vulture conservation

Thar She Soars!

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Leadership Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Many people associate the term “birder,” with images of a khaki-clad, hat-wearing, field-guide holding, binocular-wielding, mud-splattered nature enthusiast carrying a massive camera and an intense look on their face that says “SHHH…did you hear that?” Of course, there are many types of birders (I myself bird, and wear exactly one of these items), but to those unfamiliar with the lifestyle, a birder should be dawning the appropriate materials to claim the term. Imagine then, trying to explain to a police officer that the reason you are pulled over in someone’s lawn staring at their house with binoculars is because you are, in fact, birding. You are not wearing khaki, there is no mud on your pants, but you do have a camera. He does not believe you. The camera does not help your case. This is what we call a predicament.

Zoey scans the skies from the roof of her car.

Zoey scans the skies from the roof of her car.

Such a circumstance is one of the amusing side effects of conducting road surveys to monitor vulture populations. Hawk Mountain has been doing this over the last 12 years, gradually collecting baseline data on both turkey and black vulture populations throughout the Western Hemisphere. Our protocol involves following roads that are least likely to induce rage from other drivers (we drive 40 miles per hour, and frequently swerve to hop out and count birds on cell towers, sometimes climbing the car for optimal vantage points). We need at least two people, a reliable vehicle, and enough time to accurately gather data. Ideally we conduct these surveys every 10 years in both summer and winter, for each site. Compared to other research projects, road surveys are a good bang for the buck because they are relatively cheap to conduct but provide us with critical baseline data on a group of animals that are crucial to the health of our environment. In total, Hawk Mountain has conducted over 50 vulture surveys in 9 countries.

Many of you may be aware of the vulture crisis that has occurred in the Old World over the last two decades, but I’ll offer a reminder by first reviewing the numbers: out of the world’s 22 species of vultures, 16 are spread among Africa, Asia and Europe. 11 of these have recently become at risk for extinction in our lifetime. Some species have experienced a 99% decline since the late 1990’s.

Courtesy of BirdLife International

Courtesy of BirdLife International

With the combined effects of persecution, poisoning, drug-induced kidney failure, and harvesting for parts, the Old World has faced a fast-acting recipe for vulture disaster.

In Asia the primary cause of these mass die offs is a pain killer for cattle called Diclofenac that is ingested by vultures feeding on livestock carcasses.

In Africa the main threat is poisoning. In Europe, Diclofenac is still legal, and declines are anticipated if policy-makers don’t act quickly. There is a less harmful alternate drug available that offers the same therapeutic effects for a similar price, but so far, new legislation has not been passed.

Griffon vultures live on all three continents. Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Griffon vultures live on all three continents. Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Prior to the declines recorded in Asia and Africa there was no reliable baseline knowledge on the population size of affected species, meaning estimates of loss are likely conservative. Consequences from loss of vultures have included an increase in rabies cases due to a higher prevalence of wild dogs, as well as the spreading of diseases that were previously processed in the gut of these under-appreciated scavengers.

This is a perfectly heart breaking example of how human bias towards the most lovable species can sometimes harm those that float under the radar. To make this mistake once is somewhat forgivable. To make it twice is not.

This is why I believe Hawk Mountain’s vulture surveys are crucial. Vultures have been misunderstood and ignored, and while there have been commendable efforts to remedy this issue in Asia, Africa and Europe, we still have work to do in the Americas. We need to be proactive in deciphering how many vultures there are, fully understanding their role within our shared ecosystems, and proving their value to the public. Science alone cannot prepare us. The integrity of our future environment requires that we establish a culture of appreciation around vultures that will allow them a seat at the ecological table.  

glass half full with vulture smaller .jpg

Okay, that’s the heavy part. Now, let’s focus on the fact that in the U.S., our vulture glass is half full. Our last survey resulted in a count of 979 vultures, between five routes in Georgia and Florida. Ten years ago, this same survey produced similar numbers, proving stability exists within that region. We continue to witness healthy numbers of black and turkey vultures throughout Pennsylvania and much of the eastern United States. This may not be the case in Central and South America, though our upcoming surveys in Costa Rica, Panama, and Argentina will hopefully add to our body of knowledge on population size and trends.   

