Before I met Stan the bird man of California (my name for him) I had no idea that there were so many different breeds of raptors (birds of prey). Neither did I realize that there were dedicated individuals like Stan, who lives in Sonoma, CA, and whose spare time is consumed with these beautiful creatures that most of us just never notice or take time to discover.
So I had a lot to ask Stan about raptors and banding them and I had a lot to learn from him. Here is the AMOEBLOG interview -- followed by links if you want to learn more about raptors.
AMOEBLOG: What is your title and what specifically do you do?
STAN: I am a licensed raptor bander and I band birds of prey for research purposes, monitor banded raptors and their nests.
AMOEBLOG: How did raptors become your passion and have you always been interested in birds of prey or birds in general?
STAN: I think I can trace my fascination with raptors back to visits to the Texas Renaissance Faire as a teenager where I saw a falconry display where a falconer sent a trained hawk out over the audience and then called it back. I thought that seeing the bird land on the guy's glove was the coolest thing. Later I also became a falconer, but that is subsidiary to my research on wild birds of prey.
AMOEBLOG: How long does it take to capture a bird of prey? And what is the longest time you have spent in trying to do so?
STAN: If a bird of prey is motivated by hunger or some other motivation it can take just a few seconds or at most a few minutes to capture it. Usually if I do not capture an individual bird within ten or fifteen minutes, I move on and look for another. If a particular bird is a priority bird for some reason I may work all day to capture it, but that is rare. If a bird is not responsive pretty quickly, usually it is best to try to capture it at a different time.
AMOEBLOG: How exactly do you go about catching a raptor?
STAN: There are a number of ways to capture and I am one of the world's best at capturing a variety of species any time of year using the technique appropriate for that bird at that time. A typical method is a portable snare called a bal-chatri which is placed within view of a raptor that is hunting, usually from a perch and not while flying. The bird sees live bait in the cage of the snare and flies down to the snare to attempt to grab the bait but is instead caught by nooses attached to the cage. The bait animal is unharmed and so is the raptor. And the raptor is banded and released back to the wild within ten minutes or so, but now with an identification band on one or both legs.
AMOEBLOG: Do you ever or often catch raptors that are already banded? And if so, what do you do then?
STAN: Yes, sometimes I do catch raptors that have already been banded by others. I report the recovery to the Federal Bird Banding Laboratory and usually within a few weeks I get a report telling me when and where and by whom the bird was originally banded.
AMOEBLOG: Scientifically, what is the goal of what you and others like you do? Is it to study population or migration patterns?
STAN: The scientific goal is to be able to identify individual birds so that their movements, their longevity, their survivorship, their fidelity to mates and territories, the morphological traits and general health, their migratory status and similar traits can be documented and analyzed.
AMOEBLOG: How many and exactly what breeds of raptors are native to California, Northern and Southern?
STAN: Of Diurnal raptors we have breeding species as well as wintering species. And sometimes we get vagrants from far away that show up mysteriously such as a Eurasion kestral that showed up at the Marin Headlands recently and was banded. How it got there no one knows! Breeding species include Red-tailed Hawk, Sharpshinned Hawk, Coopers Hawk, Goshawk, Osprey, Northern Harrier, White-Tailed Kite, American Kestral, Praire Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle, and Golden Eagle. Wintering species can include Ferruginous Hawk Rough-Legged Hawk, Merlin, and Gyrfalcon. Vagrants can include Mississippi Kite, Swallow-Tailed Kite, common Black Hawk, Zone Tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, Harris Hawk, Broadwinged Hawk, and perhaps one or two others. And then there are the owls.
AMOEBLOG: Exactly how many types of owls are there in California? And what are the key differences between these species?
