|Red-tail Hawk photo by H. David Husic|
My first memorable encounters with raptors occurred while on safari in Kenya back in the early 1990s. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen raptors before; I simply hadn’t paid much attention to them. However, a carcass on the savannah covered with various species of vultures and Marabou storks picking at scraps of rotting flesh is a scene that is at once both fascinating and disturbing. While certainly not a Disney-image (The Lion King featured Zazu, the hornbill, rather than any raptors), it is one that is not readily forgotten. And it is, or at least was, a common scene in many parts of Africa.
“African vultures, nearly all of them, are in big trouble,” writes Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D., Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at Hawk Mountain.
“From the once ubiquitous African White-backed and Hooded Vulture to the decidedly less common Lappet-faced and Cape Vulture, all 11 species of Africa’s vultures appear to be in substantial decline. Unintended poisoning, use in both traditional medicine and the bush meat trade, and widespread habitat loss all are taking their tolls.”
Last September, I created a blog entry commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. In that post, I wrote the following:
I now live in an area filled with raptor fanatics – hawk watchers and counters. These folks are quick to tell stories of the decline of raptors decades ago, especially of ospreys and eagles, and how some of the fall migration count data from “the Ridge” [the section of the Appalachian Mountains known as the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania] helped to support the case that DDT might be leading to this decline. Indeed, Rachel Carson spent time at Hawk Mountain – just down the Appalachian Ridge from where I live. In her chapter “And No Birds Sing”, Carson speaks of Maurice Brown and Hawk Mountain, and the sharp decline of immature Bald Eagles noted in the 1950’s.
I have learned a lot about raptors since that trip to Kenya; it happens by osmosis if some of your work involves conservation along the Kittatinny Ridge – a leading line for fall raptor migration in the eastern United States. The ridge is home to numerous hawk count locations registered with the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA), an organization that is “committed to the conservation of raptors through the scientific study, enjoyment, and appreciation of raptor migration.” There are several renowned raptor researchers in the region from colleges, universities, and nature centers such as the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, Hawk Mountain, and the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art. Add to this dozens of volunteers with decades of experience as hawk counters who have gained their expertise in the “classrooms” on the rocky outcroppings of the ridge and from the shared stories passed down through the seasons. I still have much to learn – both about identification of raptors in flight and their natural history. But I have found that sifting through the fall migration count records and Audubon Christmas Bird Count data on raptors provides interesting clues as to how changing weather patterns might be influencing raptor behavior and ranges even without having to sit on rock piles for an entire day in cold, blustery conditions to gather that data.
In a recent conversation about the strong regional interest in raptors, my ornithologist friend and colleague, Dr. Terry Master from East Stroudsburg University (who was also on that trip to Kenya years ago), shared the following:
As far as raptors go, I guess I have a soft spot for the example many species set as the first popularized bioindicators (other than canaries in coal mines of course!) of a major environmental problem, a role they continue to play. [I am] thinking of vulture populations in Asia which have been decimated by the use of Diclofenac in domestic animals. They are pioneers in this regard and in a sense have justified the use of many other species … as subsequent bioindicators of various environmental impacts in differing habitats.
The near demise of birds of prey in this country due to the use of DDT is a well known story in environmental circles and beyond. Rachel Carson chronicled this for the masses in her seminal book. Sadly, “mass murderer,” “guilty of genocide,” and “responsible for more deaths than Hitler” are all labels that have been applied to Carson solely because she raised concerns about the impact of synthetic chemicals on wildlife (and humans) in a book that was accessible to housewives and Ph.D. chemists alike.
In doing some research for the blog post to mark the anniversary of Silent Spring, I came across a number of contemporary commentaries about Carson and her work – many which were as scathing as the ones from a half century before. One editorial piece in Forbes Magazine in particular caught my attention, especially the following statement:
The legacy of Rachel Carson is that tens of millions of human lives – mostly children in poor, tropical countries – have been traded for the possibility of slightly improved fertility in raptors. This remains one of the monumental human tragedies of the last century. 
