Lessons Learned From An Ancient Hawk

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Many of New Jersey’s senior citizens migrate south in the winter. In contrast to the “snow birds,” one venerable Red-tailed Hawk from New Jersey was recently found to be the oldest living of its species in the world! She’s a happy reminder that many raptors are experiencing a comeback in this state we’re in.

Red-tailed Hawks are among the most common hawks in North America. They look like raptors should look, with broad, rounded wings and a wide tail. Their bodies display a range of rich brown colors, but their name derives from their distinctive tails, which range from cinnamon to warm red. Often seen perched on telephones poles or lone trees, they’re more easily noticed in flight… circling lazily over open areas as they scan for prey. The skirling screech of a Red-tailed Hawk will make even the bravest humans flinch and duck!

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The old hawk was rescued from the center line of Route 17 near Monroe, New York. She was brought to Raptor Trust in Morris County, New Jersey, where she will winter while recovering from respiratory problems and a hairline fracture in her wing. Assuming she heals well, she will likely be released when the weather warms up.

Coincidentally, the hawk had been banded by the Raptor Trust in October 1983 – a process that usually takes place when the hawks are about six months old. Her caretakers estimated her age at 27 years and 9 months as of the end of 2010!

That’s a remarkable age for several reasons. More than 60 percent of Red-tailed Hawks don’t survive their first year; of those that do, most live only half as long as this bird. She is currently the oldest documented living hawk in the wild in North America, and, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, she’s closing in on the record for oldest known Red-tailed Hawk (28 years 10 months).

Just a few decades ago, finding such an ancient raptor in New Jersey would have seemed unthinkable. The pesticide DDT was particularly destructive to their eggs. The fastest birds in the skies, Peregrine Falcons, couldn’t outrun DDT and went extinct east of the Mississippi by 1964. By the early-1970s there was just one nesting pair of Bald Eagles left. Even Ospreys – a species that otherwise adapts relatively well to life around humans – were down to just 60 pairs.

The ban on DDT and other conservation measures have done much to help Red-tailed Hawks and their rarer cousins recover. Today, New Jersey is home to approximately 80 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles. Peregrine Falcons were reintroduced to New Jersey in the 1980s, and have returned to their historic cliff nesting habitat on the Hudson River Palisades. Since 2000, the population has been steady at about 20-24 pairs annually. Ospreys have bounced back to over 360 nesting pairs.

At the same time, our Red-tailed Hawk inspires us with the odds she has beaten. The world is full of plate-glass, cars, utility lines and poisons. And some species like Kestrel, or sparrow hawks, are still declining for unknown reasons.

What we do know is that healthy habitat is fundamental to the continued recovery of many raptors. Ospreys depend on the health of the aquatic food chain, for example. And eagle nests and habitats are still subject to human disturbance.

When the old Red-tailed Hawk is returned to the wild, let’s be thankful that preserved open spaces provide something wild to return to. For her sake – and for all our raptors – we continue to preserve New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.

Learn more about hawks and raptors from the Raptor Trust at www.theraptortrust.org. And please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org for more information on the benefits of open space.


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