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Raptors and gardeners can enjoy a symbiotic relationship

Raptors are gardeners' friends, and gardens support raptors.
Raptors are gardeners' friends, and gardens support raptors.
Photo courtesy of Peter Pereira

If you have a garden, chances are high that you also have birds.
But did you know the red, red robin that comes bob-bob-bobbing into your garden is a bird of prey? That's right. Just remember robin red-breast pecking at the earthworms in your lawn, and the categorization doesn't seem such a stretch.
Yet a bird of prey — which has a straight beak for pecking to kill — differs from a raptor, which has a curved beak and large, strong feet with sharp talons for killing.

If you have a garden, chances are also high that you have resident mice. Anne P.S. Price, curator of raptors for the Raptor Education Foundation, urges people to help keep our food chain healthy and to protect raptors and other top predators by shunning any pest control that uses poisons.

Price advocates the symbiotic nature of the relationship between gardeners and raptors.

In an email interview, Price answered the following questions about raptors:

• What sorts of raptors might be around Front Range gardens?

Anne Price: In the Denver Metro area, the true harbinger of spring is the return of the Swainson’s hawk. They spend the winters in Argentina, and the first northern migrants are often seen at the CO/NM border around March 31. They are always seen in the Denver Metro area by April 15. Besides eating many kinds of small rodents, they love big bugs! They often feed on grasshoppers and cicadas when they can catch them.

• We're seeing more bald eagles in Colorado. Is the population of our national emblem bird healthy?

Anne Price: The bald eagle population is very healthy here in Colorado, and in most places nationwide. We have approximately 1200 to 1500 migrant bald eagles that come to Colorado from Alaska and Canada.
They are here from roughly November until April, depending on the ages of the birds. Mature eagles with established nesting territories leave earlier than subadults, so they can begin the process of nest-building, courtship, etc.?

• When is the best time to see raptors?
Anne Price: Raptors can be seen at nearly any time of the day; however, early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is less intense (in summer months) are often good times to spot them. Red-tailed hawks — which sometimes hunt cottontail rabbits, for instance, will be active early in the morning at first light, because that is when the rabbits are active too.

• What do raptors eat?
Anne Price: Raptors near gardens eat everything from insects, to voles, mice, pocket gophers, and prairie dogs. As stated above, they will also catch rabbits if they can. The accipiters (forest-dwelling raptors with short wings and long tails) such as the Cooper’s hawk, are primarily bird hunters and will often hunt suburban backyards catching everything from sparrows to grackles.

• Why are raptors important for gardens?
Anne Price: Raptors are natural pest control, eliminating burrowing rodents, vegetable-consuming insects, and large populations of pest birds which may consume fruit or newly-planted seeds.

• Why are gardens important for raptors?
Anne Price: Gardens, whether vegetable or ornamental, provide diversity and cover for raptor prey items, like rodents, insects, and small birds. As suburban areas expand, and the opportunities to catch prey such as prairie dogs potentially diminishes, a backyard garden can provide shelter, cover, a place to “grab a quick meal” and even a place to drink and bathe for small-to-medium-sized raptors.

• In addition to shunning poisons for mice or meadow voles, what else can gardeners do to help raptors?
Anne Price: The Raptor Education Foundation has been educating the public about the importance of raptors since 1980. One of the main concepts we emphasize is that humans are part of the fabric of life on this planet. Healthy populations of raptors and all predators keep ecosystems healthy, even if they’re tiny ones in your backyard. Predators like raptors serve as barometers for the environment. We’ve been teaching this to children of all ages for decades. But the only way we even make it in to the classrooms is through membership and support from the public. Our members-only license plate, Colorado Respects Wildlife is still the only specialty plate in Colorado that directly benefits wildlife, and sales of these memberships support our educational outreach programs.

• Do any other connections between raptors and gardens come to mind?
Anne Price: When I think about gardens and raptors, I think of small islands of refuge, great habitat, food and shelter, all of which provide a haven for wild creatures, which in turn could someday provide a meal for a hungry raptor. A garden is an oasis of life, color, food and joy for the person who tends it. If any other living beings benefit too, so much the better!

For more information on raptors, visit

••• "Cultivate your corner of the world.

You grow your garden; your garden grows you." •••

Colleen Smith writes from and gardens in Denver, Colorado. She's been a longtime regular contributor to The Denver Post, Colorado Expression, Sunset Magazine, and other publications.

• Colleen Smith's gift book "Laid-Back Skier" makes a charming gift! This whimsical, inspirational book features original illustrations of ski bunnies and encouragement for life's ups and downs.

Watch "Laid-Back Skier's" brief YouTube video here.

• Colleen Smith’s first novel, “Glass Halo”—a finalist for the 2010 Santa Fe Literary Prize — is available in hardcover or e—book.

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