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Illinois hunting and fishing

A red-shouldered hawk. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register

Raptors becoming city slickers

February 07, 2009 at 06:58 AM

THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER

From barred owls hooting in Washington Park to a peregrine falcon perched atop a downtown church steeple, birds of prey are finding the city a more welcoming place.

“A lot of towns now are essentially forests,” said Mike Ward, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign. Ward also teaches ornithology at the University of Illinois.

And those urban forests are home to small birds and mice for raptors to prey upon.

One by one, species of hawks, owls and falcons are moving in — to city parks, backyards, local preserves and even downtown.

In the case of the Cooper’s hawk, its ability to adapt to an urban environment gets some credit for its comeback and eventual removal from the Illinois list of threatened and endangered species about a decade ago.

Cooper’s hawks are forest-dwellers that hunt other birds. They have found that backyard bird feeders offer more than seed and suet treats.

Jack Nuzzo of the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur says people often call the wildlife center in horror after a bird is snatched off their backyard feeder.

“It is a bird feeder,” said Nuzzo with a laugh. “And the Cooper’s hawk is a bird.”

“They eat a lot of birds at people’s bird feeders,” Ward said. “But I think you can look at it holistically. It’s part of a natural community coming back.”

Ward says some kinds of birds are adapting to urban and suburban environments and becoming more comfortable living around people.

He says the newest neighbor likely will be the red-shouldered hawk. The hawk, closely related to the common red-tailed hawk, is formerly a state-threatened species that conventional wisdom says should be hunting small birds, mice, frogs and salamanders in flood plains.

“In town, there is a lot of food for small birds, which in turn are prey for red-shouldered hawks,” Ward said. “They are even in Champaign. I’ve seen them there a couple of times.

“I think it is a matter of time before they start moving into town.”

Last winter, John Popolis Jr., a museum technician with the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, saw a peregrine falcon perched on the cross of Grace Lutheran Church, 714 E. Capitol Ave. He saw the bird several times downtown flying around the Hilton Springfield, the church steeple and the Lincoln Home neighborhood.

So far this winter, he hasn’t confirmed that the peregrine is back, although he caught glimpses of birds that are similar in size, color and shape flying around the Hilton.

Popolis also serves as the park photographer.

“Photography is how I started paying attention,” he said. “I’d be out taking pictures and say to myself, ‘Look there’s a hawk,’ and I noticed there were a lot of them.”

He has noticed red-tailed hawks hunting in the vicinity of Lincoln’s Home.

“I’ve got video of a red-tail,” he said. “The Coopers have been here on and off, although I think the weather this winter has messed with them.

“In late summer, I was seeing a pair of them flying around.”

Another hawk that possibly could fly into town is the merlin.

Ward says the merlin, a falcon smaller than the peregrine but a bit larger than its cousin the American kestrel, is found more often in towns, especially in the winter.

“In some places, Merlins are nesting in town and eating a lot of starlings,” he said.

Merlins usually nest in more northerly locations, like northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Finding merlins nesting in central Illinois probably is years away, although they are becoming more common in winter.

Ward says birds of prey are coming back thanks to the banning of pesticides like DDT. Many pesticides in use today are less harmful and do not persist as long in the environment.

DDT gets part of the blame, along with habitat loss and indiscriminate shooting, for the near-extinction of American bald eagles in the lower 48 states about 40 years ago.

“DDT nearly got rid of the raptors,” Ward said. “But now, raptors are coming back and we don’t have to worry about (population levels) as much.”

Red-tailed hawks in particular seem ubiquitous this time of year, scanning roadsides from perches on utility poles, fence posts or roadside trees.

Ward says people are seeing hawks partly because they are looking for them, and partly because the leaves are off the trees right now. Also, snow cover north of Springfield may have pushed some birds south in search of food.

Rough-legged hawks, arctic cousins of the red-tailed hawk, also are making an appearance during the winter months.

“I think they are just seeing more of them,” Ward said of red-tailed and other hawks. “I don’t think there is a big increase.
“They may just redistribute themselves over a winter or two.”

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