The line about raptors is one that I continue to be obsessed by. This statement trivializes Carson’s messages in Silent Spring as well as the subsequent studies that led to the banning of DDT in this country. It also ignores the fact that DDT is still used in tropical regions of the planet that remain plagued by malaria. But in reading this line which is so dismissive of these birds, I once again began to wonder about the value of raptors. Why it is that so many individuals dedicate their time or careers to researching birds of prey and working to conserve the habitats they require. I think back to Kenya when our group watched a Palm-nut Vulture for what seemed like hours. A striking bird and a lifer, yes, but after a few minutes, I was ready to move on. What was the fascination for the others?
I began a quest for answers with an internet search for definitions and origins of the word “raptor”. Typical definitions include “a bird of prey;”, “a carnivorous bird that hunts for its food;” “a thief, robber, plunderer;” or “one of a family of carnivorous dinosaurs having tearing claws on the hind legs. (i.e. velociraptor; think Jurassic Park).” About.com has a page entitled “Raptors – The Bird-Like Dinosaurs of the Cretaceous Period. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Raptors.” No mention of hawks, eagles, falcons, osprey, condors, vultures, or owls, so far from everything that I wanted to know.
Etymology sites yielded some interesting word history. For instance, from the Online Etymology Dictionary, “raptor” appears to first have been used around 1600 as a noun meaning “raviser” or “abductor”. Ornithological applications didn’t show up until around 1873. Raptorial, used as an adjective, meant “predatory” and “robber”. These words are derived from the Latin root rapere that means “to seize and carry away”, and is associated with “any bird that kills with its feet.” The Spanish word rapter is also derived from this Latin heritage and means “kidnapper” or “abductor”. I stumbled upon other interesting and surprising trivia about the origins of the word:
…the word "rapture" comes from the same Latin root as the word "raptor." It has to do with being "taken up," the same way a giant predatory bird, or perhaps a dinosaur, takes up its prey in its talons. And metaphorically speaking, I suppose getting taken in by someone or some idea is quite a similar concept. We give our "rapt" attention when we are absolutely taken by what is being said or who is saying it.
Birds of prey, then, are associated in language and practice to notions of robbery and abduction. Hunters considered raptors, especially hawks and eagles, as competitors for game. Ranchers and herders have long viewed raptors (as well as mammalian predators) as vermin, a threat to their livelihood. At a time when the Pennsylvania Game Commission paid a bounty for raptors, Rosalie Edge, a New York conservationist and activist, purchased 1400 acres along the Kittatinny Ridge, to thwart sport hunters who had raptors as their prime targets. This land was deeded to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association in 1938. In writing about hawk watching in Veracruz, Mexico, Scott Weidensaul noted that “Rural Mexicans are most likely to view raptors as competitors, pests, or gunnery targets…” Such perspectives are critical to consider given that this region serves as a bottleneck in the migration pathway of raptors from the eastern two-thirds of North America. For this reason, many conservation groups, including Hawk Mountain, are actively involved in both hawk counts and educational programs in the region.
Raptors theoretically have federal protection in this country under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Despite this, there are many threats endangering raptors here and around the planet. These range from land use practices that reduce the availability of prey or suitable breeding habitat, to a long list of other factors including pollution, accidental or intentional poisoning, hunting, illegal capture and trade (e.g. for falconry), fragmentation of habitat along their migration flyways, collisions with power lines, wind turbines, and glass windows, and climate change.
In 2005, a year-long study commissioned by the United Kingdom (UK) Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) found that more than 50% of migratory birds of prey populations in the African-Eurasian region were in poor conservation status, and many species were showing rapid or long-term declines. 
Reading this, I was reminded of a statement on the Hawk Mountain website:
In southern Asia three previously abundant species of vultures (the White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture, and Slender-billed Vulture) have undergone catastrophic declines of more than 99% during the past 25 years because of the widespread use of a veterinary drug that is toxic to vultures that feed on the carcasses of treated livestock [emphasis added].
