‘Tis the season for large groups of raptors

Courtesy photo

By Blake Spurney, Newton Now

As any proud Kansas native knows, its farmers feed much of the world and that same farmland serves as a cornucopia for our feathered friends.

Red-tailed hawks and other raptors flock to Kansas in the fall and winter because of the abundant supply of rodents here, said Mike Rader, wildlife education supervisor.

That’s why we see a lot of them,” he said. “We have a lot of pasture ground and crop ground.

Kansas is kind of a melting pot of wintering red-tailed hawks across the continent, actually.”

Rader said the wintering populations came mostly from the west and north. Rough-legged hawks come from the arctic climates of Canada and Alaska, along with northern harriers and ferruginous hawks.

Many red-tailed hawks are permanent residents, but several other species and subspecies begin arriving in September and October to their wintertime territory. Rader said they often returned to the same nest, year after year, and a lot of times, a hawk will be perched upon the same power pole throughout the winter. Hawks have been known to live up to 25 years.

Hawks begin pairing up this time of year in preparation for laying eggs and some pairs migrate together, Rader said. The female lays one to five eggs, typically, in a nest high above ground, according to National Geographic. Both sexes incubate the eggs from four to five weeks and both feed the hatchlings. Great horned owls sometimes take over their existing nest before they arrive.

Hawks are monogamous, but Rader said mating for life was kind of a weird concept. When one of a pair dies, the other will mate with another hawk. As is the case with most raptors, the female is the larger of the two, weighing up to four pounds.

Rader said a hawk’s first brood, typically arrives about the same time that cottontail rabbits deliver their first litters. Hawks can spot rabbits, mice and voles while circling 100 feet up.

They also are known to feed on road kill, which is probably the case when one spots a hawk carcass along a highway, he added. Food is more abundant in rural areas, but hawks take up residence in urban areas, like the famous Pale Male in Central Park.

Hawk numbers have been growing for decades, due to federal protections and the ban on agricultural use of DDT since 1972. Farmers used to actively hunt hawks, because of the perceived threat they posed to chickens. Kansas School Naturalist reported an example of a youth with 85 hawks he had killed in its October, 1956, edition.

Scientists have proved repeatedly and conclusively that both of these species are highly beneficial in food habits,” Kansas School Naturalist reported about red-tailed and marsh hawks. “Rarely does either species kill chickens or game birds. Instead, they feed largely on rodents, which are harmful to agriculture.”

The author noted that each of the 85 hawks would have eaten three mice or rats, per day. The birds would have saved farmers more than $9,300, based on the calculation of each rodent causing 10 cents worth of damage to garden crops in a year, Kansas School Naturalist reported.

Rader said Kansas is becoming more of a destination for bird watching, but not necessarily for hawks. More and more tourists are flocking to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford, Rice and Reno counties and to Cheyenne Bottoms in Barton County to see Sandhill cranes and other waterfowl.

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