Living With Raptors
Birds of prey, also called raptors, include hawks, eagles, owls and falcons. This diverse group of birds has a huge range of sizes and behaviors, but the one thing most have in common is a tendency to catch live animals to eat. Some raptors are more likely to live near people than others. For example, red-tailed hawks, Harris’s hawks and great horned owls are common residents in Tucson, Phoenix and other urban areas of Arizona. Cooper’s hawks are also increasingly common residents in Tucson.
Description and Habits
- Falcons are known for their incredible speed and agility, and usually feed on smaller birds, which they dive at and capture in mid-air. Commonly observed falcons in Arizona include the peregrine falcon, prairie falcon and American kestrel. The merlin and crested caracara are also in the falcon family.
- Accipiters, such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, have short rounded wings and long tails and are common forest-dwellers. They are expert at chasing small birds through trees and catching them mid-air. The larger northern goshawk is an accipiter, too.
- Buteos, large broad-winged hawks, including the red-tailed hawk, common black-hawk, Harris’s hawk and zone-tailed hawk, often catch rodents and other prey on the ground. Buteos are usually perch-and-wait raptors that you will commonly see sitting on tall structures like telephone poles, trees, signs or billboards.
Most owls fly very quietly, have excellent eyesight, and hunt ground-dwelling or flying animals in low light conditions or at night. One exception in Arizona is the burrowing owl, which is often active during the day and lives in underground burrows that are usually created by burrowing mammals. Arizona’s owls include the large great horned owl and barn owl, as well as tiny elf, pygmy and screech owls.
Burrowing Owls (video)
- Two types of eagles live in Arizona. Golden eagles are related to buteos, but are much larger with longer wings. They are found statewide and usually prey upon rabbits and ducks. Bald eagles are usually found near water and feed primarily on fish and waterfowl, which they hunt or scavenge.
- Raptors nest in various places, including stick nests (most buteos and eagles), ledges (some owls and falcons), and cavities like woodpecker holes (smaller owls and American kestrels) or burrows (burrowing owls).
- Raptors have extremely keen eyesight; the average raptor’s vision is approximately ten times better than a human’s.
Possible Conflicts with Humans
Birds of prey are common in urban areas, and they can be beautiful and enjoyable to watch, as well as helpful for controlling rodents, rabbits and birds. Raptors can occasionally cause problems for people when they pursue small pets or domestic animals, nest in an inconvenient location, leave droppings or meal remains behind, or defend their nests when people get too close. Urban areas can actually be dangerous for raptors as many are injured or killed by running into power lines, being electrocuted by power lines, hitting reflective windows, or being disturbed within their nest area.
What Attracts Them?
Raptors may inhabit an area to find food, water, shelter or the space they need to live.
- Food items, including rodents, birds, snakes, rabbits and insects, are attractive to raptors. Large birds of prey may also hunt small domestic animals, including dogs, cats and chickens, especially during raptors’ winter migration period from September to April.
- Water sources, such as fountains, pools and birdbaths, may attract raptors because a raptor’s prey (doves and pigeons) congregates around bodies of water.
- Shelter for raptors can include high perches that offer a view for hunting. These perches can be located in a tree, on a building or tower, on a telephone or electric pole or line, or on any other tall structure. Some raptors build large nests of sticks high in trees, saguaros or power distribution equipment. Cavity-nesting raptors may seek shelter in birdhouses or holes in trees or cacti. Barn and great-horned owls may seek out large buildings, such as hangars or barns, for shelter.
What Should I Do?
Raptors can be found almost anywhere, but especially near bird feeders or farms because prey animals are attracted to those areas. Because raptors are protected by law, common solutions include tolerating small disturbances, staying away from nest sites until the young are able to fly, and keeping small pets inside or in enclosures with a roof. Attempts to keep raptors off your property may or may not be effective, and harming a raptor will result in a large fine.
Solutions to common problems
Diving at people or pets
Raptors sometimes defend their nest or nestlings by swooping very close to a person or pet.
- Avoid the area until the young can fly and put up temporary barricades or signs to warn residents in busy areas.
- Cover your upper body with an open umbrella to keep the animal at a distance if the area cannot be avoided.
- In rare situations, such as a nest in a dangerous or high traffic area, it may be possible to have the nest removed by approved experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Permit Office at (505) 248-7882.
Bird on the ground
Young raptors spend several days on or near the ground while learning to fly. The young birds may seem abandoned, but the parents are usually within sight watching the fledgling.
