TCS Daily


Hawk Mountain: Conserving Birds Of Prey

By Robert J. Smith - February 26, 2001 12:00 AM

The creation of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Beerks and Schuykill counties of eastern Pennsylvania has been one of the most significant private conservation success stories to date.

Atop the Kittany Ridge, eastern most range of the Valley-and Ridge province of the central Appalachian Mountains, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary preserves a 2,380-acre block of unbroken second growth oak-maple mixed-deciduous forest in the Appalachian Mountains. There are about 40 species of trees, dominated by red oak, chestnut oak, red maple, sassafras, and black Gum. Eastern hemlock grows in some of the cool ravines. There are impressive thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron, among the two dozen or so shrubs. Ninety species of flowering plants grow on the mountain and a showy variety of wildflowers carpet the forest floor in the spring and more open areas in the summer. And 33 species of ferns and their allies have been found.

The forest is home to such resident wildlife species as ruffed grouse, wild turkey, great horned owl, pileated woodpecker, white-tailed deer, and red and gray fox. Thirty-three species of mammals have been documented on the mountain, including two newly discovered species, following the advent of a comprehensive biological survey of all the biota and habitats on Hawk Mountain, initiated in 1996. Springtime brings the return of a host of neotropical migrant songbirds from their winter grounds in Central and South America, including such species as scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, many warbles and vireos, and a number of flycatchers and thrushes.

Over 230 species of birds have been counted over the years. A number of species of butterflies occur on the property and are the subject of ongoing studies as well as an annual Fourth of July butterfly count. Herpetology is also an important activity, with studies of the reptiles and amphibians, with special emphasis on the salamanders. Thirty-three species of herps have been tallied, including a number of uncommon species at the limits of their ranges. There is also an obvious movement of substantial numbers of monarch butterflies, on their journey to their winter grounds in the groves of coniferous forests in the mountains near Mexico City.

Hawk Mountain, however, will always be especially noted and internationally renowned for its autumn migration of birds of prey - raptors. Its combination of prevailing winds and mountain topography make it one of the superb hawk watching spots in the world. Especially from mid-August through November, large numbers of raptors - hawks, falcons, ospreys and eagles - migrate south along the mountain ridges. Raptors from much of northeastern North America follow the ridges, as do many other species of birds. Occasionally, there are spectacular concentrations of broad-winged Hawks early in the season; the all-time, one-day tally was 21,488 raptors, mainly broadwings. The average fall count is about 20,000 birds of 14 species.

Over the years, though, untold thousands of raptors were slaughtered as they passed down the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Going back to 1885, many state governments and state game associations encouraged the shooting of hawks in order to protect game birds and poultry. As late as 1934 it was not only legal to shoot almost any species of hawk in Pennsylvania, but there was also a state bounty on the goshawk, the largest of the three accipiters or "bird hawks." The large and aggressive goshawk's prey included grouse, hares, rabbits and squirrels, and when fall migration brought increased numbers into winter grounds around farms, free range and unguarded poultry were easy pickings. In place since 1929, the goshawk bounty was $5 per bird - a significant amount of money in those days and especially in the following Depression years. Because the vast majority of the gunners could seldom tell one hawk from another (even today country folk refer to a wide number of raptors as "chicken hawks"), this certainly encouraged wide-scale slaughter. The shooting was so heavy that one man collected the spent shells for scrap brass.

At the peak of the 1885 bounty period, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, noted that Pennsylvania paid $90,000 in bounties for hawks that may have killed $1,875 worth of chickens. At the same time, his calculations estimated that farmers lost nearly $4 million in grain crops because of increased rodent populations resulting from the decreased number of hawks. Merriam concluded, "In other words, the state has thrown away $2,105 for every dollar saved!" While these early cost-benefit estimates were certainly crude and unreliable, they did begin to make the argument for the beneficial role and economic importance of raptors.

As early as 1900, a few local conservationists had begun to work to halt this slaughter, but birds of prey were still considered vermin or "chicken hawks" which preyed on "good" birds, and there was little support for these efforts. During World War I, and again in the 1930s as the prospects for another war in Europe loomed, in fact, these conservationist efforts were viewed as suspiciously "pro-German" because they deprived American boys of the opportunity of shooting at live targets.

