Bird-Watching Goes Both Ways

Driving up and down the streets of Los Angeles, ornithologist Dan Cooper searches for proof of hawks’ nests. However he doesn’t scan the timber. He gazes on the asphalt, the place the white tones of a hawk’s poop, also called whitewash, stand out completely. “We drive slowly and search for an enormous splatter of quarter-sized, chalky whitewash,” he says.

Earlier than he started learning how and the place L.A.’s raptors construct their nests, Cooper gave little thought to chook droppings on the streets. “We’ve all seen chook shit on the bottom,” he says, however it type of fades into the background. “It makes you marvel, What else are you lacking?”

These birds of prey, alternatively, don’t miss a lot. Spending his days watching raptors go about their days, Cooper has been struck by how attentive they’re to their environment. He suspects that they’ve discovered how you can survive amongst thousands and thousands of bipedal primates—us—by way of cautious remark. They’re not simply scrutinizing the crows and the squirrels. They’re additionally watching us. Chicken-watching, in different phrases, goes each methods.

Ornithologist Dan Cooper and science author Jason G. Goldman be part of Alta Reside on Wednesday, February 24 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.


Certainly, these animals spend their lives turning into attuned to the rhythms of their territories. They know the canine walkers, the gardeners, the letter carriers. They know when Mother and Dad get of their automobiles to go to work every morning, when the youngsters come residence from faculty, when lights get turned off as folks settle into their beds for the evening.

The raptors that may make it within the large metropolis are soothsayers. They will forecast the long run, no less than nicely sufficient to get by. “It’s a rhythm of being that relies on predictability,” says Cooper. “Their survival relies on their skill to foretell normalcy and routine,” or, to place it in additional scientific phrases, to detect statistical regularities. And, he provides, that’s true for people as nicely. “We’re similar to all of the animals as a result of we got here from them. They’re not much like us; we’re much like them.”

But in March, our understanding of the statistical regularities of our personal methods of life was turned the other way up, virtually straight away, when the COVID-19 pandemic ripped by way of our communities. We now discover ourselves in an area the place our intuitions fail us, the place we will not predict with any cheap certainty what’s going to occur.

Maybe the disorientation all of us really feel is one thing like what occurs to a raptor when a tree will get minimize down, or a hillside is developed, or the rats and squirrels its species spent centuries preying on are all of the sudden stuffed with poisonous rodenticide. Or when a quiet nook of wilderness all of the sudden turns into a playground for the no-longer-quarantined. However there’s no use looking for a lacking tree. For a raptor, it’s adapt or die.

Left: A red-tailed hawk and its prey on a ledge of a Wilshire Boulevard skyscraper in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. Proper: Dan Cooper makes use of a high-powered scope to look at the nest of one other red-tailed hawk on a Koreatown skyscraper.

Nurit Katz (left); Gordon Wiltsie


A hungry Cooper’s hawk will perch stone-still on a tree department till it spots a pigeon or a sparrow flitting by. Then, in a flash, it’ll dive and snatch its hapless prey. All the pieces a few Cooper’s hawk has developed for stealth and for velocity. The bulkier members of the species weigh simply over a pound and have a mean wingspan of virtually three ft. Often called accipiters, Cooper’s have trim our bodies, lengthy tails, and quick wings that permit them to swerve and financial institution and even spherical tight corners. In contrast to red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures, their bigger cousins that soar above undeveloped hillsides or manicured lawns on the lookout for one thing to eat, Cooper’s hawks don’t glide. They’re aerodynamic ambush predators.

The survival expertise that Cooper’s hawks have refined over centuries of nesting and foraging in untrammeled forests with lush, dense canopies are exactly what allow them to thrive in city areas. “Cooper’s like gallery forests, linear forests alongside a waterway the place they will zoom by way of the cover,” says Cooper (no relation to the chook). “City canyons,” he provides, that means the rows of homes with their strains of timber on both facet of asphalt-coated roadways, “are, I think, an analog.”

Written data for birds within the L.A. space date again to the late 1800s. At the moment, grizzly bears nonetheless devoured up berries within the Santa Monica Mountains, and citrus orchards had began to interchange grasslands. On the jap finish of the mountains, an space of 4,200 acres now referred to as Griffith Park would have supplied an appropriate nesting habitat for 9 sorts of raptors—the household of birds that features vultures, eagles, owls, and hawks—Cooper’s hawks amongst them.

4 years in the past, the nonprofit analysis, advocacy, and schooling group Pals of Griffith Park employed Cooper to survey the nesting raptors throughout the park boundaries. The examine space has since expanded to incorporate the remainder of the jap Santa Monica Mountains, as much as the 405 Freeway, plus massive swaths of the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin.

Cooper introduced on wildlife biologist Courtney McCammon, who had carried out an identical survey in Irvine. Collectively, the pair enlisted dozens of volunteers to assist discover and monitor nests. They incessantly discover red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, Cooper’s hawks, and nice horned owls. There are different raptors, too, like peregrine falcons and American kestrels, however they’re fewer and farther between.

avian biologist, dan cooper,bird’s head remains, griffith park, los angeles

Cooper factors out the stays of a chook’s head that was ejected from an owl’s nest in Griffith Park.

Gordon Wiltsie

“Nature will not be solely in Yosemite; it’s additionally right here on the town, in your yard,” says Cooper. “Though you consider your neighborhood as a spot to stroll your canine or park your automobile, it’s really getting used loads by wildlife.” And, because the researchers are studying, every of the various kinds of raptors has its personal methods of utilizing the neighborhoods surrounding Griffith Park.