On one of our final days in Florida, we spotted a group of vultures circling something yellow and indistinguishable. A scout landed and tore into whatever “it” was. After scanning with binoculars, exchanging excited hypotheses, and crossing a treacherous road, we discovered that the mysterious yellow “entrails” were no more than the sad remnants of a Happy Meal. This not only confirmed my suspicion that vultures are closet vegetable lovers but also reminded me that scavengers are adaptive problem-solvers. Black vultures in Central America drag coconuts into the middle of the road and wait for cars to pulverize them into a meal. We hear of crows and ravens using tools, eagles stealing fish from other birds, and raccoons breaking into, well…everything. Scavengers are scrappy, and vultures are no exception. This gives me hope that with support, they will adapt to our ever-changing human dominated environments.

As we watched the sun set behind the french fry frenzy, I felt optimistic that with continued monitoring my innovative feathered friends would have many more happy meals.  

Heroes of Hawk Mountain: Sarkis Acopian

Bold ideas require visionaries, and one named Sarkis Acopian arrived at Hawk Mountain 16 years ago. At the time, the board of directors had committed to opening a biological field station, and had even purchased 41 acres of land along the Little Schuylkill River for that purpose. What they lacked, however, was the funding to make it happen.

Sarkis Acopian.jpg

 Enter Mr. Acopian, the most visionary conservation benefactor Hawk Mountain has ever known.

 Then Director of Conservation Science Dr. Keith Bildstein met Mr. Acopian in 1997, during the launch of A Field Guide to Birds of Armenia, a publication that Mr. Acopian spear-headed and had sponsored as part of the Birds of Armenia Project. Two years later, he supported a Hawk Mountain conservation science trainee from Armenia, and in early 2001, he sponsored an in-flight osprey carving for the Wings of Wonder Gallery at the Visitor Center.

 Later that same year, he called Keith to ask about the future of raptor conservation at Hawk Mountain, and Keith described for him the ambitious plans to build a facility that trains young raptor biologists from around the world, and that serves as a global hub for raptor conservation science. Mr. Acopian immediately grasped the potential and asked Keith to summarize in a letter the ideas and costs.

 “Only one page, not two,” he said to Keith.

Sarkis Acopian and Dr. Keith Bildstein check out the construction site.

Sarkis Acopian and Dr. Keith Bildstein check out the construction site.

 One week later Mr. Acopian committed the funds needed to undertake the Sanctuary’s bold agenda. Within two months, site preparation was well underway. On September 7, 2002—less than two years after Keith’s phone conversation with Mr. Acopian—the building was dedicated, the first class of trainees had arrived, and the Acopian Center was in use.

 And it didn’t end there. In 2003, Mr. Acopian provided funds to initiate a major research project using satellite telemetry to study turkey vultures. The study has since uncovered new information about their migration behavior, expanded to include black vultures and the endangered hooded vulture, engaged new conservation partners in North, South and Central America, and provided tools to teach trainees about the use of this important research technique. The following year, he endowed the directorship in conservation science at the Sanctuary, guaranteeing that Hawk Mountain will forever attract high-caliber, world-class leadership for its programs in raptor conservation.

 Thanks to Mr. Acopian and his outstanding generosity and vision, Hawk Mountain had the infrastructure necessary to double its conservation science training program, attract the most talented scientists for collaborative projects, and to emerge as a global leader in raptor conservation. More than 220 young conservationists from six continents have lived and learned at the Acopian Center, and its seminar room has hosted numerous international workshops, which in turn have resulted in several ongoing and international collaborations. More than 300 visiting scientists have used the facility, including seminar speakers for the current trainee classes.

 The Acopian Center continues to serve as a launching pad, not only for new careers in raptor conservation science, but also for new ideas, and for that we thank the late Sarkis Acopian. In the course of his lifetime, he set an example for all who enjoy a life of privilege, and he labored to make a positive change in the world. His distinguished commitment and his contributions to overall environmental health, not just here at Hawk Mountain, but all over the world, will no doubt leaves an extraordinary legacy for humankind.

Trainee to International Conservation Pioneer

By Alfonso Godino, Research Associate
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

The cinereous vulture was extinct in Portugal as a breeding species at the end of the 20th century, but in 2010 a new colony was established in Tejo Internacional National Park, in the eastern limit of the country and close to the border with Spain.

This colony now hosts 18 breeding pairs, and no studies were done before out of the annual breeding monitoring implemented by the Natural Park’s staff. Due to this lack of information, and being the main population in Portugal, our goal is to get information about the dynamic of this colony. Thus, the first step is to study the juvenile dispersion and the potential causes of mortality of this population.

