Nature in the Charlotte region: majestic masters of flight

This spotlight story is the first in an ongoing series of articles about the natural and cultural heritage of the Charlotte region and the Carolina Piedmont.  Written by community guest writers, these articles are intended to celebrate the region’s rich natural and cultural diversity. 

This article, the first of many to be posted by Crystal Cockman, a land protection specialist for The LandTrust for Central NC in Salisbury, was first published in the Montgomery Herald, a weekly newspaper in Troy, NC, and is “republished” here with permission of the author and the newspaper.

A daring, speed-demon of a hawk came swooping by my car this past week, and since this was not the first of such occurrences, it sparked my interest in the habits of these great birds.  Hawks frequently swoop down in front of cars to make a meal of animals that have been hit or maimed, an action that serves as a justification for their categorization as “Birds of Prey.”

Birds of prey, or raptors, are simply birds that catch and eat small animals, including rodents, birds, reptiles, and fish, using their talons and curved beaks.  Hawks are diurnal birds of prey, which means that they hunt in the daytime, particularly distinguishing them from other species, such as owls.  Some other animals that are also classified as birds of prey include eagles, osprey, falcons, harriers, and buzzards.

Birds of prey are amazingly fast, with the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) cited as possibly the fastest animal on earth, reaching speeds of over 200 miles per hour when diving.  Another somewhat frightening attribute these birds possess are their large talons, with owls and eagles having the strongest grips – up to 450 pounds per square inch (psi).  Raptors also typically have excellent eyesight, as the popular expression “eagle-eye” denotes.  However, their sense of smell is not so acute, similar to many other birds, as any trained turkey-hunter knows.

Approximately 50 species of birds of prey can be found in North America, while North Carolina boasts approximately 20 different species.  One of the most common species in North Carolina is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  Although many people in the south often refer to certain hawks as “chicken hawks,” as a result of their stealing chickens from nearby yards, this term has been applied to a number of species, including the Red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and Sharp-skinned hawk, but does not in fact refer to one specific species.

Although some are resident raptors, most birds of prey are migratory and therefore actually only spend part of their lives here.  Birds of prey are also indicator species, since they are often at the top of the food chain, and their presence and status serve to indicate the health of their resident ecosystems.  Therefore, human impacts such as pollution and global climate change may greatly alter raptor populations in the future if actions are not taken to prevent such events.

As a result of these impacts and habitat loss, many species of raptor are endangered or threatened.  You can help birds of prey and increase your chance of spotting them by providing nesting boxes, water sources, and not using pesticides.  If you find an injured bird, it is best to contact a nearby rehabilitation center.  One such location is the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville, NC, which is “dedicated to environmental education and the conservation of birds of prey through public education, the rehabilitation of injured, and orphaned raptors and research.”  In addition to providing professional assistance to injured birds, this location also provides an excellent opportunity to see and learn more about these majestic masters of flight.

-- Crystal Cockman

Photo by Adam Anderson
Video by John Chesser and Adam Anderson