Persecution and Hunting
Birds of Prey Birds of prey have been persecuted for hundreds of years in Europe and
other parts of the world, usually as suspected predators of chickens or small livestock, such as goat kids or lambs. In most parts of the world, they still are given no official protection.
Hawks, eagles, owls, falcons and other birds of prey that breed in North America were excluded from the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), signed with Great Britain on behalf of Canada. The Treaty covered almost all other species of native birds, banning hunting and killing as well as harassment and destruction of nests. This exposed birds of prey to continued indiscriminate shooting for sport, hunting from aircraft, poisoning and even capture in pole traps, which catch birds by the feet and hang them upside down in nooses.
Populations of birds of prey that breed in Canada and the northern United States migrate south during the fall, some to Latin America and others to southern states. Flying along thermal wind currents, they funnel into flyways as they pass through mountain chains. In the eastern United States, thousands of hawks, and a smaller number of eagles and falcons, pass over the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania during October, November and December every year. Kittatinny Ridge, near the town of Kempton, came to be known as Hawk Mountain because of the huge numbers of birds of prey passing near it. For generations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, hunters gathered every fall on the rocky ridge to shoot these birds by the hundreds as they soared by. Dead hawks, falcons and eagles accumulated in huge piles, while wounded birds staggered around or lay helplessly immobile on the ground (Brett 1973).
This carnage was considered a form of sport, justified by old prejudices. Rosalie Edge, an ardent conservationist, spearheaded the movement to stop this hunt in the 1930s (Brett 1973). This courageous woman publicized the slaughter of birds of prey, and after a campaign in which she enlisted the help of influential conservationists, she succeeded in purchasing the mountain as a sanctuary (Brett 1973). Edge persuaded an ornithologist, Maurice Broun, and his wife, to oversee the sanctuary and prevent hunting. They remained on Hawk Mountain for 32 years and served as guides for the more than 40,000 visitors who come every year to see the spectacle of hawks flying over and alongside the mountain ridge (Brett 1973). Rosalie Edge died in 1962, but the sanctuary continues as a non-profit organization staffed with ornithologists, educators, and volunteers, who chronicle by species and number the birds that fly past the ridge.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is one of the country's first examples of private ecotourism, and it has accomplished a great deal in teaching the public about birds of prey as useful animals in ecosystems, as well as providing exciting views of these birds as they soar past the ridge. In the morning, before the thermal winds warm up, hawks fly at low elevations, giving visitors a view of their tails and backs from above, an especially colorful sight in the case of the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), while in the afternoon, they fly higher, transported along by the thermals. Sometimes a visitor to Hawk Mountain can see a hawk or other bird of prey at close range, only 15 or 20 feet away, as they fly close to the ridge, the intricate patterns of their feathers in full view.
In spite of the preservation of Hawk Mountain and several other key hawk habitats, legal protection from hunting did not come in the United States until 10 years after the death of Rosalie Edge. During these years, thousands of hawks and other birds of prey were shot because of ignorance or as sport. Little was understood about their value in controlling rodents and rabbits. In 1960 alone, 12,000 Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) were killed in Texas in a massive campaign to eliminate them. A major victory for birds of prey was their addition to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1972. The bans on hunting that have protected other native land birds were finally accorded these raptors. This was carried out through a memorandum enacted with Mexico, which had signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1936. It prohibits, except as allowed under specific conditions, the taking, possession, purchase, sale, or bartering of any migratory bird, including the feathers or other parts, nests, eggs or migratory bird products. "Taking" is defined as pursuing, hunting, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, trapping, or collecting migratory birds. Individuals and organizations may be fined up to $5,000 and $10,000 respectively, and those convicted may face up to six months imprisonment for misdemeanor violations of the Act. Felony violations may result in fines of up to $25,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations and up to two years imprisonment for those convicted. This strong legislation has not stopped the killing of birds of prey altogether, but it has deterred the type of slaughters that were once common.