Alfonso+Cinereous vulture.jpeg

During the summer of 2018, eight nestlings were tagged with GPS-GSM transmitters, supported by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the Spanish electric company ENDESA. This support will continue during 2019, with the goal to increase the number of birds in this study and to get more accurate and representative information.

All this information will be shared with the Natural Park’s managers, with the objective to facilitate them the conservation and management of the colony, since all the nests of this colony are in private estates inside the protected area.

Alfonso with a tagged vulture outside of the HMS Acopian Center for Conservation Learning

Alfonso with a tagged vulture outside of the HMS Acopian Center for Conservation Learning

But how did HMS reach Portugal? During 2009, I was at Hawk Mountain as a trainee. I was an enthusiast in vultures’ conservation, and HMS offered to me the amazing opportunity to trap turkey vultures and to use wing tags for the first time in my life. But for me, the most impressive was to get access, for the first time in my life, to the huge amount of information about raptors in the Sanctuary library. I spent many days reading papers and copying a lot of info to bring with me after my traineeship. From that time, I was interested in vultures’ juvenile dispersion but never had the opportunity to be involved in a project with this objective.

And again, after almost a decade, a causality joints me one more time to HMS, but this time in Portugal, not in Pennsylvania.

In this new cinereous vulture’s project, HMS is more than a sponsor offering GPS devices. From the beginning of the proposal to HMS, its permanent support and fast reply have encouraged me to work in this project, especially during the hard times of preparations, authorizations, organization, etc. I am sure that the presence of HMS in the project has been a motivation to other bodies to participate and be part of it. The result has been the creation of a task force, where raptor conservation and research organizations such as HMS, a private company such as the Spanish electric company ENDESA, and the government of Portugal, are in a narrow collaboration to study and protect the cinereous vulture in this colony.

Now, with the vultures sending throughout the transmitters lots of daily data, it is time to enjoy learning how these vultures move around the Iberian Peninsula and, who knows, maybe one of them cross the Gibraltar strait toward Africa and offer us new and unexpected information about the movements of this species to sub-Sahara regions!

Check out this video of Alfonso and his team tagging and releasing a cinereous vulture!

Across the Pond with Raptor Care Rock Star

By Rachel Spagnola Taras, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Nearly a decade ago, Jemima Parry-Jones (JPJ), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) located in Newent, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, answered an e-mail I sent to her hoping to gain insight on captive raptor management. Not only did JPJ promptly and thoroughly respond to my questions, she insisted that I visit her facility. With the generous support of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary friends Brian and Sandra Moroney, I completed my educational journey across the pond earlier this season to benefit our feathered educators and the volunteers and staff who work together to maintain best practices in raptor care management at Hawk Mountain. Education raptors help to connect learners of all ages to conservation with an up-close look at species that serve a vital role in our ecosytems worldwide. 

Jemima Parry-Jones and a barn owl welcom school children to ICBP.

Jemima Parry-Jones and a barn owl welcom school children to ICBP.

Located in the quaint English countryside, ICBP oversees nearly 300 birds of prey, including a diverse workforce of owls, eagles, vultures, kites, hawks, falcons, and harriers. During my stay, I was treated to a grand tour of the entire facility. Open to the public 7 days per week, 10 months of the year, visitors have the opportunity to see raptors on display in a zoo-like static setting and during multiple free-flighted training sessions throughout the day. During these flying demonstrations, ICBP trainers connect visitors of all ages to a fast-paced, exciting look at natural history in action.

One highlight of my visit was participating in training several  yellow-billed kites by cuing birds to fly over the field in front of visitors and signaling them to return, tossing meat straight up in the air to emulate their natural behavior of grasping prey in flight. Although I do not consider myself athletic, there’s nothing like being watched by countless visitors who are glued to your every move while one of the most famous falconers in the world is narrating and evaluating your meat throwing abilities. With the supportive direction of JPJ, I felt like an Olympian.  

An ICBP staff member monitors the weight of a white-tailed sea eagle.

An ICBP staff member monitors the weight of a white-tailed sea eagle.

In addition to shadowing the husbandry and training of some of the world’s largest and endangered raptors, I learned new techniques and skills to improve communication through body language and clear cues when working with animal colleagues. While working with a massive white-tailed sea eagle, I honed my ability to remain perch-like to provide a stable and trustworthy roost. If you see me lifting weights, you’ll understand why I want to build and maintain a strong  and stable resting place for a bird who weighs over ten pounds.

