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Red-tailed Hawks help city residents connect with nature

red-tailed hawk NYC-660
A Red-tailed Hawk in New York City. Photo by Elizabeth Shaw

In 2006, a group of researchers led by the author and North Carolina State ecologist Rob Dunn published a paper explaining what they called the “pigeon paradox.” They explained that with the potential extinction of thousands of species in the next 50-100 years, “conservation may increasingly depend on the ability of people in cities to maintain a connection with nature.” Urban residents, they suggested, interact mostly with urban ecosystems and animals such as feral pigeons, and the corresponding disconnect from the broader natural world jeopardizes financial and political support for conservation and environmental issues.

A new study published in November 2017 by the journal Urban Ecosystems suggests that our most common North American raptor, Red-tailed Hawk, may play a part in mitigating the pigeon paradox.

In the summer of 2016, researchers surveyed 280 residents of Reno and Starks, Nevada, who lived near Red-tail nests about their perceptions of and experiences with hawks. Seventy percent of respondents viewed hawks positively, 3 percent negatively, and 27 percent indifferently, the researchers report.

Whether the residents had pets that were threatened by hawks or raised chickens did not impact their attitudes toward the raptors. People who lived closer to hawks were more likely to view them positively than those who lived farther away.

Lead author Justin White of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and his co-authors note that residents they interviewed expressed “positive emotions, such as enthusiasm, happiness, or curiosity,” and that people often referred to the hawks as “‘their birds,’ even if they were not the closest house to the nest, illustrating proud ownership of the relationship that they had formed with the hawks.”

The highly visible birds, the authors conclude, act as ambassadors for the wider natural world to many people. “Based on the positive perceptions of hawks held by the neighboring residents, and the well-documented positive emotions and impacts of living near wildlife or natural systems, we suggest that hawks generally have an important and positive influence upon the lives of the residents.”


A version of this article was published in the February 2018 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe

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