By Beth Meyer
If you’ve ever looked up to see a large gray shape with outstretched wings that appears to be drifting across the sky as if defying the law of gravity, it is most likely a raptor, either migrating or hunting for its next meal.
The word raptor comes from the Latin word rapere, which means to seize or plunder, which is exactly what raptors do best. Also known as birds of prey, raptors are at the top of their food chain and can be seen hunting for small mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and other birds. This group ranges in size from the California condor, with a wingspan of nearly ten feet, to the tiny five-inch elf owl. Eagles, hawks, and falcons are also included in the raptor family.
Throughout history, humans have been intrigued by the strength, speed, and agility of these magnificent birds. Unfortunately, their ability to survive has been threatened in the last century, mostly because of human activity. The list of threats to their survival is surprisingly long, ranging from habitat and food loss to pesticides and power lines. Most people are now aware of the threat that huge wind turbines pose to birds, but may not be aware that lead in ammunition or a fisherman’s sinker, rodent poisons, trapping, shooting, or collisions with cars also play a role.
According to HawkWatch International, “The presence of raptors in the wild serves as a barometer of ecological health.” The organization, with an observation site in the Manzano Mountains, counts and bands thousands of migrating birds annually in order to identify declining populations. The Manzano site is perfectly located to give the raptors an extra lift because of the updrafts and thermals along the mountains. HawkWatch is committed to safeguarding raptors’ habitats and maintaining a sustainable environment for both humans and wildlife.
East Mountain resident Brian Millsap, the National Raptor Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is also concerned about the future health of these birds. “There is a great deal of habitat loss for many of them, and thus a population decline,” he says. “Use of satellite transmitters can allow the birds to be tracked by computer and GPS.”
Millsap is working on a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at New Mexico State University and is currently part of an NMSU study team to track the Coopers Hawk, which is very common in the East Mountains.
One of the most well-known birds in the raptor family is the peregrine falcon, which can dive for its prey at speeds of over 250 miles per hour, making it the fastest animal ever recorded. Peregrine means traveler, which is fitting, since the peregrine can migrate thousands of miles each year.
Before Word War II, the peregrine population was estimated at over 3,000 pairs throughout the United States. By the mid-1970s, their population had declined by 90 percent and the birds were placed on the endangered species list. Along with all of the other threats that already existed, the widespread use of the pesticide DDT had caused a dramatic drop in the falcons’ population. It wasn’t until years later that scientists understood the adverse impact that DDT would have, not only on the peregrine falcon, but also on other species and the environment as a whole.
Fortunately, raptor researchers like Edgewood resident Tom Smylie stepped in to rescue the birds, literally in the nick of time. With fewer than 100 peregrines left in the wild, Smylie rescued two remaining pairs and mated them in captivity. Even though the first chick died, Smylie showed that it was possible for the birds to reproduce in captivity and perhaps be saved from extinction. In 1969, Smylie partnered with Dr. Tom Cade of Cornell University to pursue this goal. Along with other falconers and researchers, they eventually released almost 5,000 peregrines into the wild. Even though the birds were removed from the endangered species list in 1999, they are still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other local laws.
Smylie, who has been called a “wizard with birds,” is well known in the East Mountain area for his bird shows at Wildlife West. He has been working with birds since 1958, when he was playing football for the UNM Lobos and watched in awe as a prairie falcon (the opposing team’s mascot) circled above the field. From that point on, he was hooked on raptors.
“The peregrine falcon is the epitome of speed, power, grace, and beauty,” Smylie says. “The peregrine has evolved into an extremely specialized creature, and its power has held a special place in man’s heart throughout history. To see its place assured for future generations is profoundly rewarding.”
Unlike most other animals, not just anyone can own a raptor. For example, the requirements for a peregrine falcon license include applying for a permit, acquiring a licensed sponsor, spending two years as an apprentice, and passing a test.
Roger Gathman, another East Mountain resident and a former apprentice of Smylie’s, became fascinated by birds of prey at the age of six. “I read every book about raptors I could get my hands on,” he says.
Gathman’s first raptor was a great horned owl named Chester, and the lure of the birds continued through 7th grade, when he joined a falconry club and learned the art of training a falcon to hunt wild quarry under his direction. Up until recently he also raced pigeons, a sport in which participants release specially trained birds to return home over a measured distance, but stopped because he felt it had become too competitive. He continues to be fascinated by falcons, however, and keeps two peregrines named Paladin and Phoenix. “One of the things I love about falconry is that you can do it on your own,” he says. “Falcons are like that, too. They are solitary, open-sky birds,”
Although mating pairs of peregrine falcons have been increasing here in New Mexico, their numbers are still low. They, along with other raptors, continue to be vulnerable to human disturbance, and food and habitat loss. For those humans who believe that all species are an integral part of life on this planet, there is still much that can be done. As Tom Smylie says, “A species faced with extinction at the hand of man can be saved by those very same hands.”
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