 Sadly, when visiting the on-site rehabilitation hospital building, I learned more about real-time conservation challenges like the direct persecution of raptors in the community. Unlike North America, migratory birds are not legally protected and are perceived as competition for resources such as small game.  I had the opportunity to meet with law officials who were inspired by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s rich history thanks to pioneer conservationists like Richard Pough and our own founder, Mrs. Rosalie Edge.  

On this side of our shared Atlantic Ocean, I remain proud to represent the world’s very first refuge for birds of prey and to help advance our mission by sharing our story and the need for continued research and education worldwide.

Help support our raptor care and public raptor education efforts by donating or becoming a member today.

On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 2

A black vulture tagged by Hawk Mountain named Versace, perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley. Notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

A black vulture tagged by Hawk Mountain named Versace, perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley. Notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

By Adehl Schwaderer, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

As a Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee, you have the opportunity to be a part of many influential experiences, including counting migrants as they pass North Lookout and educating visitors about the importance of raptor conservation. But the experience that I have learned the most from this autumn was working with my fellow trainee Zoey Greenberg on our black vulture movement ecology project. This blog is part two of our vulture series so be sure to check out part one to gain a complete understanding of our project.

The plan was to locate three black vultures, Versace, Gifford, and Hillary, based on their recent GPS locations and observe what the birds were doing at these locations. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited to get started and gain new field experience, but no one had ever attempted groundtruthing with this species before, and it is still a new concept. We accepted this challenge with enthusiasm but were anxious about getting results. In the end we knew that no data would still be valuable information, however who doesn’t want groundbreaking results from their first ever field study?

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On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 1

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

By Zoey Greenberg, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

he tires crunched on gravel, and I shut the engine off. We had entered vulture country. With scope, data sheets, and binoculars in hand my project partner, trainee Adehl Shwaderer and I walked carefully up the gravel road as we scanned the tree tops for hunched silhouettes or soaring shadows. This was our first foray into the Kempton Valley, east of Hawk Mountain, in search of black vultures (Coragyps atratus). Our expectations were not high. However, we had innovation on our side: we were testing a method called “groundtruthing” to better understand the movement ecology of several vultures that had been tagged with satellite transmitters by Hawk Mountain scientists. After investigating their movements in Google Earth, we had discovered interesting patterns including an individual who spent time near quarries, and another that seemed to prefer cities. The problem was, we didn’t know why.

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Culture in Conservation

By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

During my time at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I realized that conservation was a science and has to be regarded so. Before then, I thought it was a love for the environment, turning off lights around the house or turning the tap off when I brushed my teeth. All these acts are important, and if everyone did them they could make a difference.

However, as raptor biologists and conservationists, Dr. Keith Bildstein taught us that conservation is so much more. Conservation is not just an explosion of emotions, because emotions are personal and no one approach is a panacea.

In Africa today, various ‘cultural’ practices have had a negative impact on raptors, particularly vultures. It seems as though culture is playing a part in the demise and extinction of our vultures. This is odd as culture has always been the driving force to safe guarding and conserving wildlife and forests for centuries. Going into this year’s vulture awareness month, I had the question of how culture has evolved so much in southern Africa into a monster that is wiping out vultures in their hundreds.

In my culture, there is no fairy godmothers or tooth fairies, so when my teeth fell as a child, my mother took me outside and taught me a song. The song is to the Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius, an Intra-African migrant. What you do as a child, if you want your tooth to grow back is to sing the song that goes Mzwazwa! Mzwazwa! Thathi’zinyo lami ungiphe’lakho elihle! This directly translates to: "Yellow-billed Kite! Yellow-billed Kite! Take my tooth and give me your beautiful one!" This is weird since birds have no teeth, and this bird’s tooth is a yellow, curved, and razor sharp bill, which nobody would like growing on them. After singing the song, you are then supposed to throw the tooth over the roof for the Yellow-billed Kite to collect as it flies over your house. This small tradition in my corner of the world makes the bird so important, because children everywhere want the safety of the bird as it brings their adult teeth, and parents everywhere want that moment my mother shared with me so many years ago, passing along the tradition.

