News & Features

Pennsylvania Farmland Raptor Project – We Need YOU!!

Short-eared Owl in flight, by Jake Dingel, PGC

Since 2012, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pennsylvania has been partnering with Pennsylvania landowners and farmers to help conserve four species of grassland raptors in decline across the state: American Kestrel, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier. The Pennsylvania Game Commission recommends that people participate in this worthy project. All participation is voluntary and because farmland raptors benefit farmers by consuming rodents and insects, many farmland owners are happy to participate and enjoy seeing raptors flying above their fields. The Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier are listed as Endangered and Threatened, respectfully, in Pennsylvania, so, sightings of these species in the breeding season help the Pennsylvania Game Commission and its partners conserve these species better. Not only do we encourage people to participate in the Farmland Raptor Project but also to add their grassland bird data to eBird.

We are asking for some special assistance from the birding community this nesting season. In the past two years we have had no records of Short-eared Owls nesting in Pennsylvania, and over the past few years we have had few reports overall. We want to focus our attention on this species this year and try to determine if there are any nest sites left. We are seeking your assistance to check on historical sites where owls used to nest (we can provide those locations) or checking large grasslands at dusk to see if they might be nesting. Observations of these species on reclaimed strip mines also are welcome.

Female Northern Harrier in Flight by J. Dingel, PA Game Commission

There are many possible reasons for the declines in these farmland raptor species including habitat loss to development, lack of suitable nesting sites, pesticide and rodenticide use, and farming practices that leave little cover or food. Because field-nesting species are often found living on private property, private landowners are important conservation partners. Private landowners can aid farmland raptors by reporting sightings of the four species to the Hawk Mountain farmland raptor database, improving habitat for ground-nesting (e.g., leaving unmown, overgrown pastures), installing nest boxes, and encouraging others to participate.

The endangered Short-eared Owl perched on a post by Wayne Laubscher

To date Hawk Mountain’s Farmland Raptor Program has 186 landowners signed up who are happy to have the aid of “the farmer’s friends.” In addition to landowners, there are almost 200 birders who report sightings of the four birds, which are used to compile distribution maps at the end of each year to share with the state conservation community and to assess habitat used in winter and summer. Hawk Mountain depends heavily on the birding community to report sightings either on the web form on the Farmland Raptor Web Site, by email farmlandraptors@gmail.com or by reporting them on their eBird checklists from which we download data each year for our maps. Thank you for all your help!!

Barn Owls in their native habitat, by Wayne Laubscher

Anyone with an interest in helping with this project can get involved. Our first two years of work and the brochure printing was supported with a DCNR Pennsylvania Wild Resource Conservation Program grant, but recent years the effort has been sustained using volunteers and small donations from area businesses, members and other birding and conservation organizations. Hawk Mountain would like to expand outreach to farming communities across the state. Help with distributing brochures and nest box plans, posting posters, installing nest boxes, or attending agricultural fairs in your county with a table on farmland raptors is always welcome. Currently Hawk Mountain is partnering with Shavers Creek Environmental Center in Centre County and would love to identify more outreach partners outside of southeastern Pennsylvania. Contact farmlandraptors@gmail.com if you can staff a table in your area or volunteer in other ways and remember to report your sightings, particularly of Short-eared owl and Northern Harrier. Remember the days when a drive on a country lane would reward you with the sight of an American Kestrel on every wire. It would be nice to see those days again.

American Kestrel is one of the grassland birds in decline, photo by Joe Kosack.