3 Billion Birds Gone: Our Raptor Response

By Sean Grace, President

Posted on September 27, 2019 in General

Northern Harrier
Northern harrier, a species in decline. Photo by Bill Moses.

Last week the birding world dropped its collective jaw following the alarming study published in the journal Science, which reported 3 billion birds have been lost across North America in the last 50 years. Perhaps most notable is that this number not only includes threatened species, but also common birds. If you’re a birder like me, this study only confirms what we’ve seen over time in the field…fewer of my favorite common birds like chimney swifts, the not so common nighthawk, field sparrows, yellow-billed cuckoos, and eastern meadowlarks. Warblers and grassland nesting birds have been particularly hit hard.

But what about the raptors?

While some species like the American bald eagle and peregrine falcon are of the world’s most notable conservation success stories, their healthy populations can be traced back to long-standing monitoring programs that could document a decline over time, sound an alarm, and work to seek answers. Rachel Carson, for example, spent time at Hawk Mountain reviewing our data sets that helped her make a case in her landmark Silent Spring. We also know now that grassland raptors like harriers and kestrels are in decline, as well as some of our forest hawks. That’s why data from the Sanctuary’s annual hawk count remains as critical today as it was when Maurice Broun began the first-ever systematic record of raptor populations in 1934.

While Hawk Mountain may be famous for our raptor counts, you may not know that we’ve taken it a step further with the collaborative Raptor Population Index Program. Raptors are umbrella species that require large areas for hunting. When their populations are healthy, all other species thrive as well. Working with Birds Studies Canada, HawkWatch International, and the Hawk Migration Association of North America, the best minds in raptor monitoring and statistics have compiled trends in raptor species by flyway and region that are updated every three years and shared with the public at rpi-project.org. These trend estimates are some of the best data available on raptor populations and help guide land management and conservation priorities.

Yearly, we train young scientists from the U.S. and abroad, who then return to their countries of origin, all around the globe, and begin their own long-term studies and monitoring. I know Hawk Mountain is one of the best values in conservation, leveraging donations to support young scientists who go on to do great things. Some trainees have helped launch global mega-count sites in places like Batumi in the Republic of Georgia and Veracruz, Mexico, while others are working hard in key organizations across North America such as the American Bird Conservancy and Cornell Lab.

We work with raptors around the globe, but locally we are focusing on American kestrels. We intend to launch a new study working with partners across the continent to band birds using Motus tags in both winter and summer, track their survival, and test using blood sampling for environmental contaminants and disease. Our goal is to learn where different populations winter and where we are losing them, and ultimately, what can we do to reverse the trend. In fact, our long-standing kestrel monitoring and banding program is one of the longest standing in North America and was recently expanded to partner with Cedar Crest College to begin taking blood samples.

At the Sanctuary, we are working harder than ever to protect breeding and wintering species by protecting our lands through permanent conservation easement and improving this critical habitat over the long term. Through this work, we can better sustain bird species that use the Kittatinny Ridge as a migration corridor for stopover and breeding. Did you know that our breeding bird and winter bird surveys are the longest running surveys in Pennsylvania assessing bird densities? I’m particularly excited about our recent program to improve habitat for cerulean warblers, as well as our recent success in protecting and improving a former farm for conversion into grasslands. That 70-acre parcel already fledged four kestrels and is attracting and sustaining other grassland birds, butterflies and beneficial insects. This spring we will convert an additional 22 acres adjacent to our Acopian Center to grassland bird habitat, as well.

The study in Science is alarming, which is why I ask you to join me in reaching out to Congress and encourage legislators to provide funding for sound science. I know the world of conservation organizations stands united on behalf of birds, and when we create healthy environments for raptors and other birds, we are creating healthy environments for people. Our talented scientists at the Sanctuary are more committed than ever to continue our raptor studies, local to global, and to promote their protection, along with the protection of all the species that inhabit and rely on the Sanctuary. 

Here are some things you can do to help raptors and other birds:

  • Feed birds responsibly which includes providing regular food and cleaning your feeders with a mild bleach disinfectant and rinse thoroughly.
  • Add a water feature and keep it clean. Did you know water can attract more birds than food in many areas? 
  • Go organic with your lawn care and gardening activities minimizing pesticide and herbicide use. Birds often eat insects and many raptors eat other birds compounding chemical accumulation. 
  • Plant bird a friendly garden and a pollinator meadow. You will mow less lawn and see more of natures beauty. Did you know that most birds are insect obligate, feeding their young primarily native insects during the breeding season?
  • Put up window strike deterrents on your windows to reduce incidental bird mortality. 
  • Take an interest in the birds that frequent your yard and or natural areas you visit and share your knowledge with others. 
  • Reach out to your favorite conservation organization and get involved. Mine is www.hawkmountain.org.
  • Call your house representative or senator and request funding for increased funding for bird science and conservation work. 
  • Join us at the North Lookout this year or join me for a bird walk this spring.