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Birds of prey soar over SCV

Placerita Nature Center visitors can spot several species of raptors in flight

Posted: June 1, 2009 10:32 p.m.
Updated: June 2, 2009 8:00 a.m.

Placerita Nature Center animal keeper Dave Stives displays Orion, a male horned owl. Visitors to the Nature Center can take a guided hike from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the second Saturday of each month to learn more about local birds of prey.

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As Kia perches lightly on David Stives' hand, gripping it with her talons, she spreads her broad, striped wings and the rust-red coloring of her tail glows in the sun's rays.

Kia is a female red-tailed hawk - one who has an unusual affinity for human beings.

Her stay at the Placerita Canyon Natural Area and Nature Center began nine years ago after leaving a home in Acton.

"(Her previous keepers) found her on the side of the road - she fell out of a nest somewhere. (They) didn't know what kind of bird she was and had her in with chickens," Stives, a park animal keeper, said. "They realized she was a hawk when she started eating mice."

By the time Kia was brought to the Nature Center, she was already considered an imprint - a bird raised by humans that can‘t be released into the wild to hunt, Stives said.

"We tried to let her go, but she just keeps coming back," he said.

Although Kia stays close to the Placerita Nature Center, red-tailed hawk sightings are anything but rare throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

"People always call and say there's an eagle in my backyard," Stives said. But if the bird has the signature red tail feathers, he tells those callers they're looking at a red-tailed hawk, not an eagle. And there's an important consolation: hawks typically won't go after pets unless they are really hungry, he said.

That doesn't mean they can't. It just means that they usually don't. Stives' first red-tailed hawk caught a nine-pound jackrabbit.

Stives is one of three falconers at Placerita Nature Center, along with Superintendent Ranger Frank Hoffman and recreation service leader Jessica Nikolai.

"I have always loved birds of prey because of the way they hunt; the size of the game is huge in comparison to them," Stives said.

There are 10 to 12 species of raptors in the Santa Clarita Valley, although some just pass through during their migration, he said.

According to HawkWatch International, raptors include eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls - all of whom are characterized by hooked beaks, strong feet with sharp talons, keen eyesight and a taste for fresh meat.

The red-tailed hawks, along with American kestrels, North America's smallest falcons, comprise the two largest raptor populations in the United States, Stives said.

Kestrels have mallard stripes under their eyes which help block out the sun, Stives said. They are small, plump-looking birds with bluish-grey wing coloring.

"A lot of people think they're baby hawks, but they're actually falcons," Stives said. "They're so fast, you're really not going to get a good look at them to tell they're a kestrel."

Kestrels will eat insects, small mammals, rice, rodents and even small birds, he said.

But there's more to the Nature Center than these two nimble birds of prey. The center also is home to Apolla, who may not be pretty, but who can soar with the best of them.

The Nature Center inherited Apolla, a deep-black, red-headed, turkey vulture, from an educational facility that closed down. The turkey vulture is one of only three birds of prey that can smell, Stives said.

"There are lots of turkey vultures flying around," Stives said. "I have seen them in residential areas by the (SCV) Senior Center, but typically that's as close as their going to get. They're not going to get right in the middle of a residential tract."

"Turkey vultures are not very quick at getting off the ground," Stives said. But when they do have flight, they can soar for miles and miles without flapping their wings. Turkey vultures generally have a wing span of about eight feet, Stives said.

Ranger Frank Hoffman said he can tell what raptor is in the sky from its wing beat, its cry or call, the length of its tail and the breadth of its wings. Local residents have likely spotted the common barn owls and great horned owls around they valley. But pet owners should beware, because these birds of prey can and will hunt pets like cats or small dogs, Stives said.

"These birds can hear and get a mouse in complete darkness," Stives said as he held Orion, a Great Horned Owl with characteristic tufts of pointy feathers protruding above his head. Although these owls have great hearing and are the largest owl in the U.S., their on-lookers should not be deceived by their feathery horns, which are not ears.

"Their horns are really for breeding," Stives said. "They're more or less to make themselves look pretty."

Anyone who would like to learn more about local birds of prey, and catch a glance a them up close and personal, can visit the Placerita Nature Center from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the second Saturday of each month for a guided bird hike.

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