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

My second annual International Vulture Awareness Day seminar at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe for this year was themed Vulture Conservation and Culture in Zimbabwe. My intention was for scientists, the general public, and culture experts to talk about vulture conservation issues and what needs to change in Zimbabwe for their protection. I invited the BirdLife Zimbabwe Conservation officer for Special Species Ms. Fadzai Matsvimbo, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) senior ecologist Ms. Lovelater Sebele, and renowned author, historian, and culture expert Mr. Pathisa Nyathi. We had a great turn out of people from all over the city that knew close to nothing about vultures but were intrigued and interested in getting to know about them.

The two speakers from BirdLife Zimbabwe and ZimParks illustrated the current status of vultures in Zimbabwe and what conservation efforts are happening on the ground. BirdLife Zimbabwe works closely with ZimParks in Hwange National Park and has reported on various vulture poisonings around Zimbabwe. In Hwange Park, cyanide poisoning on salt leaks in elephant poaching is the main cause of mass deaths of vultures and many other scavenging animals; however, in other parks like Gonarezhou on the boarder of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Aldicarb a carbamate insecticide is the most common, along with the harvesting of body parts for muti (traditional medicine).

The major problems faced by organizations like these two are the lack of understanding of the value of vultures and inconsistencies in the litigation process. The judiciary system is failing our vultures, delivered sentences are inconsistent, and often vultures are not included as part of the cases. There is a lack of awareness in game rangers working in the parks, where vulture losses are not properly documented. For these and many other reasons, the two organizations have partnered in educating rangers on identification, data collection on poaching crime scenes, and conservation status.

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

Our historian and culture expert explained the African philosophy on conservation, and he reminded us that African communities were the best conservationists of natural resources whilst being utilitarian at the same time. African conservation is linked to cosmology and African spirituality, the belief that the earth is our mother and provider—that all matter has life in it, and in order for there to be life there has to be death. This spiritual approach to nature and the world, compared to the scientific, modern approach instills in all Africans a reverence to nature that inspires conservationists.

Due to the philosophy that all matter possesses life, all the parts of an animal carry spiritual characteristics of the animal, and for this reason, vulture bones, beaks, feathers, talons, and even meat are used as muti. Originally, because of the ability of vultures to ‘miraculously’ tell where carcasses are, it was only used by traditional healers for divination as part of their wardrobe. The use of vulture body parts for muti has only recently spiraled out of control due to increased possibilities for foretelling with sports betting, gambling,business successes, and investment results among others.

The biggest take home for all that night, especially for the conservation scientists, was that no external policing is more effective than internal conviction. This means that African children today need to be taught about African philosophy and spirituality to regain that awareness of wildlife. Along with western, scientific, material/physical education, African spirituality also needs to be taught to younger generations as it is being lost in current generations. The scientists were also urged to educate the public of the world view and wildlife understanding through indigenous African knowledge systems and to remain respectful of local people’s beliefs; perceptions are real, just as their consequences are.

In the end, I learned the value of my culture in conservation and how to be a holistic and effective advocate for conservation in my country. Most importantly, I realized the value of one day teaching my children the Yellow-billed Kite song and sharing with them the folklore that made me love and respect nature in my life and my career.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

One-Health on the Horizon

By Rebekah Smith, Former Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain educator Adam Carter presenting a live raptor program at the Pottstown Public Library, featuring a red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain educator Adam Carter presenting a live raptor program at the Pottstown Public Library, featuring a red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, known worldwide for its revolutionary work on raptor conservation, also uses living education raptors to help inspire and teach others about birds of prey. If you’ve ever wondered how important the jobs of the birds that live at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary are, the answer is as easy as watching the countenance of a young audience when one of our educators introduce our “feathered co-workers.” The majestic animals captivate pupils of all ages and provide that essential connection between the wilderness of the outdoors and our own humanity. This connection is sometimes grievously missing from the current discussions surrounding climate change and public health, and the world is in need of people who can restore it.

The education raptors at Hawk Mountain were once wild birds that were severely injured and rehabilitated at a wildlife rehab center – given a second chance at life. In most cases, wildlife rehab centers are able to release the birds after they are sufficiently functional, however, there are some cases where raptors are deemed unreleasable. This is how education raptors come to be.

The question is, who is responsible for diagnosing, treating, and prescribing medicine to the injured animals both while they are in rehabilitation or while they remain in captivity to be used for education animals? I don’t think many people realize that veterinarians specializing in exotics and wildlife are needed to help care for animals like these and others in captivity all over the world.

