, where you know it’s going to be, all the time, and that you can defend. But for things like Mississippi Kite, Swallowtail Kite, they eat mostly flying insects. And those are not particularly dependable or defendable, and so they end up being able to cluster together because they’re all just going up in the air and flying around, finding wherever the insects are. And so you can get clusters of birds like that aren’t very territorial at all.
[Lisa Kopp] That was actually going to be my next question, do raptors eat insects besides other than mammals?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, they do. And as I say, those two kites, the Swallowtail Kite and the Mississippi Kite specialize on big flying insects like beetles and dragonflies, and things like that. And other raptors like Kestrel, for example, the small falcon, they eat a fair number of big insects too, like grasshoppers and stuff. But the other kite, the White-tailed Kite is actually is a small mammal specialist. And it eats very few insects, it just eats after mice most of the time, so, a variety of things. Most raptors are fairly broad-minded in what they’re going to eat, so it could be a lot of different things.
[Lisa Kopp] And what is the deal with scavenging versus hunting? I feel like I see– there’s obviously the usual suspects of scavengers, Turkey Vultures and things like that. But I’ll see like a Red-tailed Hawk picking at something at the side of the road. Is that just low hanging fruit for them, or?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, exactly, meat’s meat. It’s like, hey, I didn’t have to kill something, so I’ll just– it’s already dead for me. They take advantage, yeah. So there are a number of raptors that actually will scavenge. Most of them probably will, to some extent. I don’t think the falcons scavenge, but I mean, certainly the eagles do. They’ll turn up with vultures at a big carcass, and things like that. And then the smaller ones like red-tail and red-shoulder, they would do that as well.
[Lisa Kopp] Do raptors ever store food?
[Kevin McGowan] Yes, some of the falcons catch food, most of the big hawks don’t, but yeah, certainly Kestrels do, now and then.
[Lisa Kopp] We’ve got a really great question. I actually can’t believe we haven’t talked about it yet. But the reason that we often see something like a Red-tailed Hawk on a telephone pole or on a telephone wire is because they’re looking down, and they’re scanning for something that they might be able to catch. Can you talk about raptor eyesight? Because I do feel like there’s something unique and special about that for them.
[Kevin McGowan] Well, it is, and they do have a far better resolving power than we do. So they can see things and discriminate them from a very good distance, I don’t have numbers for anything like this, but yeah, they are. Almost all raptors are visual hunters. The Northern Harrier uses sound to find prey as well. So they’ll be flying low over grassland and their face pointed down, and they hear mice moving around in their tunnels and things like that. And they actually have an owl-shaped face, they have a facial disk that makes them look very owl-like when you look at them. And it is exactly what an owl spatial disk is too, because that’s an ear. They’re specialized feathers that concentrate the sound that comes in to the face, concentrate it into the ear openings, and so they’re basically using their entire face as an ear to catch sound and pull it in. And as I say, they look like an owl and they do the same thing as an owl. But most other species are almost exclusively vision hunters
[Lisa Kopp] Again, roadways seem to be such a common spot for raptors, is there a reason that they’re in those areas? Is it just that there’s an available place to perch, or– I would think that that would be a really disruptive place. Many songbirds or other birds you’d see flocking away from noise, and sound, and things like that.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, and it is mostly because– well part of it is, that may change our perception because we can see them there, and we don’t see them sitting in a forest somewhere where they’re doing the same thing. But those open areas along the roads do have available prey and we see a lot of red-tails because red-tails are an open country forager. And even in a forest or a highway going through the woods, or whatever, there’s that green grass open space that attracts meadow voles and things like that. And so it is providing a resource that’s available to them. It’s a productive hunting ground, that’s what they’re adapted for, that’s what they want.
[Lisa Kopp] Is there anything special about raptor scent, their ability to smell? I’ve got a couple of questions about especially Turkey Vultures, do they have a special ability to smell roadkill? Sorry, this is getting a little grisly here at the end.
[Kevin McGowan] Well, yes, Turkey Vultures do. They can smell, they have a very good sense of smell. And that’s one of the ways that they find carcasses. Yes, they’re attracted to the smell. Now Black Vultures on the other hand, don’t have a good sense of smell. They they’re primarily visual and so when you get the two vultures together in one place, it’s often that the Turkey Vulture finds a carcass and then the Black Vulture sees Turkey Vultures going down, and visually come over and come into the thing. But Turkey Vultures are more or less solitary, they don’t really have many big social bonds. But the Black Vultures do, they’re very social and they come in huge numbers. And so a Turkey Vulture is bigger than a Black Vulture, and at first the Turkey Vulture is maintaining their dominance on the carcass but then eventually enough Black Vultures come in that they push the Turkey Vultures away and the Black Vultures get it, so it’s two different strategies.