Although Bald Eagles were revered by native tribes, especially those in the Pacific Northwest, they became victims of prejudice by European colonists, who accused them of damaging fish stocks. A bounty in Alaska resulted in the killing of some 150,000 of these eagles between 1917 and 1953. This species is the national bird, the official symbol of the United States of America, yet historically it has been given little respect. Some even called them "gangster birds" because they were thought to be scavengers of fish caught by other birds. In truth, they are superb fishers with extraordinarily keen vision and are acrobatic in flight. Bounty programs and random shooting of Bald Eagles from colonial times onward caused these birds to disappear from much of their original range, which encompassed the entire continent of North America, including arid regions in the Southwest.
The Bald Eagle Protection Act was enacted in 1940 to protect it from extinction, and amended in 1962 to extend protection to Golden Eagles, primarily to protect immature Bald Eagles, which resemble them. A 1972 incident involving the slaughter of hundreds of Golden Eagles by western ranchers shooting from aircraft resulted in increasing fines under the law from $500 to $5,000 and/or one year imprisonment for subsequent offenses. The amendments also specifically included poisoning in the definition of taking, since both Bald and Golden Eagles had been poisoned by ranchers. These amendments also included the same high penalties for possession of eagle feathers, nests or eggs, and made federal grazing permits subject to cancellation for violations of the Act. In addition, they added a new facet to the enforcement of the Act: one-half of any fine can be paid to a person who provides information leading to a conviction. To augment this protection, the Airborne Hunting Act was enacted in 1972 to prevent the killing of wildlife from aircraft.
After 1973, the killing of a Bald Eagle constituted a violation of the US Endangered Species Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the combined penalties of which could amount to long jail sentences and very high fines. In spite of all these legal steps taken to protect eagles, killings continue. Many are deliberate and carried out in remote areas where there is little fear of prosecution, and others are done by hunters ignorant of the law or the identity of their targets. The protection of native birds, their identification, and laws applying to them should be taught in schools in North America, but such information is usually acquired by chance if at all. Each year, 300 to 400 eagles--Bald and Golden--are found dead. In some cases, hunters still believe folklore about birds of prey being destructive, and shoot them intentionally. A Bald Eagle shot in Maine in 1994 was killed by an 85-year-old man who deliberately killed the bird because he believed these birds were killing geese. He told game wardens that they should "do something about the eagles;" because of his age, he was only given a $2,500 fine, which was suspended. Bald Eagles feed mainly on fish and are not major predators of waterfowl.
Although the majority of eagles are killed when shot, many are found wounded, some in emaciated condition, unable to fly to obtain food and near death. One such Bald Eagle was found crippled in 1983 in Georgia, having been shot in the wing. He had been on the ground for a week, his wing bone exposed. In spite of attempts to save his wing, veterinarians had to amputate it because of infection, and the eagle was taken into a rehabilitation program. Named Osceola, he has played an important role in Wings of America, an education program at Dollywood in Tennessee. John Stokes, Osceola's caretaker, teaches children and adults about the effects of such shooting, stressing the impoverished life that Osceola leads, unable to fly and be free. Stokes decided to bring Osceola along on his hang-gliding trips to treat the bird to some of the sights the eagle had not seen in the many years since being shot. Harnessed into a specially made sling, the pair hang-glided, with Osceola positioned above Stokes, looking intently at the ground far below, turning his head frequently in apparent fascination. The film of Osceola hang-gliding was shown on nationwide television in 1996, and some 500,000 people attend lectures featuring this maimed eagle every year. The National Audubon Society series for young people, "Audubon's Animal Adventures," featured Osceola in the program entitled "Eagle Adventures," shown on the Disney channel.
In the past, it was impossible to prosecute offenders unless there were witnesses or other direct evidence to the killing. Today, a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington state is able to necropsy dead eagles for cause of death. If shot, ammunition extracted from the birds is analyzed forensically, and cases are made with as much precision and scientific evidence as criminal investigations in which people are the victims.
Prejudices against birds of prey still persist among many who wrongly believe that they harm wildlife or present major threats to domestic animals. Biological studies have documented their ecological importance as major controls on rodent populations. Some birds of prey feed on snakes, insects or other potential pests. No species of raptor poses a significant threat to domestic animals.
