One of the most frequent questions I am asked when out in public representing Audubon is “How’s the Bald Eagle, Liberty?” Since being housed at Audubon in 2002 after an injury, Liberty provides visitors with a close-up view of a bird of prey.
People love Liberty. Words I’ve heard used to describe her include beautiful, impressive, powerful, amazing and cool. The same words are used to describe other birds of prey, or raptors, including hawks, falcons, eagles, osprey, and owls. Many who would never claim to be birders seem to love these birds.
And why? Is it their size compared to other birds? Seeing a hawk circling in the sky definitely gets your attention more than a tiny sparrow. And in many species, the female raptor is larger than the male. The feminist part of me is proud of that. In the bird world the females seem to get the short end of the stick in terms of flashy color. They are generally duller in color and in vocalizations than the males of the same species. Therefore, we often learn to identify the males first while leaving the females in the hard to identify “little brown bird category.” This is true of raptors, but to a lesser extent. Most females have some color, though often less intense than the males.
Are we captivated by raptors because, like us they are high on the food chain? The word “raptor” comes from the Latin “rapere” meaning to seize or take by force. Their good vision and strong talons and beaks allow them to capture other animals for food. Is there a primal part of us that identifies with these fellow hunters?
The very nature of birds of prey, which today makes them appealing to many birders and non-birders alike, is the thing that put them on the “naughty list” in America’s past.
Amazing and cool were certainly not the words used to describe Bald Eagles and other birds of prey in the early history of our country. Many raptors were thought to be “bad” birds, and therefore shot as they preyed on livestock included pigs and sheep.
Words used to describe birds of prey in the 18th and 19th century in America were bullies, bird eaters, ugly and cruel. Even Benjamin Franklin expressed his displeasure at the Bald Eagle being chosen as the country’s symbol. In a letter to his sister, he described the eagle as “a bird of bad moral character” and “a rank coward.” Bald Eagles sometimes steal prey from other birds, such as Osprey. They are also mobbed and harassed by smaller birds. Neither of these behaviors seemed brave and noble to Franklin.
And it wasn’t just talk. Pennsylvania passed the short lived Scalp Act in 1885 which put a bounty on most raptors, as well as wolves, foxes and weasels because they were a threat to farmers. Between 1917 and 1952, Alaska paid a bounty for Bald Eagles as they competed with the salmon industry.
The hunting regulations and wildlife protection laws we know today were not always present. The majority of them were enacted in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As our human population increased and wildlife populations decreased, people noticed. This was the time of great nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, who brought the conservation and preservation of land and wildlife to the attention of the public. This was the time first national park was established and Audubon groups were forming to protect birds in response to the slaughter of millions of birds to make ladies’ hats.
While other birds were getting protection from laws and hunting regulations, birds of prey were still being hunted and thought of as pests. The Migratory Bird Treaty was passed in 1918 made it illegal for anyone to kill certain migratory birds. This mainly included songbirds, not raptors. There were several local and state protections across the US but no federal protection until 1972 when the Migratory Bird Treaty, was amended to include birds of prey.
It’s fascinating how our understanding of the natural world and our part in it changes over time as we learn and discover more. There is an upcoming opportunity to learn more about raptors and see these impressive birds up close on Saturday, October 29 at Audubon’s Birds of Prey Day. Mark Baker, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, will bring several birds of prey, including owls to the nature center. There will also be a touch table, crafts, owl pellet dissection and a self-guided walking trail. Scouts and other youth can complete 4 activities that day and be eligible to purchase a Birds of Prey patch. Visitors can stop by and visit Liberty and learn how we care for her.
And just in case you were wondering, Liberty is healthy and doing just fine. Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. The trails and Liberty viewing are open from dawn until dusk. The Nature Center is open daily from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. You can find more information at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.