Red tailed hawks rescued in Jefferson County inside their flying cage at Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky on Thursday. March 28, 2013 / Alton Strupp/Courier-Journal
They soar above the city, killing their prey and raising their young in dramatic fashion above 1.3 million people in metro Louisville.
Hawks, falcons, owls, osprey and eagles are finding safe nesting places in populated places that offer trees, water and “food sources you might not be aware of,” said Mark Mlynek, a bird keeper at the Louisville Zoo.
“It’s becoming more and more common practice for raptors to learn to live with humans” said Mlynek, who has seen a nesting pair of red-shouldered hawks take up residence high in an oak tree at the zoo for the last two years.
Though wildlife officials don’t track the number of raptors in Louisville and southern Indiana communities, they say they are fairly abundant with some newcomers, including the city’s first two nesting pairs of bald eagles.
Officials say that for the most part, raptors and people get along locally. But there can be conflicts.
“Overall, raptors are great to have around in urban locations,” said Kate Heyden, a biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “They help control pest species (and) they also enrich our lives by being very interesting to watch.”
But, she added, “sometimes birds can be a little loud or defensive around their nests,” putting on a show meant to scare away potential predators.
Attorney Colin Lindsay said he’s observed the raptor influx, watching action from his office window on the 25th floor of the PNC Tower downtown — where he once watched a peregrine falcon, capable of reaching speeds of 200 mph, catch a chimney swift, a quick and acrobatic flier.
“It was an amazing feat,” Lindsay recalled. “The chimney swift flew south and away. The peregrine falcon flew up and out of my sight. About 20 seconds later, he came zooming down faster than you can imagine a bird can go, and knocked the chimney swift almost in half.”
Clifton resident Cassandra Culin has watched nesting and flying hawks for years and said they foster a connection to nature and spirit. She recalled taking a walk in 2007 near the nursing home in Clifton, where her 105-year-old grandmother had died that same day.
“I saw two hawks flying in the air, calling out out to each other,” Cullin said. “I thought, ‘Oh Granny, finally flying free.’”
Adapting to city life
Depending on their preferences, they eat insects, rats, mice and snakes.
Some dine on frogs and songbirds. They call out with distinctive vocalizations, such as the “woo, woo, woo” of a great horned owl or the high-pitched “shreeaaah” of a red-tailed hawk.
Cooper’s hawks are forest fliers that have developed a knack for navigating older neighborhoods with houses and trees close together, said Kathy Dennis, a volunteer at Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky, which has cared for injured raptors for 25 years.
Cooper’s hawks are among those that eat other birds. “People who put up bird feeders … you are opening a McDonalds for hawks,” she said.
The American kestrel, a small falcon, naturally nests in tree cavities. But in the city, they can be found under the eaves of houses or in other building holes, said Eileen Wicker, executive director of Raptor Rehab.
A pair of peregrine falcons is raising a family 300 feet up a smokestack at the Mill Creek power plant in southwest Louisville, where LG&E has a webcam.
And as many as 10 golden eagles pass over Louisville each winter, settling into Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, just 25 miles from downtown.
“They migrate down from northeastern Canada in the fall, residing in Bernheim until mid-March usually,” said Andrew Berry, Bernheim forest manager. “They return to breed in Canada during spring.”
The red-shouldered hawks at the zoo occupy a squirrel nest.
“It’s actually a time-share,” Mylnek said. “Squirrels still use it in the winter.”
Life in the city
It’s “extremely rare” for raptors to harm people, said Heyden. Just give them some space, she said.
John and Lucy Quesenberry have had nesting hawks for several years, though not this year, on their property in eastern Louisville.
Lucy Quesenberry recalled how one year her husband would wear a safari helmet in the yard, or sometimes he would use an umbrella for protection, from a female red-shouldered hawk.
Raptor Rehab obtained a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take that bird’s chicks to its center, where they were raised by “foster parent” birds until they could be released, Wicker said.
“We loved having them, really, except for the one that was attacking us,” said Lucy Quesenberry. With the raptors gone this year, “we have a lot more rabbits eating the garden.”
Wicker said fewer raptors get shot in the city than in the country. But she recalled rescuing chicks from a Louisville nest in 2009, after a shooting.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation records obtained Tuesday from a March 13th Freedom of Information Act request indicate that two hawks in Louisville were shot and killed — an adult and a fledgling. The shooter told authorities that the hawks were harassing family members entering the front door.
Although the shooter faced a potential fine of $15,000 and six months in jail, the agency recommended the “minimal penalty” of $350, plus a $25 processing fee, because the hawks “did in fact pose a risk to the homeowners,” according to the records. A federal magistrate agreed, the records said.
William C. Woody, assistant director for law enforcement for the agency, refused to identify the name of the shooter, writing in a letter that the agency wanted to protect the person from “harassment or unwanted publicity.”
More commonly, Louisville’s raptors are injured by cars or when they fly into a window. Babies sometimes get hurt when falling out of their nests, Wicker said.
Her group takes in 300 birds a year. About 40 percent can’t be saved, she said.
Of those that can, she said nearly 70 percent recover and are returned to nature. Others go to education programs or must be euthanized, she said.
The work can be dangerous. Holding a bald eagle is like “handling a package of dynamite,” she said.
And it takes money. Mice cost nearly a dollar each, and the center needs about 1,000 a week, she said.
The joy comes from freeing a once-injured bird, Wicker said. “It just does something to your spirit and soul.”