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It's in Your Nature: Birds in trouble

Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book “Silent Spring,” brought to light the overuse and terrible residual effects of the notorious pesticide DDT. Largely, as a result of her efforts, DDT was banned in 1972.

The impacts, although not immediately evident, led to a number of bird species’ recovery. The osprey, brown pelican, peregrine falcon, and of course, the bald eagle all saw their populations grow.

Unfortunately, there are many other lesser known and less studied birds that are spiraling the other direction. I’ll highlight a few of these in today’s column.

One bird that was never commonly seen in our state but now, almost nonexistent, is the American goshawk. The “goss” is the largest of the accipiters that lived in the deeper forests of Pennsylvania. Forty or 50 years ago, as I sat in the Carbon County woodlands during the antlered deer season, I would occasionally see one as it “darted” through the trees. Sometimes one would perch near me for a few moments before continuing its hunting forays.

Once, when my late father and I sat next to each other on a crisp December morning, we watched a “goss” chase and attempt to kill a turkey. It didn’t make a kill but might have, had they all not noticed these two large orange clothed objects too close to them. I haven’t seen a goshawk in the wild in the last 25 years.

Hawk Mountain, whose official counters manned the mountaintop from August through Dec. 15 this year, only recorded five. Forty-five years ago, 58 passed that lookout.

Has the drop in population of their favorite prey, ruffed grouse, made the difference. Or, are there a combination of factors? Hopefully some research will offer some possible solutions.

Two other raptors are seeing dramatic loss in numbers, the barn owl and American kestrel. Barn owls were common around the family farms, often nesting in the chestnut wood sheathed barns or adjoining silos. Today, most of these old barns are gone, herbicide and pesticide use have increased resulting in less mice and rats (their prey), and “clean” fields are offering less habitat for their prey mammals as well. The Lancaster County area seems to be the last bastion for these birds.

Kestrels seem to be following the same fate. They also regularly nested in those old barns, entering through knot holes and finding the hay lofts and wooden rafters to their liking. Even the fence rows separating the fields and harboring older, hollow trees have been cleared and now these nest sites are also gone.

A woodpecker species that most can readily identify, the red-headed woodpecker, is losing ground too. They like old farm pastures with a grove like habitat of scattered trees. They prefer this more “open” setting rather than the thick forests.

Even the ruffed grouse (our state bird) is struggling. Older (the golden years) small game hunters like me, may remember grouse hunting in the “White Oaks,” where a few hours of hunting would produce flushes of maybe a dozen of these speedy birds. It seems that West Nile virus, and fragmented forested areas, have led to their decrease. Even though this writer spends a great deal of birding time in April, May and June, I haven’t heard a single male drumming, nor have I even seen a grouse the past two years.

On a positive note, nesting boxes for kestrels seem to offer them some hope. Meanwhile ruffed grouse studies by the Pa. Game Commission may bring improvements. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for all of these species. Our natural world would miss their presence.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: ______ barn owl nesting pairs are currently found in Pennsylvania. A. 200 or more; B. Approximately 120; C. 45; D. 10.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: A young mink is called a kit.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

One of the prettiest woodpeckers, the red-headed woodpecker is “losing ground” literally and figuratively as urban sprawl keeps spreading into the wooded pasture areas that this bird prefers for its nesting and feeding. BARRY REED PHOTOS
Our smallest falcon, the kestrel, has seen a rapid decline in numbers. About 40 years ago on a February morning, my drive on Pohopoco Drive resulted in 7 kestrel sightings. I now hope to see a half dozen in a month. Efforts to erect kestrel nest boxes at prime feeding areas may offer some hope.
Golden-winged warblers, in particular, have reached threatened status in our state. Its close relative, the blue-winged warbler, pictured here, likes the same type of habitat. They prefer brushy areas such as fields in succession or the growth under utility lines. They are both in “trouble,” but since they are rather inconspicuous, they receive less attention than the bald eagle. Last year was my first year not having a sighting of a blue-winged warbler in our region.
This juvenile barn owl was one of five owlets in a nest in a then abandoned building in Lehighton. That was in 1978. I haven't recorded a single barn owl since then in the Times News area. About a year later, a dead owl with a leg band was found dead on the roof area of Zion Church in Lehighton. It was banded 2 years earlier in New Jersey.
The Cooper's hawk, second only in size to the now rare goshawk, has seen a small population growth. They seem to tolerate human intrusion better than the “goss” and these are the common raiders of your bird feeders. With less huge forest tracts, the goshawk is struggling, while the more adaptable Cooper's hawk may be filling in its niche in smaller woodlots and suburbs.