A bird’s-eye view of majestic raptors

The first-born is soon joined by its sisters and brothers (see further down), all with impressively large claws.
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If you’re on the internet and looking around for something to interest the kids, why not check out Alberta Conservation Association’s ferruginous hawk cam?

The ferruginous hawks, which live on nesting platforms in the Milk River area, have been on camera since 2018 and viewers have seen some cool things, such as parents feeding the young and both Mom and Dad incubating eggs.

“We’re kind of getting a glimpse into the life of a ferruginous hawk,” said Adam Moltzahn, a biologist with the Alberta Conservation Association.

“Like the peregrine falcon, the ferruginous hawk is also considered a species at risk. And the idea behind the camera is to educate people and give them a little bit of insight into the ferruginous hawk.”

The project is based on the association’s peregrine falcon webcam in Edmonton. But since there’s no high-speed internet in hawk country to allow livestreaming, it uses trail cameras that capture photos at regular intervals and transmit them via cellular networks.

“Since these ferruginous hawks’ nests are in fairly remote locations in southern Alberta, cell service can be a limiting factor,” said Moltzahn.

The first-born is soon joined by its sisters and brothers (see further down), all with impressively large claws. photo: Alberta Conservation Association

Images from a trio of nests can be found at ab-conservation.com. New images are posted on Fridays (and promoted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with #FerruginousFriday hashtag).

“What’s really neat about the camera project is that we are able to get photos and insights about what the species does on the landscape,” he said.

“We get to see what kind of prey the adult birds bring into the nest. We get to see how many eggs each pair lays, and how many young will make it to what is called ‘the fledgling stage’ where they are able to fly off the nest in early August.”

The birds, the largest North American hawk in both size and weight, are also valuable friends to farmers as they feed mostly on Richardson’s ground squirrels, which are generally (but inaccurately) called gophers. A pair can eat 500 of the tunnel-digging rodents in a season.

“They can be used as a form of natural pest control,” said Moltzahn. “They have a very important role in controlling those local pests or local rodents that may exist on a farming operation.”

The Alberta government does a ferruginous hawk population estimate every five years, with teams of trained observers going out in spring to record active nesting sites. In 2015, it was estimated there were 865 breeding pairs, a slight increase from the inventory in 2010.

However, the number of nesting pairs dropped significantly between 1992 and 2000 with habitat loss, degradation of native grassland, and human disturbance at nesting sites all having an impact.

Both parents take turns incubating eggs. In this photo the female, which is the larger bird, is about to take over from the male. photo: Alberta Conservation Association

“Hawks are a little sensitive, especially during egg-laying season,” said Moltzahn. “They don’t really like being approached by people or equipment.”

Fluctuations in the numbers of Richardson’s ground squirrels also play a role.

“Some years, ground squirrel populations go up and you might have a lot of ferruginous hawks, and in other years, they go down, and you might not have as many.”

The hawks also have trouble finding proper nesting sites. They were originally ground nesters, but now they nest in trees, and other vertical structures.

“One of the things that my organization and several other non-profits are engaged with is setting up hawk platforms to provide another nesting structure for hawks to nest on, on the Prairies,” he said.

AltaLink, Equs and Fortis Alberta all contribute to this effort but landowners can also help out by keeping tall trees on their land and “if a nest tree falls over, an artificial nesting platform can be installed to replace that old nesting structure,” he said.

Maintaining grassland habitat is also key.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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