The sight of an eagle or owl soar across the sky is one of nature’s most exhilarating pleasures. Birds of prey, commonly known as raptors, are known for their keen vision but they can also influence how we see our world.
If you enjoy these wide-winged wonders, you won’t have to stand in a barren field with binoculars to get a glimpse – you can see them up-close at the upcoming Earth Day event during an exhibition by the Southeastern Raptor Center.
Earth Day is an annual event by Huntsville’s Operation Green Team, a Keep America Beautiful affiliate. This year’s free event is Saturday, April 23, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hays Nature Preserve, 7153 U.S. 431 South, Huntsville.
“We’re thrilled to have Southeastern Raptor Center participate in this year’s Earth Day celebration,” said Brian Walker, Director of Landscape Management for the City of Huntsville. “Their educational demonstrations are well-known across the state, and it’s something our Earth Day attendees should truly enjoy.”
Based at Auburn University, the nonprofit center provides medical care and rehabilitation to injured and orphaned wildlife. Southeastern Raptor Center also conducts about 300 educational programs each year. The Huntsville show will feature three or four of the center’s educational ambassadors, including an eagle.
“Visitors will be able to see the birds up-close, take photos, learn about the circumstances that brought these raptors into our care and ask any questions,” said Amanda Sweeney, a raptor handler and educator. “They will also get to learn about why raptors are so important in the environment we share.”
As predators at the top of the food chain, raptors in the wild serve as a barometer of an ecosystem’s overall health, Sweeney said. More importantly, raptors control prey populations and keep natural systems in balance.
“Since environmental threats like habitat loss, pesticides and climate change have the most dramatic impact on top predators, we refer to raptors as an ‘indicator species,’” she said. “By researching the population trends of raptors, we can detect environmental change and take needed conservation action.”
Alabama raptors include the more common eagles, owls, hawks, ospreys and kites, but some are of conservation concern. Sweeney identified the Southeastern American kestrel, a subspecies of American kestrel found in southern Alabama, as one in population decline.
“Alabamians can help protect this species and others by installing nest boxes in areas where known populations exist,” Sweeney said.
Raptor conservation efforts have produced significant breakthroughs, including the preservation and restoration of peregrine falcons, the California condor and bald eagles. Bald eagles were once on the verge of extinction because of overuse of DDT-based pesticides.
Ultimately, it took banning DDT, stronger environmental legislation and regional recovery programs like captive breeding and release to stimulate the bald eagle population. They have become common across North Alabama near anywhere fish are plentiful.
“Bald eagles are considered one of the nation’s greatest conservation stories,” Sweeney said. “At one time, eagles were a rare sight in Alabama, but thanks to conservation actions, they can now be seen all over our state.”