The continent's densest population of birds of prey breeds in the craggy canyons and sagebrush shrubland of Idaho. This area has been set aside as the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, lining 81 miles of the Snake River and covering 485,000 acres. Prior to its protection, this land was in the process of being converted to agriculture. The birds of prey had begun a steep decline from shooting and loss of habitat. Conservationists faced strong opposition to the plan, but overcame it, establishing this area in 1971, a year prior to the inclusion of birds of prey on the Migratory Bird Treat Act. It has since become a leading ecotourism destination for rafters and hikers, who are led on tours by naturalists from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the refuge. Fourteen species of raptors breed in the area or migrate through it, and the breeding population of hawks, eagles, owls and falcons has been estimated at 800 pairs. They provide exciting views of high-speed hunting of ground squirrels and birds, and their eerie shrieks resound through the canyons.
Waterfowl hunting is regulated by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act under regulations by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Unfortunately, the regulations have serious shortcomings that have resulted in many shootings of birds of prey. First, hunting can begin before dawn, when hunters are unable to identify birds by species. Each year, hundreds of birds of prey, including such endangered species as Peregrine Falcons, are shot accidentally. Second, the regulations do not require that hunters be able to identify birds by species, including protected and endangered species. Since many ducks and geese are extremely difficult to identify, the failure of the Fish and Wildlife Service to require hunters to pass identification tests and begin hunting well after daybreak means that protected and endangered birds will continue to be shot.
In October, 1995, a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) shot in Massachusetts was migrating south from Canada or Greenland during hunting season. It suffered neurological damage after being shot in the left wing while it was flying in a wildlife refuge area. The Assistant Director of the State Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Tom French, stated that it appeared that the bird was not shot accidentally. This was the second shooting of a Peregrine Falcon in as many years. The reintroduction of captive-bred specimens of these birds into the eastern United States has been a success, with over 130 nesting pairs. Their long-term survival, however, will depend on adherence to laws prohibiting shooting or harming them.
For the future, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act would be far more effective if signed with Latin American and Caribbean nations to protect North American birds wintering in those countries. This would be especially important in view of the decline in many of the continent's birds of prey, which are persecuted and killed by pesticides and poisons in their wintering grounds.
The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), North America's largest bird of prey, once soared over most of the continent. Its bones have been found among Florida's Pleistocene fossils, and 20,000 years ago, it was very common and widespread, feeding on the carrion of mastodons, bison and other large mammals. This giant bird's superb aerodynamic flight makes the most sophisticated man-made aircraft look clumsy by comparison. Condors have a positive role to play in ecosystems, feeding on carcasses and thereby ridding the environment of these potentially infectious contaminants. Although they declined in range over the centuries, condors were still widespread from Baja California, Mexico, north to Washington state, where Lewis and Clark saw them along the Columbia River in the early 19th century. They were often observed scavenging seal and whale carcasses along the California coast, and they nested as far east as the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Settlers looked on condors as large targets, with their 10-foot wing span, and perhaps thought they were predatory birds. Hundreds were shot. These birds feed exclusively on carrion and do not hunt live animals. When word spread in the last years of the 19th century that the condors were approaching extinction, egg and specimen collectors preyed on the remaining birds. Between 1881 and 1910, 288 birds were killed as museum specimens (ICBP 1981). By the turn of the century, only a few hundred birds remained, yet killing was still legal. The ornithological journal The Condor began publication at this time and recorded many instances of these killings. In one case, an individual named Frank S. Daggett reported shooting a California Condor in 1901, wounding it in the wing and then, when it fell to the ground, shooting it three more times, still not killing it. Finally he clubbed it and shot it yet again before the bird died (Daggett 1901).
