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Chirp Chat: A closer look at Wisconsin’s fascinating birds of prey

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Willow (pictured above) is a Northern Saw-whet Owl. She is one of the 15 non-releasable birds a part of the Raptor Program at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.
Zoe Finney
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Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
Willow (pictured above) is a Northern Saw-whet Owl. She is one of the 15 non-releasable birds a part of the Raptor Program at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. 

It’s peak birding season, and if you look high in the sky, you’ll likely see some raptors soaring.

Raptors like hawks, owls and vultures sometimes get a bad reputation, but these birds of prey play a huge ecological role that we depend on.

The Raptor Program at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center helps educate people across Wisconsin about the importance of these birds with the help of their 15 raptor ambassadors.

For this month’s Chirp Chat, Lake Effect’s Xcaret Nuñez spoke with Lindsay Focht, the Raptor Program & Animal Ambassador Director at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, to learn more about raptors, the challenges they face and conservation efforts happening throughout the state.

What makes a bird a raptor? 

Focht says all raptors have three defining characteristics:

  • Keen eyesight: Raptors have a set of forward-facing eyes which help give them a larger area of binocular vision.
  • Hooked upper beak: Raptors' upper beaks are curved at the top with sharp cutting edges to help them tear their prey into bite-size pieces
  • Sharp talons: Raptors have incredibly strong feet and talons to help them catch, hold and carry their prey away.

The important role raptors play in the ecosystem 

Focht says raptors are also indicator species, which means the abundance or absence of their populations are great indicators for the health of the ecosystem as a whole. In other words, indicator species give researchers insight into potential environmental issues.

“A huge example of that is what was going on with the Peregrine falcons,” Focht says. “Their populations declined so drastically, that they were extirpated from the area. So it caused people to look further into what was going on with our raptor species and found out that the chemical DDT that people were using, was working its way up the food chain and affecting the raptor species.”

Another important role raptors play in the environment is being nature’s garbagemen — Focht says these birds keep the balance between predator and prey.

“If we didn't have raptors around the small rodents, and [other small animals] we would possibly find as pests, those populations would boom,” Focht says. “There would be an increase in the spread of disease, crop issues… so birds of prey will keep those in check, and there's then this delicate balance in the ecosystem that our raptors help preserve.”

Glory (pictured above) is a Bald Eagle. He is one of the Raptor Program’s ambassador birds at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.
Karen Graminga-Warren
/
Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
Glory (pictured above) is a Bald Eagle. He is one of the Raptor Program’s ambassador birds at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

The biggest threats raptors face

Focht says raptor species are showing up at wildlife rehab centers with poisoning from rodenticides and lead at alarming rates.

“[Lead] will find its way into a fish for example, with tackle,” Focht says. “A bald eagle will then grab that fish, because bald eagles love to eat fish, the bald eagle ingests the lead, and then they suffer from lead poisoning and toxicity.”

She says this similarly happens when people use rodenticides to get rid of rats or mice — when small rodents ingest it, it doesn’t kill them right away. Instead, it slows the mouse down and becomes easier prey for raptors to catch and eat.

“Don't use rodenticides,” Focht says. “If you have a mouse problem, one of the best things to do… is you can put out an owl nest box in your yard in hopes of attracting… owls to nest in your area. They'll take care of the rodent problem for you. A family of owls can actually consume up to 10,000 mice in a year, so they're the best neighbors!”

Focht also says raptors often get hit by vehicles because they tend to forage along roadways. She says people can help prevent this issue by not littering while driving because it can attract small birds and rodents, which in turn draws raptors to the scene.

“All of these little things really do help," Focht says. “Just being aware of our surroundings and taking care of nature, really do make a big difference.”

Statewide raptor conservation efforts 

Peregrine falcon nest boxes sponsored by WeEnergies

Focht says WeEnergies and Wisconsin Public Service work with biologists to install nest boxes at power plants throughout the state to provide Peregrine falcons with nesting habitats.

“Peregrines are still endangered in the state of Wisconsin, so all of this work is really important to make sure that their population stays stable,” she says.

Central Wisconsin Kestrel Research

Focht says the Central Wisconsin Kestrel Research organizationworks to set up nest boxes for Kestrel in their ideal habitats, such as grasslands. The raptor species is in major decline across their native rangeland, and Focht says biologists with the organization are working to learn why.

“It’s a small falcon, but they have a big impact on the environment,” she says.

Chirp Chat’s Bird of the Month for May

Otis (pictured above) is a Peregrine Falcon. He is one of the Raptor Program’s ambassador birds at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.
Katie Monfre
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Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
Otis (pictured above) is a Peregrine Falcon. He is one of the Raptor Program’s ambassador birds at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

Otis – Peregrine Falcon 

Focht says Otis hatched in 2013 and was found in the wild when he was about two or three years old with a severe injury to his left-wing from an unknown collision. The falcon was taken to a wildlife rehab facility where they tried to fix his wing but it didn’t fully heal and he couldn’t be released back to the wild. Focht says Otis finally arrived at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in 2021 to serve as an animal ambassador.

“He's absolutely beautiful,” Focht says. “He's got this wonderful dark gray on the back of his wings and spotting on his chest. If you look at his face, falcons have these lines that go down from their eyes down to what we would call their neck. Those are called Malar Stripes.

The dark lines on a falcon's face help deflect sunlight so that the birds can see in really bright environments. This Peregrine’s natural habitat is often cliff sides, so if they're perched up on high cliffs, this dark coloration is going to help them blend in with it.

Underneath though, you can see Otis’ coloring is much lighter. As these guys, and for almost all of our raptor species, as they’re soaring up in the sky, If you look at them from below, the lighter color helps them blend into the sky so that prey species can't see them.”

Focht says Peregrine falcons are the fastest animal on the planet and have been recorded to dive up to speeds of 240 miles per hour.

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Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.