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Meet the Raptors: Superheroes of the Skies!

 Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications and Susan Burchardt, Animal Keeper

We'd like to introduce you to a few of Woodland Park Zoo’s own Superheroes. No capes needed here because these particular heroes are already expert fliers. We’ll take a closer look and examine some of their unique superpowers, investigate what threats they face in nature—their “Kryptonite” so to speak—and fill you in on how you can visit with them at Woodland Park Zoo or in some cases, see their cousins around the wild spaces of our Pacific Northwest! Read all about them, then take our raptor quiz and find out which Superhero you are most like! 

Modoc, the handsome turkey vulture. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Superhero: Modoc the Turkey vulture

Superpower: Iron stomach! Vultures have strong stomachs that can neutralize all kinds of dangerous germs and bacteria—which helps minimize the spread of disease to other animals and to people.

Kryptonite/Threats: Toxins in their (and our) environment. Everything from chemicals, pesticides, veterinary drugs and lead shot that vultures eat when feeding on carcasses. These toxins interfere with normal neurological function, leading to starvation or collisions due to weakness.

Where to see Modoc and his cousins: In the wild turkey vultures are native to our state and our entire region, but you won’t necessarily see them in city limits. The species is migratory, so you might see them flying over Seattle while they’re heading to Mexico for the winter—or heading back for the summer. They’re also easy to spot on the Washington coast and in the terrain around the Issaquah highlands.

Modoc came to Woodland Park Zoo as a youngster from a wildlife rehab center and he’s been a frequent participant in the zoo’s flight demonstration programs for years. For the health and safety of our guests and as a way to minimize gatherings, these programs are temporarily on hold right now … BUT there are still ways you can see Modoc and many of our other animals. He, and several other superheroes are available to join your next your virtual ZOOM meeting, gathering or happy hour! Get the details on our Call of the Wild program here.

Buddy is so majestic! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Superhero: Buddy the Pharaoh eagle owl

Superpower: Stealth! Owls have soft plumage and fringes on the leading edges of their wings allowing them to silently fly as they approach their prey.

Kryptonite/Threats: Secondary poisons like rat poison that people use to control pests can cause internal bleeding and death in these apex predators which feed on rodents.

Where to see Buddy and his cousins: In the wild, this species is most common in northwestern Africa, but they extend into Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula … but you can see Buddy without having to leave the country, or even your own home! He, and several other superheroes are available to join your next your virtual ZOOM meeting, gathering or happy hour! Get the details on our Call of the Wild program here.

Gunnar is considered to be a “dark-morph” red-tailed hawk, meaning that his overall coloration is darker and richer than many of his species. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Superhero: Gunnar the Red-tailed hawk

Superpower: Bionic vision! These birds have amazing distance vision and night vision to assist in hunting. Many raptors (although not all) have significantly better visual acuity than humans. They can spot small movements of prey from great distances.

Kryptonite/Threats: Similar to other raptors, this species is very vulnerable to secondary poisons like rat poison. This abatement method, which people use to control pests, can cause internal bleeding and death in raptors and other animals that feed on rodents. Their adaptability to living in cities also makes them vulnerable to threats like collisions with vehicles or even buildings.

Where to see Gunnar and his cousins: In the wild, red tail hawks are native to our region including in Seattle, so you don’t have to go far to spot one. These birds are very adaptable to living in places where people live. Gunnar, and several of our other superheroes are available to join your next your virtual ZOOM meeting, gathering or happy hour! Get the details about our Call of the Wild program here.

Neville is a GREAT example of a great grey owl! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Superhero: Neville the Great grey owl

Superpower: Mega-hearing! Owls have large ear opening concealed by their feathers that capture significantly more sound than we humans can hear. Great grey owls can hunt rodents running in tunnels beneath the snow pack and plunge their feet through to capture them.

Kryptonite/Threats: Claustrophobia. In the wild, great grey owls have large home ranges and need a lot of forest to hunt in. Habitat loss means that there aren’t as many big forests for them to live in as there used to be.

Where to see Neville and his cousins: Neville’s wild cousins are native to the northern hemisphere, including many areas in the U.S. and in Washington state. You won’t see them in Seattle, though. They prefer a dense forest habitat far away from cities. The closest habitat to us would be the Okanagan forest area east of the Cascades. At Woodland Park Zoo, you can visit Neville at his home in the Northern Trail area.

Steller's sea eagles are among the largest of the raptors! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Superhero: Olga the Steller’s sea eagle

Superpower: Large, sharp, built-in weapons! Like all eagles, Steller’s sea eagles have heavy-duty claws and powerful hooked beaks—among the largest of all the raptors.

