- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005

Say hello to one of suburbia’s newest residents — the raptor.

Wildlife specialists say predatory birds, or raptors, such as hawks and eagles have joined a menagerie that lives ever closer to humans as residential sprawl pushes them out of natural habitats.

“There are certain species of raptors that seem to be adaptable to cohabitation with humans [or] more tolerant of human activity,” says Daniel James, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “It’s somewhere between tolerance, hanging on and using marginal habitat to make it.”

The red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks even are making homes in urban landscapes, says Mr. James, who has taught courses on identifying hawks and owls. He has observed hawks in the region for 30 years.

“Red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks have been seen hunting on edges of industrial parks or major highways with cars whizzing by,” Mr. James says.

For years, authorities warned that bird feeders, greasy barbecue grills and such suburban trappings attract deer, bears and other wild animals. They noted that landscaped lawns and wooded areas around airports, highways and parks not only are choice nesting grounds but homes to ample prey.

Washington Dulles International Airport “is a perfect example of a developed area,” Mr. James says. “It has a huge buffer around the area itself that is enclosed … with lots of woods and fields, which is a haven for bird prey.”

Frequent hawk sightings over Interstates 95 and 66 and other major highways could be attributed to surrounding fields that are mowed infrequently, a magnet for tasty insects and small rodents.

Other specialists have a more basic theory.

Mike Wilson, a research biologist at the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary, says some species of hawks are just more adaptive to life near humans.

Bald eagles, once considered intolerant of humans, seem to be adapting, Mr. James notes.

“We find evidence of bald eagles nesting in trees on golf courses in Florida,” he says.

Jeff Cooper, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says the increasingly populated Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia is an “outstanding eagle habitat.”

Mr. Cooper says bald eagles were nearly gone from the Virginia landscape in the 1970s, with as few as 30 pairs in the state. Virginia now has more than 400 pairs, including many along the shore from Pohick Bay to Route 301.

He says dozens of eagle nests and migrant eagles can be found around Fort Belvoir and along the shores of the Potomac, Rappahannock and James rivers, which flow into the Chesapeake Bay, where development and population increased significantly during the past 20 years.

The Chesapeake’s population of bald eagles “exploded” over the past 15 years, Mr. James says, in part because the birds took a shine to trees once thought too close to development.

Science and government contributed to the change, including federal protection of some raptor species and a ban on DDT and other pesticides that caused low birthrates.

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