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Moving to the City: Raptors in a Concrete Jungle

A review by Corey C. Husic

Urban Raptors: Ecology and Conservation of Birds of Prey in Cities, edited by Clint W. Boal and Cheryl R. Dykstra

Island Press, 2018

320 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14851

Humans have long lived in proximity to raptors, with stories dating back centuries of Red Kites pestering pedestrians and of Peregrine Falcons nesting in cathedral towers. This intimacy has encouraged a complex relationship between people and these predatory birds—one that has proven to be both alarmingly harmful and remarkably beneficial to raptor populations across the globe. The modernization of cities has brought a plague of fast-moving vehicles, a deadly lacework of electrical wires, and sky-high towers of glass to what was once pristine habitat. At the same time, cities can provide an abundance of food for many raptor species, as well as protection from predators and natural disasters. 

The closeness between urban raptors and people has also created widespread fascination with these avian city dwellers. Online-streaming nest cameras alone captivate millions of viewers, whether watching a Peregrine Falcon nest on the 40th floor of a downtown high-rise or a pair of Bald Eagles tending their massive aerie. This public interest has greatly improved the relationship between people and birds of prey—a result tcrucial to the advancement of raptor conservation efforts.

Urban Raptors sets out with the goal of addressing and analyzing this complex relationship between raptors and people in urban settings and the fascination we have with these birds. The editors, Clint W. Boal and Cheryl R. Dykstra, bring together an impressive group of raptor authorities, including academic researchers, wildlife rehabilitators, and conservationists. The book begins with an introduction to the “urban raptor,” with considerations of history, ecology, population dynamics, and current research. Then, diving deeper into the ecology of urban-breeding raptors, the book highlights the unique ecological and conservation circumstances of specific urban raptor species. The books final section ties together threads developed earlier by addressing the conservation and management hurdles faced by city-nesting birds of prey.

Part II of the book proves to be by far the most compelling, with detailed information about the urban ecology, human conflicts, and conservation goals for each of eight highlighted raptor species. I expected to find this portion of the book filled with standardized species accounts, but was pleasantly surprised to find that each chapter was composed by a separate set of authors, each with a distinct focus and approach. Some chapters present primarily general information and a review of literature about the urban ecology of the species at hand, while others offer synopses of individual studies examining a unique behavior or phenomenon. For example, Chapter 10 details the results of a behavioral ecology study of a population of Barred Owls in Charlotte, North Carolina. Although the chapters range from general information to scientific reporting, all of the authors find an appropriate middle ground, making this book of interest and of use to anyone intrigued by urban raptors, whether a casual birdwatcher or a university ecologist. Even the most general portions of this book are filled with academic citations for the ambitious reader, but the scientific results are carefully explained with accessible data representations and a minimum of jargon.

While the variety of approaches taken in the chapters of Part II make for a uniquely exciting read, this same phenomenon makes other sections of the book difficult to get through. Several chapters in Parts I and III seem to simply repeat what was said in earlier chapters with only minor shifts in focus or detail, as though some authors did not know what the others were writing about. Perhaps most frustrating is the tendency to introduce and define the same term in multiple chapters. The unnecessary repetition, often paired with no discernible progress toward a thesis or actionable objective (especially in the conservation and management section), makes it easy to skim over significant portions of this book without missing much. This may frustrate the reader. Although these sections of the book are worth reading, they would have benefited greatly from better thematic definition or heavier editorial intervention.

The editors have taken a narrow view of the term “urban raptor” by hardly addressing the role of cities as wintering grounds and migratory stopover sites. Migrating and wintering raptors require different resources from those needed by breeding birds, and face distinct seasonal challenges. Thus, Urban Raptors falls short of being the “complete overview” the publishers claim it to be. In addition, this work has a disappointingly limited geographical scope. There are brief mentions of urban Black Kites in Africa and Asia and of city-nesting Northern Goshawks across Europe, but an article on Powerful Owls is the only chapter with a focus outside the United States. 

The authors repeatedly point to the lack of scientific data about most urban raptors and their behavior. Researchers have not conducted enough studies to fully understand the complicated relationship between humans, our urban infrastructure, and the birds of prey that use it. The frequency with which the book reminds the reader of such gaps in our knowledge makes us ask whether the publication of Urban Raptors was premature. I think that the answer is “no,” but I wish the book did a better job of demonstrating that. Given that so many of the authors cite a need for further research, I was left wanting a section of this book explicitly raising question and goals for future research. 

Thanks to the vast expertise it assembles, Urban Raptors has the potential to be a tremendous resource and reference for anyone curious about the ecology of birds of prey in urban environments. The informative chapters provide a thorough introduction to this niche of avian ecology, presented in a manner accessible to the general reader. Someone looking for a more scientifically rigorous review of urban raptor ecology should probably look elsewhere, although the extensive bibliography cited in this text could prove useful. 

The complex intersection between the lives of urban humans and raptors warrants appreciation and concern. Humans and raptors are learning to coexist: more people are understanding that birds of prey pose little threat to their safety, and raptors are learning how to take advantage of the infrastructure we build. However, development plans in many areas fail to acknowledge their impact on raptor populations, and all birds are still suffering tremendous losses at the hand of electrical wires, automobiles, and windows. With proper education about the lives of urban raptors—and this book is a major step in the right direction—perhaps communities can begin to more adequately address these conservation issues, motivating further research in the field and encouraging a renewed interest in the conservation of birds of prey. Corey Husic is ….

Corey C. Husic majored in chemistry and astrophysics at Harvard University, and is now working toward a Ph.D. in chemistry at Caltech. A recent fellowship took Corey to Uganda and the Indonesian island of Borneo. He is especially fond of patchwork, yard birding, stationary counts, and nocturnal field ornithology.

Recommended citation:

Husic, C. 2018. Moving to the City: Raptors in a Concrete Jungle [a review of Urban Raptors, edited by Clint W. Boal and Cheryl R. Dykstra]. Birding 50.5: 66-67.

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