In December 2012, the first meeting of the signatories to the U.N. Environment Programme/ Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (UNEP/CMS) -- Raptors Memorandum of Understanding was held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. This meeting was attended by more than 90 participants, including representatives from 22 signatories and the European Union. According to a report from this meeting, participants were “conscious of the scale of the challenges facing migratory birds of prey.”
My investigation was turning up significant evidence for the threatened status of raptors. Many known causes for this imperiled status trace back to historic negative (mis)perceptions of these birds and their role in nature. Indeed, many still hold a deep distrust of birds of prey. In contrast, when I turn to books on our shelves at home, written by the likes of Dunne, Sibley, Sutton, Liguori, and Weidensaul, I find remarkable details about hawks and hawk watching, written with great passion for these birds.
There are others who share strong positive connections to raptors. In Native American culture, hawks and eagles are considered sacred. Because feathers and talons from raptors have special meaning in ceremonies, federal legislation in the U.S. provides special exemptions for Native Americans in terms of taking or possessing parts of raptors. In native cultures, acts of bravery could earn boys or men an eagle feather – a great honor. We have Eagle Scouts – the highest honor in the Boy Scouts of America. And raptors are often mascots for sports teams from schools to the NBA. (The Toronto Raptor’s mascot, which sadly is a red dinosaur rather than a bird, was named one of the best mascots in professional sports.)
I still wasn’t learning about why people care so much about raptors, but it began to occur to me that their protection is needed even more now than in the time of Rachel Carson. Returning to the line from the editorial that prompted this investigation, I decided to simply send this quote in a query to raptor-infatuated friends and colleagues and ask them to discuss the value of raptors, their personal reasons for caring so much. I received a number of lengthy responses, many expressing frustration about the quote. The respondents (interestingly, all were male) indicated how they appreciate the diversity amongst raptors, their ability to adapt and hunt in different habitats, the miracle of their sometimes lengthy migrations. But in their comments, were also deeper, more philosophical responses that began to answer my question about the value of raptors.
Scott Burnet, chair of the Habitat Development & Enhancement Committee for the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society (LVAS) writes:
What an egotistical species we have become to assume that our presence is far more valuable than the existence of the creatures we attempt to exterminate and control every day. I truly believe that Humanity's time on Earth will, speaking in terms of the Planet's time clock, be but a second. The footnote about us will be that we caused the unnecessary extinction of thousands of species...
Regarding the issue of the Raptors affected by the use of DDT, have any of these "brainiac" chemical engineers, who vilify the likes of Ms. Carson, figured into the equation the astronomical numbers of rodents (who carry even more deadly diseases for us) that these birds consume every minute of every day on this Planet? They approach the whole issue on a lop-sided platform. If Raptors were eradicated, or even allowed to decline as they did in the 60's, the rodent population would skyrocket in just a short time. Have they heard of such things as Bubonic Plague (which was also responsible for the deaths of millions of "innocent" children!)…There is no human on the Planet fed on commercially grown foods who is “innocent” at all…
And what would life on this Planet be like if you could not stand on her shoulders and hear the soul of Mother Earth in the cry of a Red-Tailed Hawk far above, riding the wind. This bird cries out, not for a known reason, but just for the sheer joy of being free and majestic and awe-inspiring, as all of Mother Nature's creatures are. And why can't we let them be? Peregrine Falcons have been nesting near our home (in west Allentown) again for the last few years, after an absence of 40-odd years. When I heard of, and actually was fortunate enough to be granted permission to see in person, that first clutch of chicks, it elicited an emotion in me that I cannot (through words) describe. I wept, uncontrollably. To think that we pushed these birds to the precipice of extinction is appalling to me. At every chance I get, I pass this on to young folks I meet, who have even an inkling of interest in Ecology. Humanity's future is now in the hands of your son and his generation. Let's hope they have learned much from the mistakes of Humans past.
