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Birds of Prey: Facts
Threats to Birds of Prey

Raptor mortality is affected by a number of natural and human-caused factors. Natural factors include such things as climate, weather, accidents, natural catastrophes (e.g. lightning, volcano), predators, parasites,, disease, and old age. Human-caused factors often include increased population growth and industry, habitat destruction, environmental contamination, electrocution, shooting, and egg collection.

Human Behavior and the Environment


Humans are often unaware of the long-term consequences of air, water, and land pollution on both wildlife and themselves.

In the United States (U. S.), millions of tons of atmospheric pollution are created and emitted, and their impacts on animals (wild or domestic) far greater and immediate than that which can be observed in humans. Below are a few examples:

  • Birds and mammals become soaked in oil. The oil reduces the thermal properties of their feathers or fur and they eventually die from hypothermia and starvation. Scavengers - vultures, eagles, hawks - that eat the oil-soaked carcasses often die from petroleum ingestion.
  • Pesticides clearly affect birds of prey. Pesticide residues build up in raptors that feed on animals or insects that have ingested or been contaminated with pesticides. During stress or when food supplies are low, pesticides stored in the tissues are released into the blood stream. When pesticide levels reach a lethal dosage in the organs or nervous system, the bird dies.
  • Polluted water
  • Waterfowl often ingest spent lead pellets from shotguns. Raptors then die from lead poisoning after eating the affected birds.
  • Non-target poisoning also creates problems for unsuspecting birds of prey, particularly scavengers. Eagles or vultures occasionally eat a carcass baited with poison intended to kill coyotes or other predators.

Other human-related raptor mortality factors

Collisions with high tension cables, towers, vehicles (especially in populated areas), and large windows . . .

  • raptors are attracted to power poles and power lines because they provide high perches for hunting, roosting, and occasional nesting
  • touching two conductors or a conductor and ground wire at the same time may electrocute raptors with large wingspans
  • 70 to 90 percent of all raptor mortalities on power lines occur to young eagles
  • after studies of this problem, power companies have taken steps to prevent electrocutions by adding perches, modifying ground wires on problem poles, and designing safer poles

Shooting — although SHOOTING A RAPTOR IS ILLEGAL, it still occurs . . .

  • before laws were established to prohibit raptor shooting, many people would gather along migration routes for target practice
  • raptor species, which occasionally prey on domestic animals (e.g. chickens, pigeons, duck, quail, fish, and rarely sheep), are most vulnerable to shooting, because humans see these birds as competitors
  • only instinct and opportunity are to blame for a raptor's choice of food

Legal Protections for Raptors & Raptor Parts

All raptors are protected by state and federal regulations. It is illegal to capture or kill a raptor; it is also illegal to possess a raptor (living or dead) without the proper permits from local state governments and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Raptors pose no threats to humans, although adult birds will defend their territory (habitat, space, home, nest) and their young against any intruders, human or otherwise.

Unfortunately, superstitions and untruths about raptors still persist and subject them to unwarranted suspicion and persecution.


In the U. S., wildlife is considered the property of all citizens and is protected and managed by the federal and state governments. Public sentiment, as well as law, does not favor the unrestricted use of wildlife for commercial purposes. Thus killing, collecting, or taking into captivity most forms of wildlife is heavily regulated.

All birds native to North America (thus excluding pigeons, European starlings, and English sparrows) are protected by at least one, and sometimes up to three, federal laws. Additionally, many states and municipalities also regulate the keeping of wild birds.

Legal Protections for Native Raptors

  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) – One of the earliest laws passed to protect wildlife in the U. S. This law was initially an international treaty between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and has now been amended to include Great Britain and Japan. It prohibits anyone from taking, killing, or keeping any native bird, its parts, or its nest, without a permit or license. All raptors native to the U.S. are covered by this law.
  • Bald Eagle Act (1940) – Congress passed this act in response to the slaughter of eagles during the first half of the twentieth century and because of the special status bald eagles hold as our national symbol. This law protects both bald eagles and golden eagles, their nests, and nest trees. It specifically prohibits anyone from killing or disturbing either species.
  • Endangered Species Act (1973) – This act provides additional protection for any animal listed as "threatened" or "endangered." The raptors currently listed include the bald eagle, spotted owl, California condor, peregrine falcon, and everglade kite.

At the time of this writing, however, the list was undergoing revision. Each of these laws has a separate set of regulations and permits. Depending on the species of bird you would like to possess, at least one and possibly three, federal permits may be required. For example:

  • to keep a red-tailed hawk you need a Special Purpose Possession Permit to keep the bird under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
  • to keep a peregrine falcon, both a Special Purpose Possession Permit and an Endangered Species Permit are required
  • to keep a bald eagle, you will need a Special Purpose Possession Permit and an Endangered Species Permit, as well as an Eagle Exhibition Permit, issued under the Bald Eagle Act

All of these federal permits are issued through the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at their regional offices. Each permit requires annual reports and renewal.

Federal and state agencies and personnel are not exempt from obtaining permits. This includes state and national parks, wildlife areas, research facilities, all of which must obtain the same permits as everyone else.

Owl in flight

Legal Protections for Non-native Raptors

  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (1975) – Non-native raptors (those not regularly found in North America) are not protected under the previously mentioned laws. However, there are special regulations governing the import of non-native raptors. All raptors of this type are listed under CITES. CITES requires special permits from the country of origin, as well as the U.S., before a raptor can be brought into this country.
  • Wild Bird Conservation Act (1954) – This law regulates the import of birds into the U.S.

Legal Protections for Non-living Raptors

  • Special Purpose Salvage – This special permit allows for the possession of non-living raptors or raptor parts. Dead specimens collected under this permit may be mounted, prepared as study skins, or otherwise used for educational purposes, including public display.

How You Can Help

Cartoon owl

Many of the problems facing birds of prey result from human activity. The solutions to these problems are difficult, because we must have food to eat, lumber for building, and industry for employment. But we must also have wildlife, and that includes raptors.

The environment in which we live would be very boring if only humans existed. Thus, seeking a balance between man's progress and species conservation and preservation is a challenge for all — which includes you.

Raptors are top predators and are often the first to suffer when changes occur in the environment. By protecting raptors, we provide an umbrella of protection for other species living in the same ecosystem.

HELP by learning as much as you can about birds of prey and all wildlife:

  • Read books, newspaper articles, magazines
  • Watch television programs about nature
  • Take the time to study the animals that live in your neighborhood
  • Recycle bin
  • Create wildlife habitats in your backyard (e.g. birdhouse, birdbath)
  • Encourage parents to limit their use of pesticides
  • Create a nature or ecology club in your school
  • Recycle and reduce your use of consumptive (use that may directly kill or impact wildlife) goods
  • Share what you know with your families and friends; quite often people are simply not aware of the problems raptors face
  • Cartoon eagle with a flag
  • Write letters to important people, including government leaders (congressional representatives, mayor, council persons, president, etc.) in your town, state, and country expressing your concern and interest in wildlife conservation and preservation; government leaders are often influenced by the opinions you express on such issues and your opinions often impact greatly their decisions as to whether actions and/or laws get implemented or not
  • Offer your support to organizations, federal (e.g. BLM) and non-federal (e.g. Peregrine Fund), and facilities that protect raptors nationally and internationally; humans are often unaware of such groups' ability and effectiveness in making the world safer for wildlife

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."
    – Baba Dioum

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