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Energy & Environment

Negotiating Peace Between Birds Of Prey And Humans In Charlotte

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Carolina Raptor Center
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Carolina Raptor Center wildlife educator McKenna Schaffer with Estrella the spectacled owl.

During a year of COVID-19, staff at the Carolina Raptor Center in Mecklenburg County had some time to look at data on injured birds. They learned that interactions with humans are both the cause of the problem and the solution.

McKenna Schaffer, a wildlife educator at the center, has been studying a database of more than 24,000 medical records of all birds treated since the center’s earliest days in 1975. Only 7% were due to natural causes.

“That is a lot of birds that come in because of humans,” Schaffer said recently. “But humans are also the solution, so we’re trying to really educate people and have people aware of how cool raptors really are.

“As Charlotte continues to grow, there is more and more human and wildlife conflict. That includes raptors. As their forests are getting cut down to expand human population, there are less homes for them to go to. But a lot of people are starting to create better habitat for them in their very own backyards. That’s something we really try to encourage people to do.”

Census Bureau data indicate about 90 people a day are moving to Charlotte.

Located near Huntersville, the Carolina Raptor Center rehabilitates injured or orphaned birds of prey and leads programs in wildlife and environmental education. The center frequently receives calls about hawks nesting in backyards. People in their yard get dive-bombed by hawks, who are protecting nests and baby birds, or who are juvenile birds just learning to fly, Schaffer said.

“We try to explain how cool it is that you have raptor babies in your backyard -- that’s awesome,” Schaffer said. “It only lasts for a couple of months, and that family will disperse once the babies leave the nest.”

The short-term solution for humans, she said, is an umbrella. Hawks won’t bother humans under an umbrella.

The medical database indicates the most common causes of injury are car collisions; baby birds removed from a nesting area by people who thought they were in danger but weren’t; poisoning from rodenticides, insecticides, and herbicides; lead poisoning originating from bullets or fishing sinkers; and entanglements in balloon strings or fishing lines.

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Vlada Maznytska
Mathias Engelmann is the senior rehabilitation coordinator at Carolina Raptor Center.

Raptors, Dogs and Cats

A worry that large hawks, owls or eagles might carry away pet dogs or cats is also common, said Mathias Engelmann, senior rehabilitation coordinator at the center. While raptors in the Mecklenburg County area can be physically large, with wingspans of 5 or 6 feet, they are also extremely light. Great horned owls, among the largest and most fierce of raptors, weigh an average of 3 pounds. But staff members at the center regularly explain that raptors cannot pick up prey weighing more than 30% to 50% of their own body weight.

Raptor Center Research On Humans

Beyond raptors, the center also researches the way humans are inspired and motivated to act by interactions with wildlife. Multi-year visitor studies conducted by the center indicate that humans become most inspired when they share moments of wonder with other humans, said Michele Miller Houck, who shapes the way people experience the center.

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Vlada Maznytska
Tombstone, a black vulture, does paintings to create nose-to-beak “defining moments” at the Carolina Raptor Center.

“All this falls under the category of creating wonder with our visitors,” said Houck, whose title is chief wonder maker. “Everything we do around visitors is focused on making these ‘wow!’ moments, whether it’s meeting an educator or bird care specialist along the trail, or designing a nose-to-beak experience like watching a vulture make a painting, or introducing raptors through social media and video.”

New raptor center research being conducted by a UNC Charlotte graduate student in applied anthropology, Heather Dinkins, is evaluating how these experiences could activate people to engage in conservation.

Engelmann, who has been with the center since his days as a UNCC biology student in the early 1980s, has a rough idea of what this research might indicate.

“In 95% of the cases, once people learn more about them, then they’ll understand what’s going on," Engelmann said. "And hopefully they can adjust to living with these new neighbors.”

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