Barn owls in a nest box in Mercersburg. Photo by Jim Malone of Mercersburg Academy.
At first sighting we’re filled with a sense of wonder and awe--captivated as we watch them soaring effortlessly above. Or perhaps it is the solitary call cutting through the night sky that intrigues us and stimulates our senses. No matter when or where, hawks and owls have captured our attention and command our respect.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is world-renown for its decades of work and commitment to raptors. Sanctuary biologists are hoping to tap into our sense of raptor awe and intrigue to help four species in particular make a comeback.
A young barn owl at Mercersburg Academy. Photo by Jim Malone of Mercersburg Academy.
The Sanctuary recently launched the Pennsylvania Farmland Raptors Project, which aims to study and survey populations of hawks and owls that are on the decline in Pennsylvania. With support from the Wild Resource Conservation Program, sanctuary biologists are building a network of farm-based partners to help watch for, survey, and possibly care for, these raptors on the brink. They’re specifically looking for the Short-eared Owl (endangered), the Northern Harrier (threatened), the Barn Owl (near threatened), and the American Kestrel (populations steadily dropping), and they could be soaring over your farm or field right now.
So what is causing the decline? Habitat loss, land development, and changes in how we farm and use the land. An increase in the use of pesticides is also to blame. Pesticides cut down on critters like mice, insects, and snakes--critters that some may call "pesky," but which raptors call dinner. Pesticides can also cause secondary poisoning of nesting raptors.
How can you help?
- Join the new Farmland Raptors Project;
- Protect/Create habitat for these amazing raptors.
Dr. Laurie Goodrich, Senior Monitoring Biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary says that conserving grassland habitats is a vital first step. “Improving or even enhancing habitat is one way to encourage nesting, and another is to maintain untouched grasslands as they provide vital nesting sites as well as areas where raptors can feed,” she explains. “The Barn Owl and Short-eared Owl may need more than 100 acres of open land to successfully nest. Harriers will use smaller fields but need to forage over larger areas of healthy habitat to find enough voles and mice to feed their young.”
A Mercersburg Academy student surveys a young owl. Photo by Jim Malone of Mercersburg Academy.
Dr. Goodrich also says that farmers and landowners can help by protecting existing or planting new forested buffers along streams. “Conserving grassland habitats and buffers along streams promotes healthy farmland wildlife communities which in turn support the prey these raptors feed upon,” says Dr. Goodrich. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation works with landowners throughout the region to restore and establish streamside forested buffers through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). Buffers help to improve local water quality and provide habitat for raptors and a variety of wildlife. David Wise, PA Restoration Manager says, “This is a rare opportunity for farmers and landowners to take their conservation efforts to the next level. It’s important to many farmers to leave a legacy of a healthy environment, and preserving wildlife species that are on the brink is another way they can leave the world a better place for the next generation.”
“The diversity of habitats supported in CREP buffers bolsters the diversity of prey available for all four raptor species,” Dr. Goodrich says. “For example, the American Kestrel nests in tree cavities and may find nesting sites in streamside buffers. They may also use buffer sites to perch-hunt small mammals and insects.”
But it all depends on farmers and landowners to make the commitment to improving local water quality and helping wildlife by improving habitat. “Landowners are really a key conservation partner,” said Goodrich. “Farmers and landowners who have established streamside buffers through CREP are not only helping to improve their local water quality, but they are also helping these raptors in need.”
In just a few short weeks since the program began, people are already signing on. Andrew Kimsey of Mercersburg wants to help and says, “Supporting this project is a natural choice. It’s exciting to be a part of a program that benefits both wildlife and the natural surroundings.”
Dr. Goodrich also says that it is important for landowners to consider wildlife when timing specific land-use practices. For example, she encourages property owners to hold off on mowing large areas of grassland and pasture until late summer when ground nesters have finished laying eggs and young have left the nest. Even better--maintain large areas of untouched property for ground nesting species. “Large areas of grassland or pasture are critical because all four species nest or forage in these habitats,” she adds. One additional way to help is to provide nestboxes. The Farmland Raptors Project can help landowners establish and properly maintain boxes.
To learn more about the project and the four focus species, visit the Pennsylvania Farmland Raptor Project or complete the online form to be automatically added to the project's mailing list. Learn more about CREP, ways to reduce pollution, and how you can help promote clean water.