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Raptors of Nebraska

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Immature red-tailed hawk. (Paul A. Johnsgard)Probably most rural Nebraskans, if asked to name a few hawks native to Nebraska, would begin with “chicken hawk,” which is a general vernacular name for almost any hawk likely to be seen around a farmyard. Or, perhaps “buzzard” might be mentioned, but this is a commonly used name for the turkey vulture, which is a scavenger and not currently regarded as part of the hawk family.

In fact, Nebraska is a regular host to 17 species of hawks, as well as two eagles and eight owls. Collectively, all these impressive-looking birds are known as “raptors,” which refers to their strong, sharply decurved and pointed beaks, their sharp, curved talons and their associated predatory abilities. Hawk and eagles are often called “diurnal raptors,” since they all hunt during daylight hours, whereas most of Nebraska’s owls hunt at night and are described as nocturnal raptors. But few biological statements lack exceptions, and some owls such as the burrowing owl are daytime-hunters, and some such as the great horned owl hunt mostly during twilight and dawn.

As a result, one or more types of hawks, eagles or owls are likely to be actively hunting at any hour of day or night, and few of Nebraska animals up to the size of a deer or pronghorn fawn can be considered safe from being detected and attacked by some raptor, owing to their remarkable eyesight or hearing. In fact, one general difference distinguishing hawks and eagles from owls is that hawks and eagles hunt almost exclusively with the aid of their incredibly sharp vision. In contrast most, and especially the most highly nocturnal, owls (such as the barn owl and barred owl) rely on their correspondingly acute hearing for detecting and homing in on prey.

There is also a marked gradient in size among raptors. The largest Nebraska raptors are the eagles, often weighing up to 10 pounds or more, especially among females. In almost all of Nebraska’s larger raptors the females are significantly larger than males, which compensates for the females’ greater energy demands during breeding and may allow them to concentrate on taking slightly different-sized prey. Eagles differ from hawks only by size, and the largest of Nebraska’s hawks is the 4-pound ferruginous hawk, less than half the weight of an eagle, while the smallest, the American kestrel, weighs only about 4 ounces. Likewise, the snowy owl, weighing in at about 4 pounds, is our largest owl, while the northern saw-whet owl barely exceeds 3 ounces.

Male American Kestrel. (Paul A. Johnsgard)The size of the raptor is only a general guide to the usual prey size it takes. The fearless great horned owl may attack and kill animals weighing more than itself, such as jackrabbits (even cats and very small dogs!). A general rule of thumb is that most raptors can lift only those prey that weigh no more than about 25 percent of the bird’s own weight, so don’t believe any tales about eagles carrying off lambs or human babies. And some large raptors, such as the northern harrier and the very rare great gray owl, concentrate almost entirely on small mice or voles.

Nebraska’s commonest raptors, such as the red-tailed hawk, great horned owl and eastern screech owl, typically remain in the state year-round. Other breeding species, such as the Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks and the burrowing owl, migrate out of the state during the coldest parts of the year, while still others (such as the saw-whet owl) simply pass through Nebraska on their way to and from more northern breeding grounds. A few of these migrants (such as the snowy owl and rough-legged hawk) visit Nebraska only during the colder months. Some migrants, such as the snowy owl, also vary greatly in abundance from year to year, often depending on ecological factors such as the severity of the winter or the relative prey abundance on the breeding grounds.

There are many ways of judging the relative abundance of Nebraska’s raptors, the results depending in part on the technique and season. The splendid recovery program of Raptor Recovery Nebraska (RNN) had processed by September 2011 over 10,100 sick, wounded and otherwise disabled eagles, hawks and owls since its beginning in 1976. Using data kindly provided by their director, Betsy Finch, their five most frequently received species of hawks and eagles (in descending order) have been the red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, Swainson’s hawk, Cooper’s hawk and bald eagle. Corresponding numbers for owls are the great horned owl, eastern screech owl, barn owl, barred owl and long-eared owl. The surprisingly large numbers of bald eagles handled by RRN may partly reflect the tendency of ignorant hunters to shoot at these great birds even though they are federally protected, as are all raptors. Bald and golden eagles are also highly susceptible to lead poisoning, often from eating prey having embedded lead pellets.

Another way of judging relative abundance of Nebraska raptors is to tally state breeding records, based on breeding birds surveys. A new multiyear breeding birds survey was finished in 2011 but is still unpublished. The first survey, based on five years of fieldwork done in the 1980s, provides preliminary information. It suggests that Nebraska’s five most abundant breeding hawks and eagles, in descending order, are the red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, Swainson’s hawk, northern harrier and prairie falcon.