Doug Burton, a local naturalist, also mentioned the ecological costs of agriculture and questions whether the United States (or others) should be expected to feed the world’s growing population.
Without the rainforest, we would not have birds, and without birds would the insect population get out of control and then hurt our crops? Nature has a fine balance to everything, and as stewards, we do not want to upset it. Raptors keep the bird population in check, and without this, would too many birds start to eat our bee population, and in turn, hurt our crop production? …If you start to think about what's going on today in the world, should we as a country be spending large amounts of money on our military or putting the money in schools in other lands, to educate these people and in turn, they are better educated on population growth and to be better stewards.
On the day I sent my electronic query, Gerry Ellis, of the Great Apes Diary Project coincidently wrote a relevant blog post that he forwarded:
Highlights from an Absolutely Perfect Ridgefield Day :
– Golden-crowned Kinglets, Merlin aerial ballet with American Crow, White-fronted Goose, Red-shouldered Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Cackling (Canada) Goose, Black Phoebe, Sandhill Cranes — all-n-all it was a wonderfully spectacular day for watching raptors we don’t often see (plus Peregrine, Redtails, Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture N. Harrier and Am. Kestrel), call it the windy clear sky, the returning geese, the sharp bite in the morning air, I don’t care: to watch a Merlin swoop, pirouette and plunge on a crow with such amazing grace and ease was like being a child once again and remembering Mrs. Marx, my birding mentor (she doubled as my grade school librarian) and truancy savior and the gift she gave to me called “watching and listening to birds” — my life has been richer than any I can repay.
Jon Levin, a member of the LVAS board, totally disagreed with the statement in the quote.
Have we forgotten that what the populations for our raptors were in the 60's and 70's? I cannot imagine what the world would be like if Rachael Carson did not write Silent Spring when she did.
Don Heintzelman, founder of the Bake Oven Knob Hawk Count and author of Guide to Hawk Watching in North America, was also annoyed by the quote, and like Dr. Master, spoke of the value of raptors as bioindicators:
As for raptors, they provide important biological early warning systems which environmental contaminants such as DDT have on some bird species (such as some 40 species of aquatic-oriented birds such as Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, etc.). Derek Ratcliffe in England was the first to detect the "thin-eggshell syndrome" in Peregrines, and this was quickly confirmed here in the states by Joe Hickey.
For Dan Kunkle, Executive Director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, the statement elicited several responses:
1) from Chief Sealth's lament: "What is a man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts happens to man. All things are connected." And "Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth." (Excuse the sexist language of another era.) Rachel Carson was never focused on the "improved fertility of raptors." It was always about the earth and ultimately about people. But what was happening to wildlife and the environment was a bellwether of what would happen to humans if we did not change our ways.
2) Raptors mean a lot to me. There is a lot of bad environmental news and it is easy to get down in the dumps about it. But when I go up to Bake Oven Knob and sit on a rock (alone or with a few people who share your admiration for raptors) and observe the natural procession of migrating raptors, peace settles over me. There is still a lot right with this world of ours and there is much to save. And the recovery of certain species such as Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons shows that nature will respond to our conservation efforts. It is not too late.
3) In a more ecological sense, raptors are part of the dynamic fabric of nature that is constantly changing but linked in ways that maintain equilibrium. Remove raptors from the system and you tear at some of the threads in the web of life, weakening the web. As Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote in their book Extinction, that web of life consists of many species, each analogous to one of the rivets holding the wings onto an airplane. Would you want to ride on a jet that has lost some of those rivets? Surely there is redundancy and you don't need all those rivets to keep the wings on. So we can do without some of them -- but at some point, we pass a critical number and the wings fall off. Raptors are among the many rivets in our biosphere. We can't afford to keep losing more rivets.
4) Aldo Leopold wrote in the introduction to Sand County Almanac: "There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot." I count myself as one who cannot. Nature gives me peace and excitement and an endless source of wonder and learning. If we destroy any species, there is one less marvel of evolution out there to admire. And raptors are among the most marvelous. I really would not want to live in a world devoid of raptors -- that would be "the end of living, the beginning of survival.