Cooper’s hawks nest virtually solely in timber, however final yr survey volunteers discovered solely a single pair utilizing a local oak, in Franklin Canyon Park. The remainder made properties in launched, decorative species: shamel ash, London aircraft, even the jacaranda, with its purple flowers and unmistakable scent of leather-based and horse poop. As a result of Cooper’s hawks feast primarily on small birds, they will eat nicely nearly anyplace, even miles away from the closest little bit of wilderness.

Pink-tailed hawks, too, appear to favor nesting in newcomer species. Most use non-native pines or eucalyptuses, although the reality is, they may nest in or on virtually something: tall timber, cliffs, rocky outcrops, and even utility poles. One pair this yr constructed a nest of twigs on the 12-story-high window ledge of an workplace constructing close to Koreatown. “Pink-tailed hawks actually need these large patches of open area,” says Cooper. “Virtually all our nests of red-tails contain timber on the urban-wildland interface,” or what wildlife biologists check with as edge habitat, reminiscent of the place developed neighborhoods butt up towards undeveloped hillsides or, within the case of the Koreatown pair, a extremely large irrigated garden.

Cooper and McCammon have discovered that Cooper’s hawks are plentiful within the valleys and basins of Los Angeles County, with pairs establishing territories measuring roughly a sq. half mile; that red-shouldered hawks nonetheless someway eke out survival within the metropolis however appear extra widespread in such areas because the Arroyo Seco, Beverly Glen, and Studio Metropolis, the place there may be—or as soon as was—a pure spring, artesian nicely, or different aquatic habitat; and that regardless of the fixed “plant native species” drumbeat from wildlife advocates, hawks don’t actually seem to favor them.

wildlife biologist courtney mccammon,  cooper’s hawk nest, silver lake, los angeles

Wildlife biologist Courtney McCammon research a Cooper’s hawk nest within the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Gordon Wiltsie

These insights name into query some concepts in regards to the city forest. “Los Angeles, not like cities within the jap half of the U.S., isn’t a degraded model of a forest, the place homes have changed timber. The city forest in L.A. is an entire novel ecosystem. There’s no pure forest of shamel ash timber and palms and junipers and Aleppo pines that L.A. displaced,” says Cooper.

As soon as upon a time, Los Angeles was a Mediterranean Serengeti: scrubby grasslands and prickly chaparral dotted with the occasional coast reside oak. In response to L.A.’s City Forestry Division, the world is residence to some 10 million timber, and their pedigrees are as various because the individuals who drive previous, stroll by, and picnic beneath them—palms and pines from the Canary Islands, carrotwoods and eucalyptuses from Australia, coastal coral timber from South Africa, deodars from the Himalayas, cypresses from the Mediterranean, ginkgoes from China—even whereas relentless growth and the silent march of local weather change erase native chaparral and coastal sage-scrub ecosystems.

“What does conservation imply when you’re ranging from a completely synthetic level? Is it nonetheless conservation?” asks Cooper as we sit collectively, eight ft aside for social distancing, in his Ventura County yard below smoke-filled skies and within the shade of an Aleppo pine. “It’s extra like coexistence than conservation. As a result of we’re probably not conserving a lot. It’s not like Cooper’s hawks are declining and we’re saving them. We’re studying about how they coexist with folks.” Or, in some circumstances, how their intuitions lead them astray.

great horned owl, peregrine falcon, red tailed hawk, cooper's hawk, red shouldered hawk

Emily Underwood


Gerry Hans, president of Pals of Griffith Park, gained’t say precisely the place he noticed them, however it was the morning of April 8 when he famous a pair of peregrine falcons on the wing throughout the park. It was closed to guests owing to the pandemic, however he had particular entry to proceed monitoring raptor nests for the examine.

“I used to be very excited,” Hans recollects, as a result of by the primary week of Might, he’d confirmed that the pair had constructed a nest on a cliffside and have been incubating eggs. It was the primary time in trendy historical past that the quickest birds on this planet had tried to begin a household inside Griffith Park.

Then, on June 3, after the park had reopened, Hans noticed rock climbers only a few ft from the chicks. “I went again simply a few days later,” he says. “Nothing.” He suspects it was the closure that led the falcons to consider the park was secure for nesting—and the next inflow of holiday makers that drove them away.

Most wildlife tales finish with directives for residing a extra critter-friendly life-style. However in the case of these raptors, we simply must get out of their method. “These hawks are right here due to what we’re doing; we’re already making life interesting for them,” says Cooper. If we will keep away from poisoning their meals with rodenticides, and if we will delay tree trimming till after the breeding season, if we can provide them some area whereas they’re nesting, it appears they’ll do exactly positive.

“Each hawks and people must be resilient within the face of modifications,” says Nurit Katz, a survey volunteer. As these Griffith Park falcons and the remainder of us have realized, all of the statistical regularities on this planet can’t account for the statistically uncommon: the reopening of a park that’s been closed for months, or the outbreak of a extremely contagious, lethal virus. That’s the place flexibility—and a sober outlook—is available in. Particularly as our public well being disaster offers option to the extra pervasive, longer-lasting local weather and biodiversity crises.

“It could be that attending to know these raptors, seeing the town and life by way of their eyes, helps you cope with your individual mixed-up-ness proper now,” says Cooper.

Katz agrees. “At a time after I was in any other case fairly remoted, I appreciated having the corporate of the hawks. It was hopeful to have the ability to see these hawks nesting, and the little nestlings,” she says. “It was useful to see these indicators of latest life.”

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