How well do birds tolerate people?


Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

Also published here:

Every soaring bird I saw in early February along 1300 miles of interstate highway between Nashville, Tennessee, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a black vulture or turkey vulture.

However near Vero Beach, Florida, where we were visiting Cheyenne snowbirds Karen and Fred Pannell, there was a black bird of a different shape, a magnificent frigatebird, a life bird for both me and my husband Mark.

But about those vultures, were they really more abundant along the interstate than away from it? Were they waiting for roadkill? We passed a couple landfill “mountains” that were big vulture magnets too.

We think wild birds go about their lives oblivious to people, or at least avoiding us. Except for birds coming to feeders. Or ducks at the park looking for handouts. Or Canada geese that enjoy eating the grass on park lawns and the leftover grain in farmers’ fields.

We know that some human activities are detrimental to birds. But how many are beneficial to them? Chimney swifts have experienced both. We took down the old hollow trees they used to build their nests in and they moved into our chimneys.

The speaker at February’s Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Cameron Nordell, relayed interesting research results on nesting ferruginous hawks and their reactions to people. Nordell, Raptor Fellow at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, is with the Wyoming Raptor Initiative.

In his previous work in southern Alberta, Nordell and his colleagues experimented in part to see at what distance hawks would flush from their nests as researchers approached by vehicle or on foot to check the nests for other aspects of the study.

Southern Alberta is a mix of agriculture, oil and gas and other development. The farmers and home owners have planted trees on the prairie and the ferruginous hawks have found them to be great for nesting—they are a ground-nesting hawk otherwise. The trees give them better protection from predators.

However, along with people came another species that climbs trees—and raids nests—racoons. Barns and other structures have helped increase the population of great horned owls and they too prey on the nestlings.

Ferruginous hawks nesting near the busiest roads were more tolerant than birds that had not seen as much traffic. Approaching vehicles were tolerated better than approaching people.

Raptors have been shown to hang out by roads, looking for injured prey species. The problem is that they risk getting hit by vehicles too.

The Wyoming Raptor Initiative (see wants to understand the state’s raptors better, including the road problem. It has two goals:

“(1) To synthesize our scientific understanding of raptors in Wyoming so that the public, scientists, land managers and energy companies will be better informed in developing and implementing future conservation strategies and land mitigation efforts.

“(2) To foster appreciation of raptors in Wyoming and the world through education and outreach efforts.”

Nordell and his colleagues will be looking at previous studies of raptors in Wyoming, gathering more data, talking to all kinds of people to get more information, and then they’ll relay what they learn.

What will they discover about Wyoming’s ferruginous hawks, for instance? What human activities help them or harm them?

Nordell also studied arctic peregrine falcons near Hudson Bay, where there were few direct human impacts. However, the weather was ferocious. Too much rain, and a young bird, poorly nourished, could succumb to the cold rainwater collecting in the cliff-face nest. Better-fed youngsters had better survival rates.

The next questions: What affects the availability of peregrine prey species and the peregrine parents’ ability to bring food back to the nest? Is there any human influence on their success? Are humans linked in any way to that Arctic location getting demonstrably rainier?

What will be discovered about peregrines in Wyoming? I watched one nail a duck on a ranch reservoir just outside Cheyenne once. The human-made lake attracted the peregrine’s food target—southeastern Wyoming doesn’t have many natural water bodies.

I look forward to answers from the Wyoming Raptor Initiative. I’m sure they will also discover many more questions.


Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Florida full of great birds and people

Florida Scrub-Jay

The Florida Scrub-Jay is a federally-listed endangered species because its preferred habitat is often cleared for development and agriculture. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published March 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Florida full of great birds and people.”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, I had a chance to visit Florida’s birds a second time.

And I learned what it is like to have a nemesis bird—the reddish egret—that eluded me again despite visiting the right habitat at the right time with 40 people on the lookout.

Mark and I took part in a Reader Rendezvous weekend at Titusville, Florida, sponsored by Bird Watcher’s Digest,, a bi-monthly birding magazine read worldwide and celebrating its 35th year of publication.

Editor Bill Thompson III, son of the founders, was one of the weekend’s event team members which included six magazine staff—all birders–and three local experts.

Having only 34 participants meant the birding experts were easily available for questions and to help spot birds. Although it was billed as a weekend for beginners, many of us were experienced, though not so much with Florida birds.

About a year or so ago I noticed Bird Watcher’s Digest was beginning to offer these Reader Rendezvous trips. Among them, one featured their humor columnist on a trip to the famous Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota in winter (you needed humor to enjoy the temperatures), and another with optical experts to try out a variety of binoculars.

I asked Bill how the idea for the Reader Rendezvous weekends came about. He said he has been a speaker and field trip leader at birding festivals for 20 years and was looking for another way to reach readers. He said, “I love to show people birds.”


Bird Watcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous participants in Florida share the shore of Lake Kissimmee with airboats while looking at the federally endangered snail kite. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mark and I met several folks who had been on previous weekends, but they didn’t strike me as groupies, though I have to say Bill has amusing takes on the birding life. What is appealing is the event team’s interest in every participant, learning our names and asking often if we were enjoying ourselves.

The other participants were pleasant people who enjoyed the intense weekend of birding. And they didn’t mind indulging Bill in his requests for group selfies. We even agreed to look silly doing “lifer dances.”

The three days (Mark and I opted for the additional Friday trip) wore everyone out, but since all of us had invested time and money to be there, I heard no complaints about meeting the bus at 5:30 a.m. each day. At least we got a break on Sunday-—6:30 a.m. instead.

The Space Coast of Florida (area code 3-2-1, no kidding!) is known for the Kennedy Space Center, and among birders for the Space Coast Birding Festival held mid-January.

While it seemed like the ducks had mostly migrated by the time we arrived Feb. 20, the group still logged 123 species over three days. I documented only 104 because sometimes the group split up. But of those, 13 were life birds for me, bird species I’ve never seen before.

We had a list of target birds—those that were advertised and those requested by participants.

On Friday, we went in pursuit of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally-listed endangered species that makes a brief appearance at dawn when leaving its nest hole in a longleaf pine. The March-April 2015 issue of Audubon magazine (see it at has an excellent article detailing its life history and population ups and downs.

The half-mile hike in the dark and cold (frost on the grass in Florida!) was worth the minutes we were able to watch the small black and white woodpeckers.

Another target bird we saw in that same piney woods was the Bachman’s sparrow, a species of concern that benefits from habitat work done for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

The Florida scrub-jay, a federally-listed threatened species, is easy to find. We saw three sitting in treetops. Harder to find are the remnants of its necessary habitat, oak scrub.

Wood Stork

The Wood Stork is a federally-listed species that doesn’t mind well-behaved birdwatchers. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While waiting in line at a potty stop, everyone got a long look at another threatened species, the wood stork. Three of the enormous birds scrutinized us from a nearby tree.

Our first look at the crested caracara, a threatened hawk, was fuzzy, but the next day it swooped over our heads. The endangered snail kite, another hawk, required a spotting scope to be identified.

Perhaps this weekend should have been billed as the “Threatened and Endangered Species Tour.”

At any given birding festival we might have done as much birding, but in the course of several separate excursions with different people each time. With the Reader Rendezvous format, not only did we become acquainted with new birds, we made new birding friends. We may meet up again on another Reader Rendezvous, or here in Cheyenne since some folks were thinking about heading west.

While the weekend was somewhat of a marathon, the equivalent of three of our all-day Cheyenne Big Day spring bird counts plus two evening programs like our Audubon chapter’s monthly meetings, my binocular hand-eye coordination is all warmed up now and I’m ready for spring migration.