Finally, Ed Newcomb, a member of the LGNC board writes an exquisite tribute:
When I see an eagle soaring or a peregrine swooping I get an immediate lift like the wind was beneath my wings.
The soaring raptor symbolizes freedom from our daily concerns. The look in their eyes speaks of spirit and courage.
I also think a spark of the dashing hunter still beats in the heart of man.
The raptors fan the spark...
Years ago, I traveled to Singapore as part of a trade mission. I had a free day and decided to visit the famed Jurong Bird Park -- home to hundreds of species of birds from around the world in one location. What I remember most were the raptors, especially the sea eagles, birds that I had never seen before. They all wore a shackle, a leg iron, which was attached to what looked like a doghouse. “Slaves,” I thought. Used on occasion for the circus-like show “King of the Skies” for the visitors.
Like predators on the prowl, this mighty winged warriors will appear when you least expect them. Be captivated by the strength and agility of these amazing raptors including the White-tailed Sea Eagle, the Hooded Vulture and the Bald Eagle. Meet the parade of our twilight friends, the Malay Fish Owl, the Eurasian Eagle Owl and the popular Snowy Owl. See for yourself why the scurrying prey of an Owl never seem to get a chance to hear what’s coming before they are snatched by talons from above.
Stay alert when the fearsome and infamous Vultures enter the grounds. They’ll be thirsting for a kill. For the spectacular finale, keep your eagle eyes focused in the air for a sight that’s sure to win you new respect for the Kings of the Skies and their mighty trainers.
This was not right. These were birds meant to soar. Birds of prey that certainly didn’t need “mighty trainers” to teach them what they knew by instinct. I could do nothing but feel nauseous and weep.
Chief Seathl was correct to lament:
We are part of the earth, and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony and man -- all belong to the same family.
We do not trade the lives of children for raptors, our ever-important bioindicators and symbols of wildness and freedom and bravery. Carson was warning us, as was Chief Seathl – warnings we still do not heed.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
Where is the thicket? Gone.
Where is the eagle? Gone.
The end of living and the beginning of survival.
|Laughing Falcon, Coba, Mexico (Photo by H. David Husic)|
 Bake Oven Knob (BOK) is one of several count sites along the Kittatinny Ridge and the hawk migration count conducted there is a long term research project of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center (http://lgnc.org/research/bok-hawk-watch) and an important part of the Kittatinny-Shawangunk National Raptor Migration Corridor Project (See http://www.raptorcorridor.org/). The annual count at BOK was started in 1961 by Donald S. Heintzelman, who directed the count for 37 years.
 See: http://www.nedsmithcenter.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=18 for information about the Saw-whet Owl research project coordinated by Scott Weidensaul.
 Miller, H.I. and Conko, G. “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies”, an op-ed in Forbes (9/5/12) available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2012/09/05/rachel-carsons-deadly-fantasies/.
 From the history of Hawk Mountain; http://www.hawkmountain.org/who-we-are/history/page.aspx?id=387. See also Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature from the Conservationists by Dyana Z. Furmansky, University of Georgia Press (2009).
 Weidensaul, Scott, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, North Point Press (New York, 1999), p. 107.
 See the Earth Negotiations Bulletin summary and analysis of the First Meeting of the Signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding of the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey in Africa and Eurasia (9-11 December 2012). Report available from the IISD Reporting Services at http://www.iisd.ca/cms/raptors/mos/2012/
 Ratcliffe, D.A. (1967) “Decrease in Eggshell Weight in Certain Birds of Prey,” Nature 215: 208-210.
 Hickey, J.J. and D.W. Anderson (1968) “Chlorinated hydrocarbons and eggshell changes in raptorial and fish-eating birds,” Science, 162: 271 – 273.
 The show goes on. This description was taken from the Jurong Bird Park website on December 27, 2012: http://www.birdpark.com.sg/shows-feedings/kings-skies-show.html#ad-image-0.