By Katie Leung and Sunny Corrao, NYC Parks’ Wildlife Unit
Flushing Meadows Corona Park is the largest park in the borough of Queens. It is home to Citi Field, the Queens Museum of Art, countless family picnics and barbecues—and a pair of Red-tailed Hawks. New York City Parks’ Wildlife Unit has been tracking raptors nesting in NYC for three years now. This pair—who nested inside the iconic Unisphere—is one of 15 pairs of Red-tailed Hawks that nested on human-made structures in New York City in 2019. This is a smart adaptation on the part of urban hawks. These structures are usually quite stable, and provide them with open views and excellent vantage points for hunting.
However, life in this metropolis is not without its dangers. Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors are vulnerable to many hazards. One hazard is secondary rodenticide poisoning (i.e., hawks being poisoned by eating poisoned rodents). One of the goals of monitoring raptor nests is to help City agencies make informed decisions of where and when to suspend rodenticide use. In addition, we hope to learn more about raptor breeding and nesting behavior within an urban environment.
Why we started citizen science
Since the start of the raptor nest monitoring project, our goal has been to compile the most comprehensive list of nesting raptors in all five boroughs of New York City. This area spans over 300 square miles. In order to meet this goal, we knew we would need help from local residents. In 2018, we reached out to local birdwatching communities and partner organizations in NYC to recruit citizen-science participants. We then introduced these citywide participants to NestWatch, a citizen-science project designed to track the success of nesting birds. As a collective group, we have been adding our observations to the database for two breeding seasons now.
In NYC, the nesting season extends from February to August. During this time, at least one citizen-science monitor visits and documents each nest. Each week they dedicate several hours from their busy schedules to closely document all nesting activity. They note important events like adult courting and juvenile fledging. The addition of these citizen-science monitors has helped us meet our monitoring goals. It has also expanded the number of nests that we have found.
Although most monitors were already experienced birdwatchers before joining the project, they still found the monitoring process enriching. They expressed how much they learned about raptor behavior from their observations, and from speaking to one another. The project even provided one volunteer with the opportunity to see hawk hatchlings for the first time! It was undoubtedly a great opportunity for participants to experience the beginnings of these amazing birds’ lives. And some of the photos they captured were stunning—including this shot from 2019 of a mother and her chick on the Unisphere:
Success of the program
When we started this citizen-science program in 2018, participants monitored 35 nests and reported 52 successful fledglings. This year they monitored 42 nests and reported 71 fledglings, a 37% increase. Participants confirmed that the hawk pair at the Unisphere had another successful breeding season in 2019. They had one juvenile fledge in July.
We looked at all the nest site locations chosen by Red-tailed Hawks this season. Just over half chose to nest in or on a human-made structure—including the pair at the Unisphere. Will this trend continue? Future data collection with the help of citizen-science nest monitors will allow us to answer this question. It will also increase our understanding of birds of prey living in an urban environment. Continuing this project also contributes to the larger study of nesting birds being conducted by NestWatch.
The success of this project would not have been possible without dedication and enthusiasm from our monitors. One of our monitors, who observed a nest in busy Prospect Park, reflected on his experience with the project. “It definitely inspired me to be more aware of my surroundings,” he said. “Even in urban parks, there’s so much wildlife to discover.”
We are always on the lookout for new citizen science raptor monitors. If you live in NYC and would like to be a part of the Wildlife Unit’s raptor nest monitoring project, please reach out to Katie Leung (Katie.Leung@parks.nyc.gov) and Sunny Corrao (Sunny.Corrao@parks.nyc.gov). To learn more about urban wildlife in New York City, visit www.nyc.gov/wildlife.