The California Condor continued its decline until only 60 birds remained in 1939 (Greenway 1967). The last population survived in a wilderness area of southern California. In spite of legal protection and the establishment of the Sespe Condor Refuge, the birds suffered high mortality from shooting, ingestion of lead shot from deer killed by hunters, feeding on animals killed by predator poisons, collisions with power lines, and accidental capture in leghold traps. Biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society were assigned to study and protect this small population in the 1960s and 1970s, but they did not publicize its precipitous decline or insist on further protection from the threats that continued to kill these birds. As these birds headed toward imminent extinction, nothing was done to stop deer hunting in their refuge, nor to prevent the use of steel jaw leghold traps or predator poisons in their diminishing range.
One of the last nests was in a regal setting befitting this massive bird: a huge natural hole in a giant, old Sequoia tree. The eggs from this nest and others were taken by the Fish and Wildlife Service for captive hatching. In 1980, one of the last wild chicks hatched in a cave and was being weighed and tested by biologists when it suddenly died. It had been handled for more than an hour, during which time it repeatedly hissed and jabbed at the researcher. Later it was revealed that shock caused its death. The incident was filmed and shown on national television, resulting in the cancellation of the recovery program by the state of California, followed by a long period of re-evaluation and controversy. By 1981, the state reached an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to allow capture of the last nine California Condors, but the program was delayed by lawsuits and wrangling over details. By the time it was finally decided to capture all remaining condors in 1987, only six survived (BI 2000).
The sad decision to remove all wild California Condors turned out to be the correct path to preserve the species, since its wide-ranging behavior exposed it to countless perils that were beyond the control of its protectors. To the amazement of many, the captive-breeding program succeeded beyond all expectations. The eggs laid by the captive condors were artificially incubated, and chicks were fed by workers, with puppets resembling adult condors covering their hands. So many birds were captive-bred at special facilities run by the Los Angeles Zoo and other breeding centers that by 1992, a reintroduction program began with release of captive-bred birds into the wild in southern California. Some of the released birds died after striking electric power wires or were injured and had to be returned to captivity. Several landed in suburban locations, perching on the decks and roofs of private homes and even, in one case, entering someone's home. Most residents did not recognize the birds’ great rarity and protected status, and put out food, such as hot dogs, for them. Finally, wildlife authorities and television news stations learned about the situation, and many Californians became aware of these giant and extremely rare birds. To many ornithologists, the behavior of these young condors indicated that the birds were tame and considered humans a source of food. The puppets apparently had not fooled them into thinking they were being fed by parent birds.
By July 1994, California Condors numbered 89 birds, 85 of which were in captive-breeding facilities, and four released birds (Collar et al. 1994). Six young condors were released in the Grand Canyon area in late 1996, with Fish and Wildlife Service personnel staying close to provide food and to radio-track the birds. Within a short time, one of the condors was killed by an eagle, an unexpected setback. The total California Condor population grew to 120 birds by early 1997, and only a year later it had increased to 147 birds, of which there were 97 in captivity, 28 returned to the wild in California's Los Padres National Forest, and 22 released in Arizona (BI 2000). The released birds are provided with livestock carcasses until they are able to find food on their own. The success of this program has not yet been proven by breeding in the wild, as all released birds are too young. Only time will tell whether these birds survive and reach the goal of 150 birds in separate populations. They are being trained to avoid some of the sources of mortality that killed them in the past, such as power lines, but as long as lead shot is used in deer hunting in their range, this will remain a potential threat to them.
Elsewhere in the world, birds of prey receive little or no protection from persecution. In Italy, shooting of migrating birds of prey has long been a "sport" in which gunners position themselves in concrete bunkers on hillsides and kill hawks, falcons and eagles as they fly by. One woman decided to fight the hunters and worked successfully for an official ban on shooting these birds. In spite of this, illegal shooting takes place in Italy, and every year during the migration season, conservationists from many parts of Europe come to help her enforce the ban. The campaign to stop hunting of these birds was described in a film, “Anna and the Honey-Buzzards” (see Video section). In Australia, persecution of eagles and hawks is rampant. After shooting these birds, especially Wedge-tailed Eagles, they are often nailed to fence posts with their wings spread. Few of the ranchers who kill thousands of these birds seem aware of the important role they play in controlling rabbits.