The truth is, veterinarians specializing in treating animals other than the traditionally domesticated are vital to conservation efforts worldwide. Not only do wildlife veterinarians work to conserve global biodiversity through the lenses of medicine and animal health, but they also help contribute positively to the one health initiative that many conservation scientists have taken. This initiative usually is defined by understanding the inextricable connection between human health and animal health which hangs in a delicate balance. The spread of disease, environmental toxicity, and even natural disasters are some examples of this connection.

Dr. Susan Pello of Mt Laurel Animal Hospital gives Hawk Mountain's red-tailed hawk a yearly checkup.

Dr. Susan Pello of Mt Laurel Animal Hospital gives Hawk Mountain's red-tailed hawk a yearly checkup.

During my time as an education intern at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I was able to achieve a clear vision of my future as a wildlife and exotic veterinarian. Hawk Mountain provided me with the chance to watch this career in action, and I made connections with professionals in the field that I will be able to continually draw from for the rest of my career. I had the opportunity to watch a wildlife veterinarian examine and vaccinate all four of the sanctuary’s education raptors. Hawk Mountain’s veterinarian, Dr. Susan Pello, welcomed me to her clinic again soon afterwards where I watched her diagnose and treat an eastern screech owl with a severe eye infection.

Dr. Pello and many other wildlife veterinarians work both at a traditional veterinary clinic and with potential wildlife cases. The future prospects of this career pathway is broadening as we enter an age in which humans are having increasing impact on the general environment and global biodiversity. As people realize that protecting wildlife is a social responsibility both locally and globally, veterinarians will need to step up and offer their specific medical expertise.

When I attended the Jemima Parry-Jones vulture conservation lecture in early September, I found that veterinarians with experience in raptor medicine, nutrition, and captive breeding are desperately needed globally. In Southeast Asia, vultures are commonly poisoned by diclofenac-NSAIDS given to cattle, and their populations are declining rapidly. Electrocution and collision with poerlines are other causes of injury. The ecological role of vultures in such an environment is imperatively bound to the health and wellbeing of the humans that share the land. Vultures are a natural management system for carcasses that can become vectors for disease, bacteria, and other harmful or even deadly microorganisms. As animals continue to die from the shocking changes in climate and weather on a global scale, the ecological need for vultures could potentially increase where we are instead seeing degradation in natural populations.

In captive breeding efforts, veterinarians trained to recognize the health of both the young and adults are needed in order for there to be successful results. Many of the offspring produced in the captive breeding programs suffer from vitamin deficiencies resulting in a dire need for individuals who are well-versed in raptor nutrition and health.

Lazarus from the Carbon County Environmental Education Center

Lazarus from the Carbon County Environmental Education Center

Although this branch of veterinary medicine is still in the midst of developing, it is easy to predict where its future is heading. Not only can veterinarians help animals in the field for ecological and biological research, but they can also aid in the overwhelming need for general education that we hope will create the behavioral changes necessary to minimize the negative impacts of human beings on natural populations of animals such as birds of prey.

I am a firm believer that getting the opportunity to connect with an animal face-to-face can affect your own personal daily decisions that make an environmental difference when broadened in the lens of the over-all human population. Many of the potential solutions to issues in conservation come from a pool that reaches many different bodies of expertise. We cannot simply expect our problems to be solved without the contribution of the knowledgeable and their efforts. Veterinary medicine is just one facet to the mosaic of the one-health initiative that ultimately aspires to nurture the ecological balance between humans and animals globally.

Rebekah atop South Lookout, viewing the horizon.

Rebekah atop South Lookout, viewing the horizon.

Research Serendipity

By JF Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain has a rich research and monitoring history. For several decades now, on-staff researchers have been carrying the torch, keeping numerous inestimable monitoring projects going. The migration counts conducted at Hawk Mountain indeed represents the longest running raptor monitoring project in the world.

JF reviews American kestrel nest box data with summer intern Jenna Schlener. Photo by Gigi Romano. 

JF reviews American kestrel nest box data with summer intern Jenna Schlener. Photo by Gigi Romano. 

Starting some 80+ years ago, the counts were first designed to assess the usefulness of the protection offered by the newly created Sanctuary. Not long after, Hawk Mountain's curator Maurice Broun and others realized the invaluable long-term dataset that those counts represent and they could be used to study population trends of 16 North American raptor species. Then in the mid 1950s, Alex Nagy, then Hawk Mountain's assistant curator, installed a few bird boxes on his farm to see if he could get American kestrels to use them. What most likely started as a humble backyard experiment resulted in what is now the American Kestrel Nest Box Program, which will proudly celebrate its 65th anniversary next spring.

