Have you ever glimpsed a coyote on a sidewalk, or seen a rabbit disappear into a burrow? If you haven’t, your neighbor likely has. As cities and suburbs increasingly swallow natural habitat, the urban environment is getting wilder.
One of the most diverse groups of wildlife to thrive here in the Pacific Northwest, especially since the 1990s, are raptors, which include hawks, falcons, bald eagles, kestrels and owls. They are ancient, intelligent and powerful hunters. When pesticides like DDT became regulated, and conservation protections were enacted, several endangered species pulled up from their spiral toward extinction — in part by moving to the city. Raptors of all kinds are living and raising their young in our parks, golf courses, bridges and skyscrapers — with varying degrees of success.
But city living is rife with hazards for these creatures, who did not evolve with windows and electric wires, and as a result, many die every year. The members of the Urban Raptor Conservancy have made studying, tracking, rescuing and protecting city raptors their mission.
What it takes to protect raptors
Volunteers spend hours chronicling the shifting fates of raptors in Seattle — even if it means dawn stakeouts of nesting sites. To reach their subjects, this could mean riding a crane to the top of 1201 Third Avenue, Seattle’s second-highest building, or sitting in a boat in the cold fog under the 520 bridge. The birds don’t usually take kindly to being interrupted or handled. The volunteers risk being fileted by razor-sharp talons as they band a bird for tracking or take it for medical treatment.
The birders’ euphemism for catching a talon is “getting footed,” and it’s both extremely painful and difficult to remove. Raptors won’t let go, and if you get one foot off, they’ll grab with the other, said Ed Deal, vice president of the URC, who has studied birds of prey for over 25 years.
“Their goal is to shred you,” says Deal — and he says it with the utmost love and admiration.
“I had a red-tailed hawk sink three talons into my finger, and I had to call an experienced bander for help. There’s a technique to getting a talon out and you don’t want a rookie to do it,” he says.
On a summer day in a grassy clearing in Discovery Park, board member Martin Muller was presenting a wary Cooper’s hawk to a circle of young children, revealing ornately scalloped black and white stripes under its wings before he released it into the trees.
In addition to education and rescues, the URC leads research projects on peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks and merlins; bands and tracks raptors; and studies human impacts on raptors — powered by approximately 20 volunteers and donation and grant funding. These studies can inform environmental policy, urban planning and educate the public about how to safely live alongside wild birds. In 2021, it discovered active nests for 69 pairs of Cooper’s hawks and 10 pairs of peregrines, and banded 74 Cooper’s hawks, 10 peregrines, and 90 rehabilitated raptors at Lynnwood’s Progressive Animal Welfare Society.
Banders need federal and state permits, and to be trained and licensed by the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory. Procuring bands — especially the visible colorful ones that give the best returns — is a major expense but facilitates tracking bird populations, wherever they may fly.
Tracking helps reveal patterns of behavior, from mating to migration, and identifies the fates of banded birds. They reveal which pairs stayed together, who was successful and where, and who survived. The most distant traveler so far is “B-3” a 1-year-old female Cooper’s hawk born in Miller Park, filmed flying (but later found dead) in Nevada. Her sister “H-A,” however, is living in Broadmoor Golf Course and looks to have found a mate.
The perks and dangers of the city
Cities, it turns out, are premium real estate for raptors — they tick most of the boxes for nesting pairs of peregrines, for example. The tall buildings and bridges mimic craggy mountaintops or stand-in for tall trees, and prey is plentiful in the form of pigeons, rats and mice. Cooper’s hawks, on the other hand, prefer city parks and golf courses. They are likely in your neighborhood park.
The peregrine falcon has made an impressive comeback from near extinction, due in part to its success in our cities. Clocked at speeds over 200 miles per hour in vertical dives, the peregrine is not only the fastest bird but the fastest animal in the world. That speed and agility made peregrines the bird of choice for medieval falconry. The species was almost wiped out in Washington after widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which was banned in 1972. By 1976, there was a single known breeding pair of peregrines in the state.
1994 brought the discovery of the first post-DDT nesting pair in Seattle atop the former Washington Mutual tower at 1201 Third Avenue, where building owners Wright Runstad installed a nesting box and “falcon cam.” This year, the never-more-appropriate Twitter feed announced the hatching of this season’s fourth egg there on April 5. At the time of writing, the mother is hunkered down on her chicks, protecting them from the spring chill.
