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City-dwelling raptors no longer things of rarity

A number of raptor species have increased their presence within the boundaries of cities and towns over the last few decades including merlins, which now nest in West Fargo. Keith Corliss / Forum Communications Co.

On the 18th of December, 1993, I saw my first merlin sitting in a tree in Fargo's industrial park. By then I had been birding for over 15 years and merlins--those energetic falcons with an attitude I'd heard so much about--were quite near the top of the list of birds I wanted to see. I now realize there were two reasons it took me so long to find one. First, the birds were not all that common only briefly visiting our area during migration. Second, I had likely glimpsed the species before but could never be sure, so fleeting were my encounters.

Fast forward nearly 20 years to where I have a front row seat to an ongoing drama. A pair of these raptors has been courting and paying visits to a nest site less than 50 feet from the end of my driveway in West Fargo this spring.

The early 1990s also brought a different raptor onto the scene, this one into our national conscience. Dubbed Pale Male, the bird became one of the first known red-tailed hawks to nest on a building in lieu of a natural site. The building just happens to overlook New York City's Central Park and yes, the bird is still nesting there today. Books and documentaries have been published featuring this urban-nesting buteo, arguably the most famous hawk in history. He even has his own website.

When I became interested in birds during the 1970s, Cooper's hawks had a reputation for being secretive birds which shunned contact with people. These were mysterious inhabitants of dark shadowy forests where, if you were lucky, a three-second look at a darting feathered missile might be your only encounter. Today, the species is likely the most numerous nesting raptor in the Fargo-Moorhead area, regularly occupying city parks and allowing close observations.

Downtown Fargo's ongoing streak of successful peregrine falcon nestings is but one example of urban peregrines which have become quite common in the Midwest today. The birds, once viewed as icons of wilderness, are now encountered with surprising regularity in cities.

Something obviously is changing. It's hard not to notice. It goes beyond the species mentioned above to include red-shouldered hawks, ospreys, Mississippi kites, great horned owls, screech owls, and others. It goes beyond our area, too, and is occurring to one degree or another on a worldwide scale. It's the urbanization of raptors.

Dr. Jim Grier, professor emeritus at NDSU and a well known raptor expert, has witnessed the phenomenon. "Birds started showing up in the area in the 1960s and 70s," he said.

There were likely scant examples of city-nesting raptors in historical times. "Birds would have been more wary and there weren't nearly as many people," says Grier. But the wide expansion of human settlement into unoccupied areas made encounters inevitable.

Grier had a graduate student--Jeremy Guinn--who studied productivity associated with habitat characteristics of nesting bald eagles in Minnesota. Not surprisingly, Guinn documented encroachment of bald eagles into urban area and used the word "habituation" to describe it. Habituation is a process where an animal's response to stimuli is decreased after repeated exposure.

Repeat often enough and the birds tolerate proximity to humans even more. "Each generation of birds just gets more used to humans and it continues on," said Grier, who gives the process a name: Generational exposure.

What we have then is a combination of two factors. One is the long-term dispersion of human population; the other is the gradual habituation by a whole suite of raptor species to that spreading out. As a result, a sort of détente has emerged where tolerance by both participants seems to be increasing.

In the coming years I would expect more raptor nesting attempts within the boundaries of our towns and cities, something which may require a bit of education on the part of the population. While sipping on your morning coffee, a Cooper's hawk sitting on your fence while plucking and eating a bird which had just eaten at your feeder, might not be the most satisfying of views to some. Still, the birds have had to put up with us over the years, it's only fair we should tolerate their habits as well.