Research and monitoring projects sometimes begin after a carefully designed approach. However, in reality, many such projects simply start serendipitously, as in the previous examples. Traveling around Hawk Mountain to visit the 125 man-made nest boxes of the American Kestrel Nest Box Program during summer 2017, we noticed odd and conspicuous behaviors of bigger, darker birds. Indeed on distinct occasions, black vultures would suddenly appear flying low overhead or even flying out a window from the very barns our kestrel nest boxes are attached to. At that point, we had little doubt; those vultures are likely using the building to nest.

JF holds a newly tagged black vulture named Versace. Photo by Rebekah Smith. 

JF holds a newly tagged black vulture named Versace. Photo by Rebekah Smith. 

From a research point of view, having access to nest sites is highly valuable. In addition to being able to handle adults and chicks to assess their life history traits (body condition, growth rate, disease prevalence, etc.), monitoring nesting activities allows us to assess breeding success and breeding rate, age at first breeding, and nest site fidelity on the population level over time. Those aspects are all immensely important to understand the complete cycle of individuals that compose populations.

Finding this access to several nests for any raptor species is challenging, because individuals are often territorial. Their nests occur at low density and are usually concealed. Therefore, monitoring nesting raptors often becomes an unrealistic task, given the time required and the area that would need to be covered to locate a fair number of them. A good breeding monitoring project requires a relatively easy way to access several nests across a relatively small area to allow researchers to visit them periodically.

Black vulture chick found in a local barn. Photo by J. Dallas. 

Black vulture chick found in a local barn. Photo by J. Dallas. 

During summer 2017, our team found just this. We were able to successfully monitor 3 black vulture nests that we found without even searching while checking our kestrel nest boxes. Those birds were using Pennsylvanian barns just like giant man-made nest boxes, and thankfully they were all in a relatively small radius around Hawk Mountain.

This project has just begun, and we are now looking to double or triple the number of monitored nests in the coming years. So if you notice black or Turkey vultures flying out of abandoned buildings or barns, please let us know. We would be thrilled to add new nest locations to our newly-born monitoring program.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

By using individual markers (such as wing-tags and telemetry transmitters), we will be following the where and wherefore of those individual birds through their lifetime. Anytime you see a vulture, keep an eye out for wing-tags (a brightly colored tag showing a distinct number). Any sighting of a tagged individual represents important information for locating roost sites, feeding hot spots, survival rates, and dispersal behavior. Help and support these studies by reporting any sightings at this link.

Monitoring programs such as these are an essential part of conservation science: they form the backbone of long-term population assessments. They allow researchers to keep track of historical population size and productivity in order to identify declines in a timely fashion and become aware of problems that otherwise could have gone undetected.

To learn more about our work with North American vultures or any other species of raptors, or if you wish to support our monitoring efforts financially, contact me at therrien@hawkmountain.org.

Out in the Field

By Katie Harrington, Research Associate and Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

I have just returned to Hawk Mountain from a two-month field effort conducting behavioral and dietary studies of Striated Caracaras, or Johnny Rooks, as the locals call them, in the Falkland Islands. Set off from the coast of South America in the South Atlantic, in a back eddy of the circumpolar current, the Falklands embody the sense of expedition, expanse, and natural beauty that would make any graduate student –especially me– weak in the knees.

Being my third visit to Saunders Island, human population of 4, I had a sense of what to expect: gales and squalls, immense starry skies, long summer days, and thousands of birds. I stayed in a cottage at the Farm Settlement and shared the company of my hosts, the Pole-Evans family, at their farmhouse in the late evenings. During the days, I would figuratively saddle up on an ATV, part the sheep, brake for hens, and set off on the undulating dirt track toward the Neck 10 miles to the northwest, where I’d spend the day with roughly 100, mostly juvenile, Johnny Rooks.

It’s an amazing study population that Dr. Keith Bildstein began banding in 2006. Over 80 percent of the individuals I observed I could call by the name on their leg band, Z26, K27, G22, etc., which allowed me not only to observe population-level patterns, but also to learn more about different individuals’ behavior over space and time, that is, who hangs out where and with whom, for how long, and doing what.

Rooks raking shoulder to shoulder in the kelp wrack that has washed up on the beach.

