Over the six years of the Los Angeles Raptor Study, a community science supported by Friends of Griffith Park, more than 600 raptor nests have been found in locations that range from natural areas in open space to trees right next to the freeway. In our dense urban environment, raptors are finding ways to make their home in backyards, and even on buildings in busy downtown areas.
The study was first launched in 2017 as Griffith Park Raptor Survey and has expanded since then. More than 100 trained study volunteers monitor these nests in the Spring, tracking whether they are successful and how many chicks they have. “This data-gathering is vital to biologists because it represents a specific, comprehensive dataset of raptor habits over multiple years,” says Dan Cooper, the Study Director, who also serves as Senior Conservation Biologist for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.
The life of our urban raptors in Los Angeles can be dangerous and difficult. Vehicle and building strikes, poisoning from rodenticides, disturbance from noisy construction projects, tree trimming and illegal nest removal, even diseases carried by pigeons, are all threats our hawks and owls have to navigate. On June 15, Courtney McCammon, Volunteer Coordinator for the Los Angeles Raptor Study, and Urban Ecologist for Recreation and Parks, got a call from Frances Tait, one of the Raptor Study volunteers. While walking her daughter to school, her husband Asa had found an injured juvenile Red-tailed hawk on a freeway overpass in Hollywood. Courtney was able to capture the hawk, and Outreach Coordinator Nurit Katz transported it to Ojai Raptor Center, a specialized rehabilitation center in Ojai. “We knew the bird would be in good hands, but we were very anxious for updates,” Tait explained to the Eastsider, who covered the rescue.
The young hawk had suffered a right femoral fracture, bilateral coracosternal luxations (coracoid dislocated from the sternum) and mild right eye trauma, likely from a vehicle strike. Many rescued raptors do not survive because the injuries are too severe. In this case, with veterinary care and after weeks of rehabilitation, the young Red-tailed hawk was fully healed and able to be released. In mid-August volunteers and raptor study staff gathered and released the hawk in a park not far from its nest territory, one of the most urban nests in the study, located in a tree right at a freeway ramp, surrounded by rushing traffic.
Some nests are found by the study staff who track flying hawks back to where the nests are located, but for many nests the study relies on community science data from iNaturalist and ebird, and tips from neighbors who have noticed the raptors or their nests and hear about the study via NextDoor or other social media outreach. Many residents in LA walk their neighborhoods every day without realizing there is a hawk or owl raising its young right above their heads, but for those who do notice, they often get excited and even connect with the raptor family long term, watching their progression over the years. Hawks and owls often pair for life and will nest in the same territory year after year, and often in the same nest location. One neighbor fondly called his neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk Anderson, for Anderson Cooper. Study staff have heard all sorts of interesting stories from residents, from hawks bathing in pools and fountains and accidentally flying inside the house, to a young Cooper’s Hawk plucking a towel or playing with a pine cone as it practices hunting.
In July, the study Outreach Coordinator received frantic calls from multiple residents of a Mt. Washington neighborhood. The residents had observed a long standing pair of Red-tailed hawks nesting on the street for over 10 years, watching multiple generations of young hawks take flight, and considered the hawks part of their community. A tree trimmer had come in and heavily trimmed the nest tree during nesting season, which is illegal, and ended up removing the nest despite neighbors trying to stop them. The neighbors were distraught and the hawk family was clearly distressed. Raptor Study staff were able to report the violation to the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, and educate residents about the Cal Tip hotline for future. If you ever see a violation in progress you can call 1-888-334-CALTIP (888-334-2258), 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To avoid these kinds of problems in the future, study staff also assisted in teaching a workshop for arborists across California on Tree Care for Birds and Wildlife. Helpful resources can be found at treecareforbirds.com.
Through the raptor study we continue to learn how these important indicator species are adapting to our urban environment. Continuing this work to better understand our urban ecology, and ensuring their survival, takes a village. Although human activity causes environmental harm, people can also work together to support raptors and other wildlife. Not trimming during nesting season, making sure not to use rodenticides, reporting illegal activity, taking care not to disturb nesting birds, and contacting a wildlife rehabilitator if you see injured wildlife, can all help these incredible birds have a better chance of survival. Educate your friends and neighbors and help build a community that is more supportive of raptors and biodiversity.
You can help the Raptor Study by reporting nests or frequent raptor activity in your neighborhood to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Outreach Coordinator Nurit Katz at 818-384-9493. You can also contact Nurit by text or call for assistance if you are unable to transport an injured raptor.
If you would like to get more involved – volunteer for the 2023 season. You can fill out a Los Angeles Raptor Study application. Volunteering requires attending a training workshop and then checking an assigned nest once every two weeks.
(This article originally appeared in the LA Audubon’s Sept/Oct 2022 Western Tanager publication.)
~Nurit Katz, Outreach Coordinator, Los Angeles Raptor Study
Photo, courtesy Asa Shumskas-Tait