KEMPTON VALLEY - Raptors play a vital role in the food chain, especially here in Pennsylvania. Biologists say that raptors can be very good indicators of the environmental health of an area.
Raptors also control populations of rodents and insects, keeping pests from getting out of hand.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the Pennsylvania Wild Resource Conservation Program have introduced a new program called the Pennsylvania Farmland Raptor Project.
The project focuses on four species - the Northern harrier, barn owl, short-eared owl and the kestrel falcon - all considered farmland raptors.
The program's goal is to engage private landowners to help conserve these birds, learn about their distribution, the species themselves and, at the same time, help landowners who participate.
Dr. Laurie Goodrich, senior monitoring biologist who is overseeing the project, said these birds live and thrive in grassland or agricultural fields, eating mice, voles and insects.
By participating in the program, she said, private landowners can benefit from pest control, can spot some rarely seen raptors and aid in conservation of the species.
The Northern harrier and the owls have been showing a very sharp and long-term decline in numbers, Goodrich said, whereas kestrels seem pretty healthy but have been declining in the southern areas of Pennsylvania.
"When we see them disappearing, we know something is wrong," she said.
The decline is related to habitat loss, development, farm practices changing and increased use of pesticides.
Benefits of conservation
Through its new program, Hawk Mountain is hoping to reach out to the entire state to help the four raptor species recover from their low or declining numbers.
"The only way we are going to help these species survive is by involving the private landowner," Goodrich said.
The data collected through the project will come from studies of kestrel and barn owl nest boxes. The state Game Commission is involved with this part of the project.
Data also will be gathered as crews identify species seen on certain tracts of land.
When a landowner signs up for the program, data is gathered on what species are likely to be seen in that area. The landowner is given information about the birds as well as plans for how to build nest boxes for kestrels.
All the landowner needs to do is complete a simple form. On it are places to monitor sightings, write observations and note whether nest boxes are installed.
"If we get the farmers involved in reporting them, too, we may see more birds than we thought," Goodrich said.
Property owners can watch for raptors while they are cultivating their fields, mowing or out checking their crops.
"A lot of people who have farms, I presume, enjoy being outside and enjoy the outdoors," Goodrich said. "They take a lot of pride in the farm and their land."
"These birds cannot really exist unless the rest of the food chain is working properly," Goodrich said.
By providing the correct healthy environments for the birds, the hope is to raise their numbers and keep them steady.
The birds can help farmers by consuming pests, everything from insects down to small rodents.
Goodrich said the kestrel will consume larger insects such as grasshoppers and others that can damage crops and plants.
"A lot of people in the western United States are putting up kestrel and barn owl boxes to try to control voles who eat orchard (trees) and roots," she said.
Just south of Hawk Mountain at a local orchard, owners put up a barn owl box. Goodrich said the orchard is hoping it will attract nesting birds and help deal with a rodent issue - without the business turning to the use of heavy pesticides.
Project leaders hope that bringing the raptors to farmlands will give the agriculture industry a way to avoid using pesticides and instead relying on the birds.
"It could be an alternative to a pesticide and that would be our hope," Goodrich said. "If we can kind of do this the right way, we can build a system where raptors are present and they (farmers) won't need to use them (pesticides)."
Farmers may be a little reluctant when it comes to bringing predatory birds to their lands. Some farmers may believe raptors pose a threat to their livestock.
Nicknames such "chicken hawk" can come about in conversations with farmers, but there is no such thing as a chicken hawk.
Goodrich said these birds have no interest in livestock.
"I don't see a conflict with what they are raising. They are not going to hurt chickens and cows ... even pheasants," she said.
In particular, these four raptor species are focused on rodents, she added.
Habitat is where the home is
Each of the four species share similar habitats but require a few differences to thrive.
"The short-eared owls need large areas of grassland habitat that is not being mowed at high frequency," Goodrich said.
Areas that have strip mines also appeal to the bird.
The Pennsylvania Farmland Raptor Project is most interested in habitats such as row crops, hay fields, grasslands and pastures.
Barn owls and kestrels like to hunt in shorter grasses and, while the harrier and short-eared owl nest and roost on the ground, they prefer to hunt in large, open areas such as grasslands.
Hawk Mountain staff said the program is open to any farmland owner, or nearby resident, in the entire state.
"I could only have an acre and be next to a farmland and have a kestrel box," Goodrich said.
"All four (of these birds) are declining," she said. We hope to "reverse that trend by simply having a landowner become a little more educated about how to provide more habitat and educate them about their importance in their farmland habitat."
A booklet can be sent to anyone interested in the program to see if their property can support the species.
"We would talk to them over the phone and we would see ... where they are and we can look it up on a map," she said. "If it (the area) looks good, we can provide material."
If it's a good spot for a kestrel falcon, the organization will provide easy-to-follow nest box plans and information on placement, monitoring and care.
Hawk Mountain also hopes to work with groups that may be interested in conservation projects.
Mary Linkevich, director of communication and grants at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, said Scouts are great to work with.
"Scouts are always looking for projects," she said.
Bird watchers also can get involved in reporting sightings to Hawk Mountain.
With hopes that the program will gain participants statewide, Goodrich said that maybe five or 10 years from now, species such as the Northern harrier, short-eared owl and barn owl can be assured of never having a place on the threatened species list.
"If we get even 10 people to do this, that is success right there," she said.
"I think having these rare creatures on their farms is an exciting thing to have and (they'll) enjoy seeing them on a regular basis, whether winter or summer," Goodrich added. "I believe it will enhance their experience."