Rooks raking shoulder to shoulder in the kelp wrack that has washed up on the beach.

For my graduate work at Moss Landing Marine Labs in Monterey Bay, California, I am investigating the role the Rooks play in energy flow in their marine environment. It’s well known that Johnny Rooks associate with seabird colonies, but it’s less understood the extent to which they depend on invertebrates, both terrestrial and marine, as a nutritional resource. You might not think a raptor, formerly persecuted for slaying sheep and frequently labeled a penguin-killer, would spend hours each day silently and determinedly raking for larvae in accumulated kelp wrack. I certainly didn’t, but they do! It’s this behavior I set out to learn more about.

Layered in merino wool, I’d sit for hours, recording three different layers of resolution, from macro to micro: (1) total time an individual Rook spent foraging within the kelp wrack, (2) proportion of time spent actively digging and ingesting invertebrates versus a catalogue of other behaviors within a 4-min period, and (3) ingestion rates within a 30-sec period. Combined, these layers will help me better understand kelp raking as a foraging strategy, and the implications of changing social or climatic conditions.

X36 Yellow hours after receiving a tail mounted accelerometer. If all goes according to plan, we'll find out exactly how he spent the next twenty-four hours after we download the data!

X36 Yellow hours after receiving a tail mounted accelerometer. If all goes according to plan, we'll find out exactly how he spent the next twenty-four hours after we download the data!

A second goal of mine was to deploy and retrieve accelerometers that I had built before leaving San Francisco.  Having learned to wire, solder, and program the archival Arduino microloggers, I had my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t lose them forever. Rooks are wily and persistent, especially when it comes to disarming and destroying miniature gadgets, so I wasn’t entirely sure my plan would work. Luckily, by using two layers of heat shrink and Tesa tape and then tail mounting the units, it did! Keith warned me going into this, saying that it’s easy to trap Rooks, but it’s harder to retrap the one that's wearing your unit. Although, with a single snare and cubed mutton, we fortunately “lassoed” all six of our “accelerometered”  birds! What a rodeo! I’ll now be able to plug these data into visualization software, and by syncing the movement records with behavioral observations I conducted while the birds wore the units, I’ll be able to extract activity signatures and quantify total time spent doing each activity for a twenty-four hour period. I’m deeply indebted to banded Rooks  X36, P25, V26, Z26, M26 and K27. Thank you young Rooks!

For many of my days, I’d sit still and observe, doing my best to blend in with the environment. Frequently, when I would put down my binoculars I’d find a Gentoo Penguin peering closely at me, within arm’s reach, or a pair of King Penguins slowly waddling past me toward the water. Or I’d be closely watching one Rook raking while another, often a recently fledged one or a juvenile, would sidle up beside me to stare at me, head turning upside down for a better look, or to play with my thermos. On many days there would be a Sea Lion hunting and preying upon Gentoos 100m offshore, grabbing and slapping the penguin’s body back and forth on the water. Southern Giant Petrels would get the first go at the remaining carcass, but once it washed ashore it became a hierarchical battle between them, the Rooks, and the local Turkey Vultures. Southern Crested Caracaras steered clear with Petrels around. Not to say they didn’t hold weight at the Neck though, as whenever they flew over, the gulls, oystercatchers and Rooks all would flush in alarm.

Recently fledged K28 after kickboxing a ball of dried basket kelp. 

Recently fledged K28 after kickboxing a ball of dried basket kelp. 

While the Rooks spent most of their days at the Neck foraging or digesting, the four recently fledged Rooks that arrived midsummer introduced me to another side of the species. I’d watch and try not to laugh as they ran toward inanimate, inedible objects and kickboxed them, grabbing on and stumbling over themselves while they held on their “toys.” They’d lie there on their side, partially flapping, partially kicking, and doing what I could only call playing with the objects. Energetic and clumsy, they seemed to be learning to navigate their world. I could certainly relate to their seeming enthusiasm.

Working with the Rooks has been an incredible opportunity to contribute information on a little-studied species, engage with the amazing South Atlantic ecosystem, and build relationships with local residents who have been so generous in supporting our work. Keith and I will return to the islands in July to present our findings at a “Farmer’s Week” get-together in Stanley, the capital of the islands, before continuing to Saunders Island to rejoin the Rooks. Until then, I’m sure they’ll be raking away, running under fences, and continuing to perplex and delight, and, perhaps, frustrate all who encounter them.