Raptor Rapture

By Kevin Franklin

BIRDS OF PREY are to winged critters as a Michelangelo is to art; refined in every detail and stunning in overall appearance--not to mention large. Raptors rule as lords of the sky, at least until a DC-10 comes along.

And, like the less inspiring though considerably more dangerous species known as snowbirds, a whole bunch have descended upon us for the winter. Programs highlighting raptors and providing people with insight on how to spot them will be offered during the next two weekends.

Out There On Sunday, February 11, Tohono Chul Park presents "Urban Raptors," a talk and demonstration by wildlife ecologist Wendy Burroughs on the different species of raptors found near Tucson.

Burroughs, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, will have a Harris hawk, screech owl and great horned owl on hand (literally) to allow people a close look at what is often the final, consuming view for a kangaroo rat.

Remarkably, many raptors seem to be coping well with Tucson's growth, Tohono Chul Park education curator Jo Falls says.

"These animals are continuing to live and nest in areas one would have assumed they'd have vacated," Falls says. "It's important for people to understand that there is responsible development and responsible living with wildlife. We hope people will gain a better understanding of these birds, why they're important to the desert environment, how we as individuals can help preserve their species and what kind of work (Burroughs) does as a wildlife rehabilitator."

On Saturday, February 17, Arizona Game and Fish will host a hawk and falcon viewing program at Christopher Columbus Park on Silverbell Road. The park borders the Santa Cruz River, which is attractive to many wild birds of prey. Wildlife rehabilitator Sue Simpson will also be present with a red-tail hawk, so you're guaranteed to see at least one taloned terror.

"We just completed our winter raptor survey," says Scott Richardson, Arizona Game and Fish urban wildlife specialist, "and counted just over 400 raptors here in Tucson in a one-day survey."

That survey probably represents no more than half the wintering raptors in Tucson, especially considering the more reclusive falcons and kestrels are harder to spot, Richardson says.

A tremendous diversity as well as volume of birds come here. Richardson has recently spotted everything from the rocket-fast peregrine falcon to the giant golden eagle.

Richardson says they come for the warm, dry climate that allows them to remain active.

He says even though the city has grown, enough habitat remains so that raptor populations have endured our sprawl.

"If you look at the city," Richardson postulates, "there are still a lot of washes like the Santa Cruz, Rillito, Pantano and Tanque Verde. Those washes and river systems are still present with pretty good habitat along them. Comparing Tucson to Phoenix, we have more available habitat."

Some aspects of city life may even aid raptor populations. With humans comes readily available water in various city park ponds.

Of course, if it hadn't been for humans, the Santa Cruz would still be flowing on its own, and its long-vanished cottonwood forests would put Reid Park to shame--but I guess you have to take what you can get.

One kind of water Tucson's avian visitors don't need is birdbath and bucket water. The protozoa trichomoniasis thrive in stagnate water. When doves and pigeons drink the invisible death-dealer, their nasal passages and throats swell up until they starve or suffocate. When raptors eat them, they and their young get the disease. About 90 percent of Tucson's coopers hawk fledglings were infected with the disease, and 80 percent died from it, Richardson says.

If people want to have birdbaths, they should clean them daily in the summer with a bleach mixture to avoid spreading infection. Bird food should never be put in a dispenser, but rather cast over a wide area--making sure to throw no more than what can be eaten in 10 minutes.

The far simpler solution is to landscape with plants that naturally attract birds. The Arizona Game and Fish Department and many local nurseries have brochures on this kind of planting.

With programs like the hawk and falcon viewing day, Richardson hopes people come away with a better understanding of their surrounding wildlife populations and what can be done to maintain those species.

As Tucson's human population expands into places like Honeybee Canyon, the Rocking K area and other important habitats, keeping wildlife corridors and refuges will become ever more important. What a heavy shame on our culture if, failing to protect their critical habitats, the best place to spot large raptors is by looking at the coins in our pockets.

The Tohono Chul program starts at 2 p.m., is by reservation only and costs $2 for non-members. Call 742-6455 for more information. The free Arizona Game and Fish program runs from 8 a.m. to noon at Christopher Columbus Park, 4600 N. Silverbell Road. Bring binoculars. Call 628-5376 for more information. TW

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