Adult Swainson’s hawk. (Paul A. Johnsgard)There are no extensive raptor surveys held in Nebraska during fall migration, but counts have been performed annually since 1999 just across the Missouri River at Iowa’s Hitchcock Nature Center. This site, about 10 miles north of Council Bluffs, provides a good sampling of raptor migration along the Missouri River Valley of Nebraska and Iowa. The counts for 2000 showed the largest totals, in declining order, for the red-tailed hawk, Swainson’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, bald eagle and broad-winged hawk. The Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks are both early migrants that winter south all the way into Central and South America. Nebraska’s resident red-tailed hawks are supplemented during fall with large numbers of red-tails from farther north, which often include plumage variants such as the blackish (melanistic) Harlan’s hawk and other confusing color variants. Hundreds of bald eagles appear annually in Nebraska from farther north, some of which winter along our larger rivers and their associated reservoirs, especially Lake McConaughy.

The annual Christmas Bird Counts, sponsored for more than a century by the National Audubon Society, offer a long-term sampling of late fall–early winter raptors across Nebraska. Based on a four-decade analysis of more than 200 species that I performed in 2009 on seven Great Plains states, the five most abundant hawks and eagles then seen in Nebraska, in decreasing numbers, were the red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, rough-legged hawk, sharp-shinned hawk and golden eagle. The three most frequently encountered owls, as reported by those hardy souls willing to search for owls during the cold nights of late December, were the great horned owl, eastern screech owl and barred owl.

Eastern screech owl with gray plumage. (Paul A. Johnsgard)There is also another source of recent information on Nebraska’s mid-winter raptors, by using the data from the annual Great Backyard Bird Counts, sponsored each February by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. In 2011 these counts involved about 60,000 participants across the U.S.A. and Canada. They reported 596 species, of which Nebraska counters observed 107. Based on the numbers of localities where it was seen, the red-tailed hawk was the most widespread raptor during Nebraska counts. The next four most omnipresent hawks and eagles, by diminishing numbers of reports, were the bald eagle, sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel and Cooper’s hawk. The only owls reported from Nebraska were the great horned owl and the eastern screech owl, with the great horned owl accounting for about two-thirds of all reports.

Over the past four decades, perhaps the greatest change that has occurred in Nebraska’s raptor fauna is the great increase in bald eagles, both as breeding birds (with over 50 active nests now found annually in the state) and in the corresponding increase in the numbers of wintering birds. These changes are largely the result of better federal protection and especially the elimination of DDT and most other dangerous pesticides from North America. DDT had devastating physiological effects on reproductive physiology in many raptors, with resulting population crashes, especially among species such as the bald eagle, osprey and peregrine. Ospreys have recently nested again in Nebraska after an absence of more than a century. After having last nested in the state during the early 1900s, peregrine populations have also recovered, and pairs are now established nesters on the Woodsmen of the World building in Omaha and the State Capitol building in Lincoln. The nests at both sites are monitored by closed-circuit television and can be watched by the general public. Together the two sites have produced more than 30 offspring as of 2011.

The Cooper’s hawk has increased substantially in Nebraska during recent years; during the 1976–2000 period, only 34 Cooper’s (and 76 sharp-shins) were handled by Raptor Recovery Nebraska, but from 2001–2011 there were 261 Cooper’s and 90 sharp-shins received. The Cooper’s hawk is now evidently nearly as common as the sharp-shinned hawk and increasingly nests within the city limits of our larger towns. Both species have learned to spend the winter months where they can keep watch on bird feeders and where they subsist on unwary songbirds. The Cooper’s also preys on many other larger birds and is an effective predator on recently fledged American kestrels, which in the view of Betsy Finch might help account for an apparently large recent reduction in that species’ population. The kestrel represented 31 percent of the hawks and eagles handled by RRN from 1976–2000, but from 2001–2011 it comprised only 10.2 percent.

adult great horned owl, courtesy of Paul A. JohnsgardOther significant population changes have included a marked reduction in great horned owl numbers following the appearance of West Nile virus in Nebraska during the early 2000s, which seemingly reduced the population substantially within a year or two. But this owl evidently has developed immunity and has seemingly returned to predisease population levels, along with some other relatively omnivorous birds such as the American crow, blue jay and black-billed magpie.

All told, Nebraska’s raptor population is doing about as well as can be expected. Our burrowing owl population has suffered sharp declines as a result of continuing destruction of prairie dog colonies, on which owls depend for nesting holes, and the uncontrolled poisoning of prairie dogs and other “varmints” has made inroads on several other rodent-eating raptors from secondary poisoning, such as the ferruginous hawk and golden eagle. Improved protection for and education about the value of raptors have made a big difference in public perceptions. And the bald eagle has increased very significantly since the 1980s. There was a time, during my childhood years in North Dakota, when if any large hawk or eagle were seen, many people would run to grab a rifle or shotgun. Now, happily, most people simply run to get their binoculars, to be enthralled and inspired by the vision of a wild raptor circling majestically overhead.

 

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