STAN: There are ten or twelve Owl species that either breed here or show up from time to time including Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Northern Spotted Owl, Burrowing Owl, Western Screech Owl, Saw Whet Owl, Northern Pygmy Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Elf Owl, Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Great Gray Owl, and perhaps one or two others of both Diurnal Raptors and Owls. They are all cool to me! And the differences revolve around ecological niche, size, habitat use, etc. Some are deep forest owls, such as the Spotted Owl. Some are strictly nocturnal like the Barn Owl. The Short-eared owl nests on the ground like it's diurnal counterpart, the Norther Harrier, the Great Horned Owl is large and fierce and often eats other owls as well as diurnal raptors. The Barred Owl has invaded in the past couple of decades and is negatively affecting imperiled Spotted Owls but also sometimes breeds with them, producing hybrid offspring which is rare in nature. Northern Pygmy Owls often hunt in the daytime and catch birds larger than they are -- they are very small but aggressive owls. Each owl, like each diurnal raptor species, has its own niche and role to play in the environment and there is some overlap between the species.
AMOEBLOG: Do raptors communicate with each other? If so how?
STAN: Yes, raptors vocalize. Sometimes with a variety of sounds and calls. Their bodies and body language can communicate things, [for exampe] eye color reveals age. It has been suggested that even the fine barring on feathers can tell other birds of the same species how old and experienced a bird may be. During courtship birds sometimes bow to their mates, sometimes fly emphatically as a result of hormonal urges to display during courtship. Prey exchanges can be a form of communication. Parents carry food to their young and then fly away with the food to entice young to fly and obtain their food, which is a form of communication urging young to get off their legs, use their wings and fly.
AMOEBLOG: The tragedy of the recent Bay oil spill and the devastation it had on wild life -- birds in particular -- is still fresh on most of our minds. Do fires cause the same amount of turmoil in the inland birds' lives, including birds of prey?
STAN: Most birds of prey evolved with wildfire and adjust to it. Fire can be very good for the health of the land if it does not occur too often, as it opens up dense shrub vegetation or closed forests, promotes regeneration of grasses, promotes plant succession in general and generally leads to a healing that is often very good for the land and its wild inhabitants. Immediately after a large fire sometimes predators struggle but most fires are patchy and not monolithic and so the local wildlife find ways to make their living until the rains come, the land heals and things often improve significantly. Fire is generally good but can be bad if habitat is mismanaged, such as by forest agencies that suppress fires until such a heavy fuel load builds up that the fires become catastrophic. And even then, the land tends to heal from catastrophic fires once rains come.
AMOEBLOG: Are raptors intelligent birds and do you think (in your experience) that they have individual personalities?
STAN: Raptors are often perceived as intelligent but their minds work very differently than human minds do. Raptors live in the minute and are not conscious of time. They experience fear and hunger and stress but they are very good at shedding stress. They sometimes fail to learn from experiences, which means raptors can often be re-trapped for research, but also by people aiming to harm or kill them. I do not consider most raptors to be highly intelligent like ravens or some other birds but they do have impressive qualities of eyesight and are splendidly able to hunt, fly, reproduce, and often to impress people while they go about their lives. Birds can have individual personalities: some are more aggressive than others, some more docile, some better athletes, etc. But most laymen probably do not know how to understand raptor behavior and many people transfer their own thoughts into the minds of birds, thinking things that are often inaccurate about them.
AMOEBLOG: What effect has studying these birds had on your outlook on life? How has it changed it, if at all?
STAN: I have found a lot of personal pleasure in my work with birds of prey. I enjoy each encounter. I often talk to individual birds. They provide some escape from the stresses of life, but they have added some to my stresses, since I normally do my raptor work as a labor of love and at financial expense, driving me to financial harm, but mental happiness. I have made a lot of friends among raptor lovers and know many of the nation's and the world's best raptor researchers. I have been friends with captive birds of various species through falconry and other endeavors and I love the interactions I have had with individual birds such as my late great horned owl, Francis. Raptors have added a lot to my life, which is meaningful since I have never been married and have lived mostly a solitary life for my entire adult lifespan.
For more information on the raptors of California, either email Stan directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) or link to global raptors or email@example.com or www.peregrinefund.org (look for GRIN -- global raptor info network).