Kryptonite/Threats: In their native range, which includes the Asian side of the North Pacific, their biggest threats include habitat alteration, industrial pollution, and overfishing, which depletes their main source of food. Pesticides and other toxins in the environment can also pose dangers to this sensitive species.

In areas where eagles share habitat with humans there is another threat that affects them: Electricity—or more specifically, electrocution. When these big birds with huge wingspans make contact with active electric wires it can be a deadly encounter. Locally, Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy are among the growing numbers of utility companies to put Avian Protection Programs in place to protect and minimize risk to birds and other wildlife that might come in contact with power lines.

Wild bald eagles often nest and raise their young in one of the trees on zoo grounds. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Where to see eagles: At the zoo, you can see Olga, and her mate, Ivan in their habitat at Northern Trail. In the wild, there are two species of eagles native to N. America and both can be found in Washington state. Golden eagles live mostly east of the Cascades, where jackrabbits and ground squirrels are among their favorite prey. The more familiar bald eagle prefers habitats with abundant supplies of fish, including some coastal areas or areas near lakes and rivers. There are quite a few bald eagles that call Seattle home, including some that hunt over Greenlake and a pair that has nested, for many years, in one of the large trees over the Northern Trail Elk Yard.

Peregrine falcons are build for speed! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Superhero: Peregrine Falcon

Superpower: Speed! The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird, and one of the fastest animals, in the world! These great bursts of speed happen during hunting sessions, when it soars to a great height, then dives steeply towards its prey at speeds of over 200 mph.

Kryptonite/Threats: Great heights. These speed demons regularly live and nest high above our cities, but that doesn’t mean it poses no danger. When their chicks are ready to fledge, they may have a long way down to fall if they don’t get it right on the first try. Birders can help by watching nests as the chicks get close to flying age, and rescuing any fledglings that fall onto busy streets or into the water beneath bridges. Pesticides and other toxins in the environment can also pose dangers to this sensitive species.

Where to see peregrine falcons: After many years of absence, we’re lucky to have several pairs of peregrine falcons that have called the Seattle area home since the 1990s. One of the first pairs nested way up high on the ledge of a downtown skyscraper, and over many years their offspring have nested under local bridges and even on cliffs out in the San Juan Islands. To learn more about these amazing birds, see photos and even a webcam (live during nesting season), check out the Urban Raptor Conservancy website.

We all love Papú, the burrowing owl. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Superhero: Papú the Burrowing owl 

Superpower: Big adorability in a compact little package. You simply cannot resist him! Burrowing owls are small, long-legged owls that nest and roost in underground burrows.

Kryptonite/Threats: Barbed wire. Raptors like burrowing owls that fly at low altitudes while pursuing prey can get tangled in barbed wire fences, leading to injuries including broken wings. Tying strips of fabric onto the edges of fences—known as flagging—helps all wildlife to see and avoid running into them.

Where to see Papú and his cousins: Burrowing owls are native to open landscapes of North and South America, including grasslands and rangelands throughout the western U.S. Closer to home, that includes the shrub-steppe in eastern Washington. This is where Woodland Park Zoo works with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to help study and protect several species of native raptors. There are also zoo-related programs that focus specifically on burrowing owls. If you want to meet Papú, he and several of our other superheroes are available to join your next your virtual ZOOM meeting, gathering or happy hour! Get the details about our Call of the Wild program here.

Nothing beats the magical beauty of a snowy owl! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Superheroes: June and Dusty the snowy owls

Superpower: Invisibility! Well … almost. The snowy owl’s amazing winter camouflage—their white feathers (with some flecks of dark brown) make them virtually invisible to their prey in their snow-covered habitat. Of course this works best during the winter months.

Kryptonite/Threats: Illegal hunting, and collisions with vehicles and power lines. The effects of climate change are also likely to be a significant threat, as changes to snowmelt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey.

Where to see June & Dusty (and family) and their wild cousins: In the wild, snowy owls spend most of their lives in the Arctic in open, treeless areas called tundra, so you’d have to visit areas north of 60° latitude to see them—which for North America means Alaska or parts of Canada. At Woodland Park Zoo, you can see our family of snowy owls in the Northern Trail area.

For more on June and Dusty, please see the story about their growing snowy owl family here.

Now you can take out quiz to see which raptor you are most like. Ready? Click here to take the quiz!

To read this story on your favorite e-reader, visit our digital MyZoo magazine.