But by the late 1920s, there was mounting concern over the slaughter. George M. Sutton, then the Pennsylvania State ornithologist, first drew the attention of conservationists and professional ornithologists to the issue when he published two articles in a professional journal. Richard H. Pough, an amateur ornithologist in Philadelphia, visited the mountain in the early 1930s, and began to spread the story of the raptors' plight to a broader conservation and bird watching audience.

The founding spirit behind the creation of the Sanctuary, however, was Mrs. Rosalie Edge, born in 1877. She was a relative of Charles Dickens and James McNeill Whistler, a leading suffragette, and one of the nation's first prominent conservationists. She conducted successful campaigns to expand Yosemite National Park and to create Olympic National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.

Mrs. Edge became an avid birdwatcher in the New York City area where she became acquainted with the noted zoologist Willard Gibbs Van Name and the staff of the American Museum of Natural History. She soon came to share their concern about the rapid loss of bird life to sportsmen and market hunters, and became especially concerned about vanishing species and the number of species that had recently become extinct. She assailed the bird protection organizations of that time for not doing enough. In 1929, she formed the Emergency Conservation Committee and began an active campaign criticizing the "conservation establishment," including the National Association of Audubon Societies, the U.S. Biological Survey, and state game departments, as being too closely associated with the hunting establishment, sportsmen and ammunition manufacturers. She argued that these organizations were mainly concerned with the plight of game species: waterfowl, game birds and shorebirds. She maintained that with a few exceptions, notably the spectacular wading birds such as egrets and songbirds, they were relatively indifferent to the fate of other species.

Pough and his friend Henry H. Collins Jr., first visited Hawk Mountain and witnessed the slaughter in the fall of 1932, and Collins presented a paper on the situation to the Hawk and Owl Society, an affiliate of the National Association of Audubon Societies (NAAS). In August 1933, the Emergency Conservation Committee met with the NAAS, and Mrs. Edge urged Audubon to purchase Hawk Mountain to halt the slaughter. In October, Pough and Collins brought the issue up before a joint meeting of the NAAS, the Hawk and Owl Society, and the Linnaean Society in New York City, and Audubon was again urged to purchase the area.

Mrs. Edge and others thought Audubon would take action. When in June of 1934 she contacted Pough and found out the NAAS had done nothing, she determined to take immediate action herself to see that not one more fall slaughter would take place. She and Pough met at the mountain with a local real estate agent and were told 1,398 acres were available for purchase at $2.50 an acre. So, she leased the area for one year for $500 with money borrowed from Willard Van Name (later forgiven), and obtained an option to purchase the property for $3,500.

In August, Mrs. Edge asked Maurice Broun, a young naturalist in Massachusetts, to move to Hawk Mountain to become its first warden and to post, patrol and guard the sanctuary, but to keep the information confidential in order to prevent the hawk shooters and the NAAS from learning about it. Broun accepted and began posting the property in September. Mrs. Edge's hawk conservation efforts were underway. As Mrs. Edge wrote to Broun: "There has never been such a thing as a Hawk Sanctuary - as far as I know - and I believe there is no other such place for the observation of hawks as this mountain." Broun viewed the job as a temporary assignment and refused to accept a salary in 1934. He stayed on until 1966, four years after Mrs. Edge's death, as the first curator.

The rift between Mrs. Edge and the Audubon Association widened, as she sought to raise money for the purchase of Hawk Mountain and manage the sanctuary with complete independence from the association or any organization associated with it. She wrote the Hawk and Owl Society that October:

"The indifference of the Audubon Association to hawk protection, the fact that in certain of its publications it recommends the pole-trap and that it uses steel traps on its chief sanctuary; that it believes in the 'control' of many valuable species and in general urges the protection only of the 'birds of lawn and garden' makes it undesirable that the Audubon Association shall have a controlling voice in the policies that shall regulate the sanctuary at Hawk Mountain."

In December 1935, she raised the last of the $3,500, and following two years of land title clearances, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association was incorporated in 1938 to hold and manage Hawk Mountain.

With the sanctuary secure, Mrs. Edge and her conservation associates had taken the first steps to protect the nation's birds of prey. In 1938, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association was incorporated as a private, member-supported, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization o foster the conservation of birds of prey, as well as to create better understanding of the natural environment.

