Hear those screeches? Raptors soar in metro Atlanta

Kee-eeeee-arr!!!!!!!

The screech is as unmistakable as it is arresting. It comes from a red-tailed hawk. The distinctive two- to three-second long shriek is often used as a voice-over on TV for bald eagles — whose own high-pitched cackles are apparently not majestic enough for our national bird.

Those living near trees in metro Atlanta — that's all of us — hear the red-tailed hawk's call far more often these days. In fact, all sorts of hawks — red-shouldered hawks (a loud, repeated kee-aah), Cooper's hawks (a grating cak-cak-cak) and sharp-shinned hawks (kik-kik-kik) — are here in far greater numbers than they were years ago, scientific researchers say.

The fall migration of raptors (which include eagles, owls and falcons)from up north and the juvenile hawks born here in the spring add up to a lot of screeching and even more chipmunk-icide at this time of year. And it's not just chipmunks suffering the smash-and-grab of raptor talons. Just now, practically every rodent in Georgia is looking over its shoulder.

“The hawks seem to be everywhere,” said retired schoolteacher Kay Silverberg during a recent walk with her two dogs near the heavily wooded Little Creek Horse Farm just outside of Decatur.

“They make me worry about my pets,” she said, looking up to the trees. “I hear those hawks a ton. And when I hear them screech, I bring my dogs inside.”

It’s almost unheard of for a hawk to swoop down and pick up a pet dog or cat, said Bob Cooper, a University of Georgia forestry and natural resources professor. Fido and Fluffy are generally too big for hawks, he said.

For the record, raptors have extremely sharp beaks and talons, and their talons’ fierce grip is to be reckoned with. Raptors generally grab their prey with those talons and then bite the animal in its neck to kill it.

The prevalence of raptors is notable considering their numbers had been decimated decades ago. The so-called “chicken hawks” were often shot on sight by farmers, and their numbers were ravaged by new poisons in the food chain: prey animals that had ingested pesticides such as the now-banned DDT.

“The raptors are now protected by law and those laws are enforced,” Cooper said. “Even better, we no longer persecute them.”

‘Places to nest and a lot of prey’

A proliferation of raptors is not a bad thing, Cooper said. “They’re beneficial in making sure we don’t have too many squirrels and chipmunks around, and they take a certain number of rats, too.”

There’s no question that raptors are more plentiful in urban and suburban areas, he added. “They have what they need there: places to nest and a lot of prey.”

Population trends are also positive for other raptors seen in Georgia: turkey vultures, bald eagles and ospreys, Cooper said.

A report in the September issue of Science magazine noted that since 1970, the bird population in North American has declined by an estimated 2.9 billion birds. Yet while many bird families have dwindled, some raptor families have doubled in population, the magazine found.

Atlanta is one of several cities nationwide where the numbers of hawks has soared, according to University of Wisconsin researchers. That's especially true of the so-called woodland hawks.

These include the Cooper’s hawk, which glides in stealth through dense cover and uses bursts of speed to land its prey. It often targets small songbirds at feeders, domesticated chickens in backyard coops and many small mammals.

By contrast, the broad-winged red-tailed hawk, well-suited for soaring high above in the sky, does most of its hunting by peering down from a high perch and then swooping down to get its prey.

And its screeches? It’s all about staking out its territory, said Steve Hein, director of Georgia Southern University’s Center for Wildlife Education.

“It’s a proclamation of, ‘This is my place, I’m here, and if you want to mix it up, I’m ready to mix it up,’” Hein said. “And it’s effective.”

A red-tailed hawk named ‘Fancy’

Juvenile red-tails also make a racket by giving off loud screeches when they’re eager for their parents to return to the nest with some food.

“They can be intense, almost to the point where you want to say, ‘Put a sock in it,’” Hein said. “But they’re just hungry.”

On Nov. 16 at DeKalb County’s Mason Mill Park, a red-tailed hawk named “Fancy” was an extremely popular bird of prey. About 140 people huddled around falconer Bill Mixon who had trapped the young hawk months ago near Peachtree DeKalb Airport. (Because raptors are protected by law, falconers must obtain permits and licenses before trapping a hawk.)

At one point, Mixon released Fancy who soared up into a tree and then, after some coaxing with a piece of meat, flew back to Mixon’s thick falconry glove and scarfed down the reward.

Mixon then secured Fancy’s talons and walked through the crowd giving education lessons about the hawk: how they can live to be 20 years old, how their incredible vision allows them to zero in on small prey from high up in the sky and how they can kill something that’s up to three times their own weight.

Mixon said he was not surprised to hear how raptors have grown in numbers in the metro area. “They’re so plentiful,” he added, “I could probably catch six in a morning if I wanted to.”