Raptors Descend Upon Aspen, Put On A Show

Jul 9, 2013

Turbo, the Barbary Falcon of Nature's Educators, enjoying a moment without his hood on.
Credit Olivia Siegel / ACES

In 1982, a baby golden eagle crashed on the backside of Aspen Mountain.  The eagle was rehabilitated at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, or ACES, where it has called home ever since. Recently, ACES held a celebration for its Golden Eagle and a number of other hunters of the sky.  Turns out these birds are not only cool to look at, they’re indicators of changes in the environment. Aspen Public Radio’s Science Reporter Ellis Robinson has more.

Tourists weren’t the only visitors to Aspen on Friday. The resort town played host to a handful of wild predators.

"Caw caw caw."  Luckily, that's not one of them.  It is, however, golden eagle-speak for, "Hello, I'm a bird!"  That's Foster Hresko, a 6-year old raptor enthusiast.

His favorite raptor?  "The Golden Eagle.”

Raptor means bird of prey. And the event at ACES was the first annual Raptor Fair. Just like Foster, hundreds of Aspenites, young and old, gathered to learn about the birds and see them close up.

"Well, today we've got the golden eagle and the great horned owl that live here at ACES, we’ve also got a visiting falcons and a visiting red-tailed hawk."

Jim Kravitz, head naturalist, describes why ACES was dedicating an afternoon to Raptors. "Well raptors have been some of the best educators at ACES since we started here."

ACES is focused on teaching people about nature, in an effort to protect and conserve it. These massive birds are one way to do that, says ACES CEO, Chris Lane. "Our mission is simply environmental science education, and part of that is the life sciences, and part of that, the most intriguing things, are birds. And of all the birds, what's the coolest of the birds? The raptors."

Adults seemed just as intrigued by the raptors as young enthusiasts like Foster: “How far can they see... a typical mouse. How high and far away can they be and see it?" (Man’s voice at gyrfalcon tent)

Answering that question is Devin Paszek, a volunteer for Nature's Educators, a raptor education non-profit from Aurora, Colorado. The group brought its own raptors in for demonstrations.  

"A bird of prey like a red-tailed hawk, if they sit on the goal post on a football field, it can see an ant on an opposite post, up to two fields away."

A Barbary Falcon named Turbo is hanging off of Paszek’s arm, eliciting a serious wow factor from her audience. Another mission of Nature's Educators, and ACES, is to leverage the coolness of raptors to demonstrate their importance in ecosystems.

Again, naturalist Jim Kravitz of ACES: "They keep things in balance. You've got big numbers of rodents, and rabbits, and squirrels, and things like that and if they were allowed to run with no predators, you'd be overrun by those sorts of things. They would in turn eat the grass and denude the landscape. So a good balance starts with a good raptor population."

In addition to keeping species lower on the food chain in check, raptors are also what ecologists call bellwethers. Bellwether species indicate the greater health of ecosystems, as their numbers depend on the health of the rodents, trees, and grasses below them on the food chain.

But the educational impact of raptors goes beyond both natural ecosystems and the wow factor. Raptors can teach us about ourselves, says ACES CEO Chris Lane. "The peregrine falcon and the bald eagle have made huge comebacks. Those two species alone taught the world that pesticides are bad for ecosystems."

Lane says DDT, an organic molecule widely used as a pesticide in the early twentieth century, was an important reason for the decline in eagle and falcon numbers. DDT would ride its way up the food chain in a process called "bioaccumulation," eventually winding up in the eggshells of these birds of prey. DDT caused the shells to weaken.

"Parents would crush their own eggs. So we almost lost all our bald eagles and all our peregrine falcons due to human insecticides, DDT. So that’s an example of how these raptors can educate us about ourselves and what we’re doing to our own environment."

Although those serious issues were touched on, the focus of the afternoon was really about curiosity and excitement for these great birds.

"Whoa! He can turn his head backwards. Cool!” (Young boy’s voice at screech owl tent)

For Aspen Public Radio, I’m Ellis Robinson.