One of the Hawk Mountain Association's major conservation efforts was educational programs to change public attitudes toward birds of prey and to obtain legislative protection for all raptors. In 1937, Pennsylvania passed a law protecting all hawks except accipiters, but it wasn't enforced. But in 1951 the state ended the bounty on goshawks. And in 1957 Pennsylvania passed a law protecting all hawks during fall migration in the northeastern part of the state. Finally, in 1970, the state gave complete year-round protection to all hawks, eagles and owls, except the great horned owl. By then, the "environmental era" was in full swing, and finally, in 1972, the federal government extended full protection to all birds of prey in the United States under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The efforts of Mrs. Edge and her associates to protect birds of prey contributed to a revolution in the way that conservationists and naturalists view nature. Prior to the accomplishments and proselytizing of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, there had been very little scientific or popular interest in raptors or knowledge about their ecology, population sizes, and migrations. Today, there are raptor organizations in most European countries, the former Soviet Union, and Israel, and the International Council for Bird Preservation has a World Working Group on Birds of Prey.

Here, the Raptor Research Foundation Inc., was created in 1966 by raptor specialists to disseminate information and promote a better understanding and appreciation of the value of birds of prey. And in 1974, the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) was founded to advance the knowledge of raptor migration across the continent and to monitor raptor populations as an indicator of a sound environment. Hawk Mountain in recent years has undertaken a national effort to provide college students, naturalists and the general public with a better understanding of the role and importance of raptors in the ecosystem and the consequent need for conservation programs. In 1975, a program was started for undergraduate and graduate students offering internships accredited by Cedar Coast College in Allentown, Pa. More recently, in affiliation with local colleges, Hawk Mountain has established an outdoor classroom, offering full college credit for courses in ecology, environmental studies, botany and ornithology, with most courses held at the Sanctuary and some involving field excursions to other areas.

These efforts also helped to create the important insight that as predators at the top of complex food chains, raptors are indicators of environmental quality and their populations reflect environmental conditions and changes. Information gathered from raptor specialists, hawk watchers and counters led to the awareness in the early 1960s of the plight of, and rapid decline of, some species of raptors suffering from pesticide contamination and helped create a national consensus around environmental protection. Equally important, and more encouraging, have been the hawk counting data of the past decade, documenting a nearly complete recovery of these formerly declining species - a sign that we have begun to see an improvement in important aspects of environmental quality.

The Sanctuary is now a Registered Natural Landmark and the Appalachian Trail runs adjacent to the property. (In 1982, 100 acres were sold to the federal government, containing that portion of their property crossed by the trail.)

The Hawk Mountain Association today has eight membership categories with annual dues beginning at $25 for seniors. The memberships, plus private contributions, bequests and foundation grants provide the basis of annual budgets of more than $1 million, compared with just $85,000 in 1975 and $300,000 in 1985. The association maintains an invested reserve fund of more than $2.5 million, mostly from large bequests and special fundraising drives. The investment income is used to help support regular operations; the principal may be used for major capital purchases and projects. In 1984 a land purchase of an additional 185 acres was made to protect the core of the sanctuary.

In 1991 a special fundraising project brought in $750,000 to expand and make additions to the Visitor Center complex, adding a museum-exhibits gallery on birds of prey, an expanded bookstore and additional staff offices. This expanded complex, and especially the gallery, has helped make Hawk Mountain more of a year-round center, with attractions and activities for the eight months that the hawks aren't flying south and indoor activities during inclement weather.

The Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the fall migration and from 9 to 5 the rest of the year. It has interpretive educational displays, including raptors species and art exhibits, a bookstore, and an education center which is used for classes, meetings and conferences. There is a regular fall lecture series as well as additional education programs, workshops and seminars. Special programs have been developed for visiting school children who number several thousand annually.

The trails to the lookouts are open from dawn to dusk throughout the year. The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary receives over 70,000 visitors per year, with non-members paying trail fees.

The history of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary offers a striking example of the role of private initiative in achieving major accomplishments in wildlife conservation. The perseverance and single-mindedness of a very small group of concerned individuals enabled the pioneer organization to spawn national and international efforts to educate the public about the ecological importance of birds of prey, and to further efforts toward their conservation.

The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, 1700 Hawk Mountain Road, Kempton, PA 19529-9449 www.hawkmountain.org.

Robert J. Smith, senior environmental scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Center for Private Conservation, wrote this case study. Created in 1995, the Center for Private Conservation researches, documents and promotes the public benefits of private conservation and private stewardship. The Center for Private Conservation is supported by the William H. Donner Foundation.
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