[Lisa Kopp] One thing that has always struck me about raptors is that these powerful strong looking birds, and then their vocalizations are like the puniest little sounds, for the most part. And even in movies, I know like, when there’s the sound of an eagle, they usually are swapping in another bird because the eagles vocalization is just really not that impressive. It’s not strong enough for what we think of a Bald Eagle should be. So any information on why these birds have these, as opposed to like a Blue Jays, that’s like so loud and such a presence. Why are raptors, why do they have these squeaky little calls?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, I guess they just don’t need to use it in most situations. I mean, they are– raptors as a whole are not very noisy. The exception, the major exception being Red-shouldered Hawk, which is like a constant, constant, sound in the southeastern forests of the United States. They’re extraordinarily vocal and yelling all the time. Kee-ar, kee-arr, kee-arr. But you’re right, that everybody always uses the Red-tailed Hawk for eagles because the eagles just are a little chirping thing, in or not very powerful. I have to say, once you get out of the United States and Canada, then we find more hawks that actually make noise. There are a number, like the forest falcons in Central and South America that have very loud calls. Laughing Falcon has very loud calls that, again, a constant, constant thing in the neotropical forest is hearing Laughing Falcons every day.
[Lisa Kopp] What about mating displays? Sometimes you see pictures, or actually witnessed it once like to hawk sort of tumbling through the air what does it look like. What are their mating displays, and then how does it actually happen for them? Sometimes it can seem pretty like pretty dangerous as they’re tumbling through the air.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, I mean Bald Eagles have this big display where they lock talons and pinwheel, and drop down. They usually get up, let go before they hit, but they have been recorded actually hit the ground. But yeah, so with a lot of raptors, there’s mostly aerial displays that involve flight of some kind. Perhaps that’s demonstrating your potential ability to catch food for the kids or something like that. It varies species to species, but there is a lot of aerial displays, flying together and sometimes flying and touching each other like that on the back. I can’t really generalize too much about that.
[Lisa Kopp] The biggest raptor in the world, is that the Philippine Eagle?
[Kevin McGowan] No, actually the it’s the Harpy Eagle, like the Philippine Eagle but in the neotropics in Central and South America. And they’re pretty close in size, and then actually, they’re chesty but they’re also forest birds so they don’t have the biggest wingspan. I’m trying to think what has the biggest wingspan, I think maybe, Steller’s Sea Eagle. The biggest wingspan is, for all of them, is Andean Condor. But real hawks, not vultures, then it’s one of the big eagles.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, it’s so interesting talking about this raptor category being one that we put together in a more abstract way than the taxonomy. And how to relate that to what’s North American versus worldwide too. But I know size is always a fun question for people to know.
[Kevin McGowan] And the smallest ones are, and think it’s the Pygmy Falconets in Southeast Asia that are about the size of a budgie. When I was showing– used to give tours and through the bird collection at the museum at the Lab, people would always say, oh I want to see the raptors let’s see, the raptors and I say OK. I always start off with the Pygmy Falconette because it’s just this tiny thing, because they wanted to see the Philippine Eagle, right, not the Pygmy Falconette. But hey, you know, I always say, hey, if you were a butterfly you’d be terrified.
[Lisa Kopp] Well, and that brings up another interesting question. I’ve seen a couple of people mentioning that sometimes you see a hawk being chased by a bunch of smaller birds, which again, you feel like the hawk could just turn around and be like, don’t mess with me. What’s happening there? I think I often see Red-winged Blackbirds chasing a Red-tailed Hawk.
[Kevin McGowan] Yep, and crows mob them a lot too. It’s a question– one, is that the hawks are predators and the little birds don’t like that. But little birds don’t like birds bigger than them. And they’re more agile, and so they can dart in and do this, and actually annoy them. And they will actually peck the raptor sometimes, but mostly it’s just like mosquitoes for a raptor, they’re not that much problem. But occasionally you’ll see a Red-tailed turn around and try to nab a Crow coming down. And I mean, they occasionally do get caught by that, but not very often. And yeah, so it’s just all little birds hate big birds and so they just want to pester them as much as they can.
[Lisa Kopp] Well, it is almost impossible to believe that we are one minute away from the hour. This has been such a wonderful conversation, I’ve learned so much even though I work with you at the Lab. And I want to thank the audience for the really excellent questions and all the great comments in the chat. We will be emailing anyone who registered for this webinar a link to the archived version of this talk so you’ll be able to watch this any time. We actually won’t be emailing that out until next week, at the end of our Migration Celebration week of programming. But we hope that in the meantime you check out some of our other upcoming webinars. And we will be reposting in the chat the link to Kevin’s raptor course and the promo code, because obviously there is so much more to learn about raptors. And while you’re there, you should check out Kevin’s other courses on the Bird Academy page. He’s a gifted instructor, and there’s lots to learn from Kevin on those courses. So thank you so much, Kevin, for joining us today, and for all of the really fascinating information
[Kevin McGowan] Oh, you’re welcome, it’s nice to be here. It’s fun to talk about this kind of stuff.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, and thank you all so much for joining. I hope you have a great day and we will see you at our next program, bye.End of transcript
Raptors are powerful, fast, and fascinating! And during migration many of them are on the move. Join Bird Academy course instructor Dr. Kevin McGowan as we investigate the wide diversity of these impressive birds and explore the who, what, where, and when of their migrations. You’ll learn which raptors to keep an eye out for this fall.
This event is part of our virtual Migration Celebration. Visit the Migration Celebration webpage for the full schedule of events, migration resources, and family-friendly activities.
- Sign up for Kevin’s new Bird Academy Course Be a Better Birder: Hawk and Raptor Identification
- Explore recent hawk sightings near you thanks to the Hawk Migration Association of North America
- Search All About Birds for additional information on Kevin’s favorite raptor species.