Living in the Triangle, it’s common to see animals throughout our neighborhoods, especially those where residents make an effort to be wildlife friendly. Squirrels, voles, lizards, mice, rabbits, birds, snakes and more are all around us.
And where such animals are plentiful, we can also count on regular appearances by predators, including birds of prey, also known as raptors.
North Carolina is home to 28 species of birds of prey and, this time of year, they are even more prevalent, as some northern species, such as the sharp-shinned hawk, overwinter in our area. So it is a great time to grab the binoculars and try to identify some of these birds in your neighborhood as they perch or float above the treetops in search of prey.
The website allaboutbirds.org has a list of raptors, including physical descriptions, habitats and habits. They come in a variety of sizes, though all have hooked beaks and sharp talons. Some build nests in treetops or atop cliffs, while others lay their eggs on the ground. Owls and vultures are also known for adopting nests built by other birds or simply moving in to existing cavities of trees.
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Bald eagles have made a comeback since their species was almost obliterated in the mid-1900s, largely due to the now-banned pesticide DDT. Like vultures, these large birds are known for scavenging their meals, but they also hunt mammals, birds and fish.
Red-tailed hawks are often spotted circling open fields in search of rabbits, mice or voles, while the Cooper’s hawk prefers woodlands. Cooper’s hawks occasionally can be seen at backyard feeders – munching on the proffered seeds but also expanding the menu by taking advantage of smaller birds that show up.
A half-dozen types of owls make their home in North Carolina, including the great horned owl, a large raptor that has been a fixture in the West Avent neighborhood, raising concerns about the safety of pets.
According to Brian O’Shea, who works with birds at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, it would be unusual, but not unheard of, for a great horned owl to target domestic cats; it wouldn’t be their first-choice meal.
“I don’t think they’re apt to kill something they can’t carry off, unless they are really starving, which seems unlikely around here,” O’Shea told neighbors in the West Avent neighborhood where the owl is nesting.
According to Steve Stone, director of the American Wildlife Refuge in Raleigh, which specializes in raptor rehabilitation, raptors are important to the ecosystem because they help keep mice, snakes and other small animal populations under control and clean up carcasses.
“But they do need food, so if you don’t want them in your garden, you need to protect it,” he adds.
Stone’s major concern is the risk to the birds as the Piedmont landscape becomes increasingly urbanized.
The rehab center in downtown Raleigh had 51 animals in December, most of which were found injured beside roadways after being struck by cars.
According to Stone, people who litter are largely responsible, as the litter attracts rodents, which in turn attract vultures, hawks and other birds of prey.
If we want to care for raptors, he advises drivers to “slow down and pay attention” and to clean up any litter along the roadside that might catch the attention of scavenging animals.