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Local raptors continue comeback from dangerously low numbers

By Staff | Dec 30, 2016

All of us have driven the rural roads of Jefferson County and seen large, gray- brown- and white-feathered birds resting in tall trees. These birds are easier to see this time of year when the trees are without leaves. They appear to be alone as observers of what goes on below their perch. Too big to be winter songbirds, they are often raptors or birds of prey. And most were once declining in number and some were on the endangered species list.

The country’s national symbol — the white-headed bald eagle — was once declining so badly in number that it was plummeting toward extinction. Not today, however.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 has helped revive the population and today the bald eagle is no longer on the endangered species list, having been removed in 2007.

Just up Grade Road outside of Shepherdstown on the grounds of the National Conservation Training Center will reside a pair of bald eagles when mating season comes in about six weeks. The pair has a large nest constructed of tree branches and sticks in the top of a tall sycamore tree near the Potomac River.

Yearly, they brood several eggs for about 35 days before hatching. Once the eaglets are in the nest, the parents are on a non-stop schedule of finding food for them. Fish are a mainstay of a diet that usually includes smaller birds, rodents and carrion.

The National Conservation Training Center has placed a camera very close to the nest, and the progress of the eaglets can be monitored by the public on their computers.

Bald eagles have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years and are still troubled by lead poisoning from eating ducks with lead in their systems, electrocution on power lines and loss of habitat.

Those large birds we see resting in the tops of leafless trees are probably red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks or Copper’s hawks — often called “chicken hawks” by people living in rural areas that can see them circling above as they soar on updrafts of air.

Those still raising chickens don’t have to worry much about those three varieties of raptors because their diets consist of smaller birds, rodents and carrion. Pigeons, starlings, blackbirds and doves need worry about raptors more than chickens foraging along the ground for their day’s meals.

A favorite of children is the peregrine falcon, a smallish dive bomber colored in blue/gray wings, dark brown back and small areas of white. Children know the peregrine is the world’s fastest flier, reaching a speed of 200 mph in its steepest dive.

Peregrines have left the endangered species list and many have found large cities to welcome them. Nesting on the ledges of tall skyscrapers, peregrines find enough pigeons and starlings to comfortably feed their young.

Workers in the city buildings follow the progress of the fledgling peregrines and can tell you how the youngsters double their weight in the first six days of life and then are 10 times their weight at birth after only three weeks of big-city life.

Eastern Panhandle residents may also see red-shouldered hawks, harriers, the American Kestrel, broad-winged hawks, the northern goshawk and rough-legged hawks that course through this area at various times of year.

On the Chesapeake Bay is the osprey, which builds bulky nests on buoys and other man-made devices found in and around the water. The golden eagle is another people-favorite which occupies territory across the country from ocean to ocean and from the Canadian border to Mexico.

Raptors are most conspicuous in the winter when foliage and summer cover are gone. They don’t chase chickens much anymore . . . but they do provide a glimpse of nature’s glory on the wing or when stationed in a tall tree.