It is not long after dawn on a very warm summer morning in Hartford's Pope Park. Hardly anyone but a few construction workers notice as Joan L. Morrison of Trinity College and two of her students go about their work.
Morrison and the students, juniors Isabel Gottlieb and Connor Wells, lure two young red-tailed hawks to a trap baited with a squirrel, capture them and calm them by placing hoods over their heads.
Then they measure them, take blood samples, fit them with identification bands and place a transmitter on one of them. The squirrel is released, the hoods are removed from the hawks, the birds are released, and off they fly.
No matter that there is no audience. The birds might as well be invisible. Few people in the city even know that red-tailed hawks are a year-round presence over city streets - and in sizable numbers.
When people do notice them, they often don't even know what the birds are.
"I've had a lot of people come up to us and say, `Oh, look at the eagle,'" Morrison said.
Morrison, the Charles A. Dana associate professor of biology at Trinity, and her students are well into a study that already has documented a red-tailed-hawk population far beyond what people would expect in a city.
Morrison believes there are at least 25 pairs of hawks - these are bulky, broad-winged, big birds nearly 20 inches in length - living in the city. Major city green spaces, including Pope, Bushnell, Colt and Goodwin parks, the Trinity campus near the South End and Cedar Hill Cemetery all have resident pairs of red-tailed hawks.
"My interest in this is how an animal that normally we think lives out in rural areas or the wild is living in a heavily human-impacted landscape - a city," Morrison said. "Hawks live in a lot of cities around the country, and we want to know how they are doing that - how well they are surviving, how well they are reproducing, where they are living, where they are getting their food, how well they are interacting with people."
Early indications are that Hartford's hawks are doing quite well. Food is plentiful. Rural hawks may feast on mice, squirrels, gophers and small rabbits; city hawks take mostly squirrels, young birds and rats. "They love rats," Morrison said.
"We actually expect that these guys will be doing really well, that they will be surviving pretty well; they'll have a lot of young; and the young should survive well because of all the food here in the city," she said.
The transmitters, on seven birds in the city, allow the researchers to monitor their travels and already are providing a detailed picture of their comings and goings.
One hawk that lives in Goodwin Park essentially hunts only in the park. "That must be a fine spot, because it never leaves the park," Morrison said. Another bird nests in a pine tree in the yard of a home south of Trinity, but, apparently because food is not as abundant in its immediate neighborhood, it flies up to Trinity and spends its days hunting the campus grounds.
For many urban bird species, detailed research has been thin. Morrison says more study is essential.
"From a conservation biologist's perspective, I feel that humans have altered the natural environment so much, we have some degree of responsibility to understand how the animals we have so heavily impacted are getting by in that environment," she said.
Already, it is clear that the city's parks and other larger green areas are critically important, pointing up their value in a healthy urban environment, she said.
Dwight Smith, an ornithologist at Southern Connecticut State University who has studied many raptor species, said a study such as the Trinity project was just what was needed to pin down how red-tailed hawks manage in the city. How they are adapting to a human-dominated environment alone makes the study significant, he said.
Red-tailed hawks in cities are a comparatively new phenomena, said Patrick M. Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut. "They used to be a bird of the country. They've adapted to city life. We don't know exactly what they are eating, or how far they go from the nest to catch their food. They could be a real benefit to urban life. They do eat rodents a lot."
Morrison's research results will be invaluable over the long run, because there is so little information on past hawk populations in urban areas, he said. The study's findings could help future scientists understand what is happening if red-tailed hawk populations in cities increase further, or fall off, Comins said. Thirty years ago, he noted, red-tailed hawks were much less common, possibly affected at least to some degree by the pesticide DDT, which caused eagle and osprey populations to crash.
Besides learning more about how hawks are faring in an urban environment, Morrison hopes to use the study to help educate people about raptors and wildlife.
That will mean swatting away a number of myths.
One myth: If you touch a baby bird that appears to be abandoned or in trouble, the parents will reject it because it has the smell of humans on it. Not so, Morrison said. Moreover, baby birds are best left alone to begin with. Baby red-tailed hawks, for example, can appear to be abandoned before they learn to fly.
"People need to understand that when the hawks jump out of the nest, for the first 24 hours they can't fly. They hop around and look real stupid. And people say, `Oh, the parents are gone; the parents aren't feeding them; the parents have abandoned them.' Well, the parents know exactly where they are all the time. And the babies are simply like that for 24 hours. And the best thing people can do is leave them alone."
Another myth is that red-tailed hawks and other raptors are dangerous.
"People should not be afraid of hawks. They are not going to come down and attack them. They are not going to come down and attack their pets. They are not going to eat anybody. They are just trying to get by," Morrison said.
In coming weeks and months, Morrison and the students will be walking Hartford neighborhoods, pointing an antenna at buildings and trees. People shouldn't be alarmed by them either, she said.
"We want people to know we are not spying on them or looking for anything in particular except we are looking for our birds that have transmitters on them.
"We're just looking for our hawks."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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