- Keep pets away.
- Leave the bird alone; the parents know where it is and will feed it on the ground until it is able to fly.
If the bird is sick or injured (fluffed up, shaking or unable to walk), call a wildlife rehabilitator.
If a raptor is trapped in a building, you can take several actions.
- First, try leaving a door open and shutting the lights off. Have people leave the area for several hours or overnight.
- If the bird still doesn’t leave, please call your local Game and Fish office for assistance.
A permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Migratory Bird Permit Office is needed, if you wind up choosing to trap and remove the bird.
Pets and domestic animals
Raptors may be attracted to small pets or domestic chickens because they are similar to the size of a raptor’s normal prey.
- Always keep small pets and other domestic animals in a sturdy enclosure with a roof when outside to keep them safe, or stay outside with your pets when possible.
Arizona raptor populations typically increase during migration and winter (September to April) as northern birds arrive and some forest birds descend to lower elevations. Pay close attention to small pets during this time.
Raptors are often injured or killed on electric power poles.
- If you find a dead raptor, don’t pick it up because of human health concerns. It is also illegal to handle live or dead raptors without a permit.
- Also, report the dead raptor to the local power company (refer to your electric bill for contact information) and to your local Game and Fish office. In the Tucson area, you can help prevent electrocutions by reporting raptor nests near power equipment or power lines to Tucson Electric Power (520) 623-7711 or the Tucson Game and Fish office at (520) 628-5376, ext. 4446. If it’s an area supplied by the Salt River Project (SRP), call (602) 236-BIRD (236-2473). In an area covered by Arizona Public Service (APS), call (602) 371-7171 in the Phoenix region or (800) 253-9405 elsewhere.
Removal is usually not an option
Raptors are protected by both state and federal laws, and harassing, trapping, killing, or even possessing bones or feathers without the proper permits can result in large fines. Raptors are territorial, and moving a bird to another area may cause it to fight with the current occupants or just fly back using its excellent sense of direction. Most problems are short-term and can be resolved with tolerance or a few small changes. Learning about raptors is the best way to understand how to live with them.
To prevent further problems
- Avoid feeding doves and pigeons; feeding can attract large numbers of doves and pigeons, many with diseases that raptors catch when they eat the smaller birds or feed them to their young. Keep in mind that bird feeders can attract raptors because raptor prey, including birds and rodents, are attracted to bird feeders.
- Feed pets indoors.
- Accompany small pets outdoors, especially during the winter raptor migration months of September through April.
- If small pets or other domestic animals are left outside unattended, keep them in a sturdy enclosure with a roof.
- Report electrocutions to the local Game and Fish office and local electric companies.
- Remove nests or their support structures only when necessary and if they do not contain eggs or nestlings. Doing so otherwise is a violation of federal and state laws.
- Cover reflective windows with non-reflective cellophane, screen or a similar material to prevent raptors and other birds from crashing into them.
- Appreciate raptors for their natural ability to control rodents.
Possible Health Concerns
Raptors generally do not have major disease outbreaks because of their solitary nature; most diseases are likely to have been carried by the prey they ate.
- Trichomoniasis – Raptors can become sick with trichomoniasis after eating infected doves or pigeons. The Trichomonas protozoa cause painful lesions in the mouth and throat area or in other organs, and can cause deformities, swelling and death. Nestlings are especially susceptible. Trich is treatable, but the medicine is expensive and not widely available. The disease is best prevented by not feeding birds or using birdbaths where birds can congregate and pass the disease from one to another.
- West Nile Virus – This disease is passed to birds by mosquitoes and is fatal in most birds, but has not been thoroughly studied.
- Aspergillosis – This is the most frequent fungal infection in birds and is commonly transmitted through the inhalation of fungal spores. Birds under high stress with lowered immune systems are most susceptible. Asper accumulates in the lungs and air sacs until lowered immune systems or stress triggers the chronic and often fatal disease.
Laws and Policies
- It is illegal to harm, trap, kill or harass raptors, according to federal and state laws. However, certain Commission rules allow for the take of raptors for falconry with the proper permit.
- Raptors are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to kill, trap, possess, trade, sell or harm them. Raptors are also protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Lacey Act, the Airborne Hunting Act, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
- Licensees must also obtain the proper permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Permit Office. The Arizona Game and Fish Department issues licenses to qualified individuals for falconry, wildlife rehabilitation, education, and humane holding.