Last Chance Forever: The Bird of Prey Conservancy

For over 25 years, LCF has treated between 150 and 300 birds of prey annually. We are one of three organizations relied upon by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Texas that can care for threatened and endangered birds such as the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine falcon. Our ultimate goal is to return each raptor we receive back to its natural habitat. We are able to successfully release on average 65%to 80% of the birds we receive, and we only provide permanent sanctuary to birds that can be given a productive life in captivity and are not able to survive in the wild. LCF provides highly skilled veterinary treatment, hospitalization, recovery housing, flight rehabilitation, and hunting skill rehabilitation.

At any given time, the facility houses approximately 40 raptors in rehabilitation. Frequently served species include Great Horned Owls, Barn Owls, Screech Owls, Barred Owls, Red Tailed Hawks, Red Shouldered Hawks, Harris Hawks, White Tailed Hawks, Broad-wing Hawks, Black Vultures, Golden and Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, American Kestrels, Merlins, and Cara Caras.

Our impact is international, as we also house non-native species such as Eurasian Eagle Owls, Guatemalan Spectacled Owls, Lanner Falcons, Saker Falcons, a South American Seriema, a Savannah Hawk, a Roadside Hawk, a Russian Imperial Eagle, an African King Vulture, and an Andean Condor.

Currently we have 34 non-releasable raptors for educational purposes, and 24 non-releasable raptors that are used for surrogate or breeding programs.

We are often asked about our conservation mission - are we really making headway in conservation by treating individual birds of prey and returning them to the wild? The answer is more complex than a "yes" or "no." Helping individual animals, when populations have suffered greatly, makes a difference. This kind of work, along with captive breeding, has brought species like the peregrine falcon from the brink of extinction. But this work must be one component in a larger solution.

More than most other types of birds, raptors have suffered from human activity. In most developed parts of the world, the number of raptors are a fraction of what they were 100 to 200 years ago. Three main factors are responsible for this dramatic decline and include: habitat destruction, deliberate persecution or exterminating, and unintentional poisoning by agricultural pesticides. Almost all of the raptors brought into Last Chance Forever need rehabilitation because of an unfortunate incident with a human or a machine created by a human. In an American study, 231 Bald Eagles found dead were autopsied during an 8 year period revealing that 43 had been shot, poisoned, or trapped (Birds of Prey, 1990). Another study of 850 birds of prey that were found dead revealed that 23% of the birds had been shot and 15% had been trapped (Birds of Prey, 1990).

Birds of prey are also extremely valuable indicators of the health or decline of the ecosystems in which they live. Specifically, being top predators, birds of prey live at low densities compared to most other birds, and are extremely sensitive to human induced changes in their environment. Any alteration of land use or other action that reduces wildlife populations will inevitably affect birds of prey, which depend on other wildlife for food. Any persistent chemical pollutant that can enter the bodies of animals will eventually concentrate in the bodies of raptors.

The destruction of habitat or environments in which birds of prey live is the direct result of cultivating land for agriculture, forestry, and urban development. As part of development, it has become routine for forests to be clear-cut, wetlands to be drained, and grasslands to plowed and paved over. Any form of human land use, which degrades or destroys a natural habitat and its associated prey populations, can cause a decline in raptor numbers. Provided that suitable prey are available, certain raptor species can live in cultivated and other modified areas, including cities. However, in such incidences, the number of raptors seldom reach the levels found in more natural habitats. Recent studies have documented the decline or disappearance of raptor populations, coincident with an intensification in land use. On a global scale, habitat destruction has accounted for bigger reductions in raptor populations than any other factor.

Deliberate persecution or extermination of large raptors was practiced initially to protect domestic animals. Such practices greatly intensified and spread to smaller species, following the development of breech-loading guns in the 1940’s, and subsequent growth in small game hunting. Past hunting and government supported payment of bounties for dead raptures has lead to virtual extinction for some birds of prey species. For example, in Alaska from 1917 to 1952, rewards were paid for the killing of 128,273 bald eagles. Deliberate persecution of birds of prey by hunters and by farmers has led to the significant decline in many species of raptors. Laws limiting or preventing the hunting of raptors help to prevent further decline. Penalties for shooting raptors can include as much as two years in jail and a $10,000 fine. Purposeful trapping of raptors is also illegal unless special permits are issues for scientific or falconry purposes. However, even today, many individuals do not understand the important role that raptors play in the environment and therefore continue their efforts to exterminate the birds either through hunting or trapping.

Problems created by chemical, pollutants and pesticides are relatively new, dating from the development of DDT and other synthetic chemicals for crop protection, (1940’s to present). Organochlorine pesticides have reduced raptor populations all over the world. These compounds include DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, and heptachlor. Besides being toxic, these chemicals have three main properties which contribute to their effects on raptors and other wildlife. First, they are extremely stable so that they can persist unchanged in the environment for many years. Second, they dissolve readily in fats, which means that they can accumulate in animal bodies and pass from prey to predator, concentrating at successive steps in the food chain. Finally, at sublethal levels of only a few parts per million in tissues, some organochlorines can disrupt the breeding of certain species. Mercury and lead poisoning, resulting primarily from industrial emissions have also been found to kill birds who have been exposed to these pollutants. Some pesticides kill raptors directly, some accumulate in the bodies of their prey, becoming more concentrated with each link up the food chain. Some pesticides reduce the abundance of prey where the raptors in that area must leave or die from malnutrition.

Raptors face many threats to their survival. Last Chance Forever knows these threats first-hand, as almost all of the birds we rescue have been victimized by one of the three listed threats. While the situation and long-term prognosis for birds of prey sometimes seems bleak, Last Chance Forever is driven to rescue and rehabilitate injured/sick raptors on a small scale and to educate the public, especially children, about the value of birds of prey, their role in the ecosystem, and the importance of environmental conservation and how this ultimately impacts the human population. With land development and population growth inevitable, steps that can be taken by humans to alleviate the decline or extinction of raptors in such areas include: maintaining wetlands; setting aside adequate space for parks and natural areas; maintaining natural vegetation and trees around building sites; and most importantly, by educating the public about environmental and wildlife conservation. The creation and installation of supplemental and artificial nest sites specifically designed for raptors being displaced by urban growth or other development have proven to be effective. Legal and government protection is another solution that will help to protect raptors. Reducing incidental threats, including regulating the use of harmful pesticides and environmental pollutants, will also help to protect birds of prey from further decline and destruction.

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