This autumn, it’s more important than ever to engage--safely--with the wildlife in our own backyards. As we spend more time at home and inside, the occasional raptor sighting can bring some added excitement into our lives. Here are a few helpful (and fun!) steps we can take to draw raptors into our local landscapes while ensuring their health and safety.
Maintain a healthy habitat for raptors. One of the biggest challenges facing birds in human landscapes is the loss of native species, and therefore, reliable food sources for local birds. You can help restore these landscapes by planting native plants (focus on plants that bear fruits or seeds), clearing out invasive species, staying away from insecticides and herbicides that may contaminate the food chain, and as part of this, increasing overall plant diversity in your backyard. Bird-friendly landscaping, as this is often called, also includes planting layered gardens to increase overall habitat space, replacing open space with less-manicured areas (these landscapes are more attractive to raptors), and using plants that fruit at different times of year to attract a wider range of birds. Even if raptors don’t rely directly on these plants for food, they may rely on other bird or mammal species that do. Healthy biodiversity means healthier ecosystems, and seeing a raptor show up in your yard is a sign that the ecosystem outside your window is thriving.
Make your windows safer. About half of all birds that hit windows die from the resulting injuries, which adds up to between 100 million and 1 billion bird deaths per year in the U.S. alone. Additionally, half of these deaths occur in residential areas. If these statistics aren't scary enough, check out this recent news article detailing 1,000 window-related bird deaths in Philadelphia in ONE day. Essentially, the reflection from glass windows distorts the birds’ depth perception, so that they see more open space instead of a hard pane of glass. To help prevent the collisions that often result, windows can be retrofitted with bird-friendly non-reflective glass (some evidence suggests this type of glass may also increase energy efficiency!). If this is too expensive, try affixing easily visible objects to your windows, such as outside screens, blinds, painted vertical lines, or even window artwork. Though raptors tend to collide more often with large office buildings than small residential buildings, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our part to keep our backyard birds safe. After all, more birds often means more raptors. You can also order Window Alert UV Liquid and Window Alert UV Decals from Teton Raptor Center's online shop.
Keep an eye on your pets. Reflective windows are certainly a threat to birds, but they don’t come close to impacting bird populations as much as cats do. Domestic cats are the #1 human-caused threat to birds, killing an estimated 2.4 billion birds every year! They rarely hunt down raptors, but their existence threatens the backyard bird species-- and healthy ecosystems--that raptors rely on for food. The easiest way to do your part here is to keep cats indoors as much as possible. Dogs may not help either: loud barking can scare any nearby raptors away. It may not seem like it, but pets play a major role in our local ecosystems. Sometimes, our pets may even find themselves on the other side of predation: raptors eat many types of small mammals, and cats and dogs are no exception. If you see any nearby raptors, make sure to bring small pets to a safe location. You can order highly effective Cat Collar Covers from the TRC store to reduce birds being caught by pet cats.
Know what to look for, and be patient. Not all raptors like to hang out in our backyards. Larger raptors such as eagles and vultures prefer rural landscapes, so in a more suburban backyard, you are more likely to encounter raptors like hawks, owls, and kestrels. Also, make sure you are looking in the right places: raptors generally hunt from high perches near open areas, such as fields or bodies of water. Look up at the trees around you for large dead branches or high ledges, where raptors can easily scan the area for prey. Ultimately, birding is a game of patience, so simply spend a few minutes here and there watching closely to see what shows up in your yard. If all else falls into place, you can watch your backyard become a thriving, diverse ecosystem, and in the process, you might see some pretty unique raptors too.