"Bird feeding" takes on a whole new meaning
You’re sitting in the breakfast room, enjoying morning coffee and watching the finches, sparrows and other birds duke it out at your bird feeder. All of a sudden a brown mass swoops downs and grabs one of the unsuspecting birds.
“Bird feeding” just took on a whole new meaning.
Over the past 40 years, birds of prey such as red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks and peregrine falcons have moved into the St. Louis area, with no intention of leaving. Bald eagles have also been seen inhabiting Bellefontaine Cemetery, and Mississippi kites take to the skies here in the spring and summer, gobbling up insects.
“I’ve been here since 1985. There’s no question that birds of prey in the last 20 years have made dramatic gains,” said Mike Arduser, wildlife biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“They’ve set up housekeeping in urban areas far more than they have in the past,” Arduser said. “I see red tailed, red shouldered and Cooper’s hawks, and even Mississippi kites almost all over the metropolitan area.”
In doing so, Arduser said, birds of prey are following a national trend toward urbanization.
Walter Crawford, executive director of the World Bird Sanctuary, agrees. “There are probably 10 times more [birds of prey] than there used to be,” he said.
“They have really succeeded in adapting. They have adapted in urban situations much better than I would have thought.”
Crawford, an avid birder, encounters the birds as wounded rescues brought to the World Bird Sanctuary.
“We saw more barred owls at our hospital (this year) than we’ve seen in 35 years,” he said, more than 100. Crawford even rescued some snowy owls this year, he said.
Most birds of prey are injured through interaction with humans, he said, whether by flying into fences or plate-glass windows or being hit by cars.
The questions Crawford receives from people have also changed.
“It used to be ‘How do I attract a hawk or an owl to my property?’ Now it’s ‘How do I get rid of them?’”
Although they look imposing, these birds are not a threat to dogs or cats, Crawford said.
“I’ve heard of attempts of catching little dogs, but they haven’t been successful,” he said.
What brings them here?
While people may like living in urban areas for the diversity of restaurants, the same could be said for birds of prey.
“There’s more food in urban areas than in rural areas,” Crawford said.
Indeed, as homeowners complain about squirrels, rabbits, voles, mice and shrews digging up their lawns, great horned owls and red tailed hawks are happy to swoop down and control the rodent population, Crawford said.
“24-hour, 12-month a year rodent control, doesn’t cost a dime,” said Crawford.
However, raptors don’t necessarily stick to a rodent-only diet, also feasting on songbirds and mourning doves, upsetting backyard birders and pigeon breeders.
“The most obvious bird that’s taken over the suburbs are Cooper’s hawks. They raid people’s bird feeders,” said Randy Korotev, an active member of both the Webster Groves Nature Study Society and the Audubon Society. While urban raptors are not actively counted or monitored, Korotev works on a statewide annual Christmas Day bird count, and has noticed numbers of certain species climbing.
Cooper’s hawks eat on the wing, swooping under the forest canopy and grabbing small birds while in flight (or at bird feeders), or rodents on the ground, although their favorite food is mourning doves. Red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, on the other hand, hunt from a perch, said Korotev.
Different birds fill different niches. Retention ponds, built to contain water in subdivisions, are perfect habitats for snakes, frogs and insects, staples in the diets of barred owls and Mississippi kites, said Crawford.
“We’ve built a lot of water impoundments for subdivisions. Barred owls are everywhere now. They depend on water — eat frogs and snakes,” he said.
Large trees in the older neighborhoods all over the St. Louis area are wonderful hunting and nesting sites for raptors, as are abundant parks. Cavity nesters, such as screech owls and kestrels are at a disadvantage in the city, because dead trees are often removed. However, those wishing to attract cavity nesters can easily buy or build a nesting box, Arduser said.
Peregrine falcons are also doing well. Unlike the other hawks and owls raptors, they were re-introduced into the St. Louis area in the 1990s and like to nest on large, clifflike buildings.
“They’ve been nesting around Barnes-Jewish Hospital for a long time. Also, University Club Tower,” said Korotev. “They’ve come back remarkably in the last 40 years.”
Finally, Korotev said, hawk populations are finally rebounding from the effects of DDT in pesticides.
“Hawks were knocked down by insecticide uses,” he said.
“What we’ve been watching for the last 40 years is a comeback from the pesticides. DDT made eggshells thin, baby birds didn’t hatch.”
Hilary Davidson is a free-lance writer.