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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Light Snow
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Hawks in Madison: Raptors thrive in urban settings
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An immature Cooper's hawk scoping the Capitol Square for sparrows.
An immature Cooper's hawk scoping the Capitol Square for sparrows.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

Madison is routinely ranked one of the best places in the country to live...for humans. But you may have noticed that it's increasingly a pretty good place for hawks as well. The birds of prey population is soaring, thanks to decades of reestablishment, which took these animals from near extinction to commonplace. In fact, they seem to absolutely love urban living.

"We have three of those birds of prey in Madison now. We have bald eagles, peregrine falcons and ospreys all nesting literally within sight of the Capitol," says Stan Temple, professor emeritus of conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He's also a senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. The birds' recovery is remarkable, says Temple, "given that only 40 years ago these species were considered to be on the brink of extinction."

Temple calls these raptors the poster birds for the banning of DDT, once a "miracle" pesticide used for agricultural and household pests that was found to be incredibly toxic. It was used primarily from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. After application, DDT worked its way up the food chain through a process known as bioaccumulation. By the time a raptor captured a large prey item there was a big dose of DDT along with that meal. The chemical caused the eggs of nesting birds to be so thin that they would break, decimating the populations of eagles, ospreys, peregrines and some other raptors.

In its 30 or so years of use in the United States, 1,350,000,000 pounds of DDT were released into the environment. Wisconsin was the first state to ban the chemical, Temple notes, before it was banned nationally by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972. The uptick in urban raptors we're seeing today is due to the populations of these animals finally making their comeback, 40 years later.

But toxins weren't the only hurdles birds of prey faced; part of the problem was that some people disliked them. The Cooper's hawk, probably the most commonly observed raptor in Madison, was often shot illegally.

"They had a bad reputation. They were labeled 'chicken hawks,'" says Temple. "This is a bird that most people weren't particularly fond of because they prey on other birds. And at least in the past, when poultry roamed free, small chickens were sometimes targeted."

The peregrine, known as the "duck hawk," was killed for competing with duck hunters. Other raptors, including eagles and osprey, were shot and trapped illegally as well.

Today, if you see a hawk gliding stealthily down State Street or perched atop a utility pole, you're most likely observing a Cooper's hawk. But you'll also find osprey and eagles nesting in Madison. A pair of the super-fast peregrine falcons commonly nest in a box built for that purpose atop the MGE power plant on Blount Street. MGE put the box there in 1999. "After 10 years of vacancy, falcons first began using the box in 2009," reads the MGE web page devoted to the project. "From 2009-2011, a nesting pair of falcons...successfully hatched 11 chicks." The page also includes a webcam and archived images of the birds from previous nesting seasons.

Temple notes that other birds of prey found in Madison whose numbers have increased due to "decreased persecution" include the American kestrel, the great horned owl, the eastern screech owl and less common species such as the broad-winged hawk. Red-tailed hawks regularly nest in Madison and even nested on Weeks Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus last year.

Still, the most common raptor in Madison is the Cooper's, mainly because urban living suits it very well. It's even possible, Temple says, that the Cooper's hawks we see in Madison have been selected over the years to be urbanites that thrive in the city.

"Now that Cooper's hawks have recovered, they're finding that urban areas are absolutely ideal for them. Especially a town like Madison, where lots of people have bird feeders that attract birds and concentrate them in one spot, where the birds of prey can essentially target their meals," Temple says.

Furthermore, the habitat in cities like Madison that have abundant and fairly mature wooded areas provide "great opportunities for nesting." That explains nesting Cooper's hawks near the Capitol and on Bascom Hill.

Temple assures residents with birdfeeders not to worry if they lose a songbird now and then to a hawk. The songbird/raptor relationship is completely normal and not harming songbird populations.

Karen Etter Hale of the Madison Audubon Society even suggests that these interactions are a great opportunity to see these incredible birds of prey up close.

"A lot of people understand the dynamic and understand that Cooper's hawks have to eat, too," Hale notes. "I guess it shows that the system is working, that they're in a good habitat."

Hale gives some tips on the differences among the common Madisonian raptors. Peregrine falcons swoop down very quickly from the air with cruising speeds averaging near 70 mph. They hunt only other birds out of the air, almost never off the ground. Osprey are the piscivores of the raptors, with a diet consisting almost exclusively of fish. Red-tailed hawks tend to circle and circle before dive-bombing small prey off the ground. Cooper's hawks have shorter, rounded wings and long tails, and they're built for high speed in tight quarters and for flying flat out, like a glider.

"They're a really cool bird to see up close," Hale says. "And they are so fast!"

Stan Temple takes another lesson away from the city raptors. "I think everyone during the initial phases of the environmental movement recognized that birds of prey were the canaries in the mineshaft, indicators of a lot of the problems that we were creating in the environment. Now they're indicators that we've done something right."

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