While Deal would like to see a higher “replacement” rate, he describes the population of area peregrines as “stable.” Last year, the URC’s Peregrine Project observed 10 area peregrine nests, six in Seattle, including at the Portage Bay and West Seattle bridges.
Cooper’s hawks, or Coops, have proven to be incredibly successful in the city. URC’s latest report says that in the last 10 years, the Cooper’s hawk population has tripled — even despite mortality from last summer’s heat wave. The Cooper’s hawk poster child, “Blue E-V,” who Deal calls “Old Blue,” has raised young for 11 years in the same North Seattle nest, raising 41 youngsters “and counting.” At 12, Deal says “he’s the oldest survivor” in URC’s study which began in 2004. While the oldest recorded Coop was 20 years old, the average life span for a Coop is 6.
Deal says URC members rarely name their subjects, because city amenities, while initially attractive, can prove deadly to raptors.
“They [raptors] are evolutionarily unprepared” for the trappings of city life, agrees URC President Patti Loesche.
Window crashes are a leading cause of death for urban raptors, who mistakenly believe they have a clear flight path. A 2019 URC report counted 48% of the banded Cooper’s hawks found dead were felled by window strikes.
Such dangers make watching the birds’ progress emotional. Breeding season typically begins in spring, specifically March for peregrines.
“There are nestlings and then fledglings, it feels so good to see them come into the world — and then the heartbreak begins,” Loesche says. Last year, two out of the four peregrine fledglings at 1201 Third died from window strikes. URC’s 2021 report calls a 70% fledgling survival rate “as good as it gets” for peregrines.
She remembers a call to an apartment for an injured peregrine juvenile. “It was one of those wonderful rooftop glass decks open at the top. The bird had flown in but couldn’t figure out how to get out,” says Loesche. She was chilled to see four silhouettes of the bird imprinted on the glass — what they call “bird dust.”
“I was able to barehand the bird, and I knew, as Ed had taught me, that it’s a really bad sign when you can pick up a peregrine.” Although they rushed it to PAWS, the bird didn’t survive.
“We get about half-dozen ‘hawks-caught-in-warehouses’ calls a year,” from PAWS, Deal says. Intent on their prey, Cooper’s hawks follow a sparrow or pigeon into a loading dock. Once there, some instinct makes them fly up and stay there, says Deal, and the only thing that will bring them down is food. URC’s protocol is to lure the bird with a mouse (which the bird is not given), then band and release it in an appropriate wildlife area. Recently, a female was trapped in a warehouse in Renton, and she was so well-fed by mice and birds inside, URC volunteers had to wait several days before she would deign to come down for their trap.
Bridges can be an especially tricky place to nest. If the parents choose a site over deep water, fledglings are at high risk of drowning. One set of banded peregrine parents led to daylong vigils by boat and kayak to rescue youngsters from their “natal flights,” twice — in 2019 at the University Bridge, and again in 2021 at the 520 bridge. At the 520, while one bird drowned after fledging overnight, volunteers saved two of the three fledglings, with some rehab and banding at PAWS.
Because these birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, they cannot be disturbed once nesting, which can cause construction delays for the Washington State Department of Transportation, and URC works with WSDOT to encourage successful nest sites and discourage unsafe ones.
Other dangers for birds are electrical wires, car traffic and soccer nets, which regularly ensnare great horned owls. Pigeons, a main urban food source, can carry another threat — avian trichomoniasis, or “frounce,” which is deadly to peregrines if untreated.
Lastly, an indirect, but just as fatal blow, comes from our attempts to control rats with rodenticide, particularly anticoagulants, called SGARs, which kill the birds (or foxes, cats or dogs) who eat rodents as they succumb to the slow-acting poison. Studies around the country have detected anticoagulants in dead raptors as well as mammals, and California has recently banned its use. URC is partnering with PAWS in a research study to compare Seattle’s anticoagulant-related risks to previous studies.
Meanwhile in the weeks ahead, the URC’s work continues as members keep a watchful eye on their avian subjects — as the Cooper’s start hatching, and the peregrines, who are usually hatched by the end of May, take flight.