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Raptors at Risk in Virginia

Bald Eagle
Wildlife Center of Virginia
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This bald eagle was covered in grease, unable to fly when the wildlife center rescued her from a wastewater treatment pond.

Raptors depend on keen eyesight to survive – hunting for prey as they soar over the land. That’s why Maggie, a peregrine falcon with only one eye, is a permanent resident at the Wildlife Center in Waynesboro. Veterinarian Karra Pierce says Buddy the bald eagle is also here for life.

“He had avian pox that was growing on his beak, and that basically caused his beak to be deviated, kind of like scissors," she explains. "Instead of lining straight up and down, and because of that his beak needs to be trimmed every six weeks, so he can’t go back to the wild, because he can’t show up for an appointment every six weeks and say, ‘I’m here for my beak trim.’ And if we did release him it wold become overgrown, and he wouldn’t be able to eat.”

Others suffer injuries while hunting. Pickings are few as small, furry animals go into hibernation, so raptors may feast on road kill.

“Often at this time of year they’re hunting on the roadside, and it’s really easy to get clipped by a car if you’re just on the edge of the road there,” Pierce adds.

Wildlife rehabber Benjamin Cole says those injuries are especially common in young birds who are still learning how to hunt.

“Raptors that hatched this year and are spending their first winter on their own – around this time you start seeing them moving away from their parents and starting to fend for themselves, and that can be a very difficult time. I compare it to how car accidents are much more common among teenage drivers," he says. "It seems like window collisions and getting hit by cars is much more common among juvenile raptors.”

Some people toss food from their cars, figuring it’s biodegradable, but Cole says that’s another hazard for birds of prey.

“That apple core is going to attract animals that are interested in taking advantage of that free meal. It’s going to attract rodents to that area. Then the predators are going to come there to look for the rodents, then there’s the opportunity for them to have collisions with cars.”

And Pierce says hunting season produces a buffet of carrion spiked with bullet fragments that are poisonous.

“You’re out there hunting. You field dress your animal, and you leave the inner parts of the animal in the field, and those have little bits of lead in them. They eat the liver, the lungs – all that stuff is delicious to them, but they don’t pick out the tiny little bits of lead.”

So, once again, the Wildlife Center is putting out a plea to hunters to stop using ammunition that contains lead. Raptors can also be poisoned by people intent on ridding their homes of rodents.

“If you are doing rat or mouse baiting, and the rat goes and dies outside, a hawk, an eagle, a vulture – they’re going to go to that and take that really cheap, free, easy meal, and unfortunately all that rodenticide that’s in that animal is then going to be active in your bird of prey,” Pierce says.

One other possible threat -- wind turbines don’t yet pose a danger to birds of prey in Virginia, but as wind farms are built, they could. Fortunately, a new technology called IdentiFlight uses cameras that can detect birds and shut down turbine rotors in time to prevent collisions.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief