The autumn sky becomes a highway for North American birds of prey migrating south. In Mexico’s Veracruz state, the birds are funneled between the Gulf of Mexico and mountains 40 miles to the west. In between, observers count more than four million raptors each fall. Most of the world’s 200,000 Mississippi kites pass through Veracruz, like the one featured here.
Why are raptors so important to the environment?
Birds of prey have been called “ecological barometers,” which simply means they help us gauge how healthy a habitat is. Birds of prey are extremely sensitive to many environmental changes in an ecosystem. They can even sense chemical and pollutant levels that can give people an early warning of any impending airborne threats. Pesticides and other chemicals can build up in our environment and are passed on to animals. This can lower raptor populations due to birds ingesting prey riddled with toxins, which in turn signals scientists that a possible problem exists.
Raptors are farmer’s friends! Since many of the smaller raptors feed on insects and larger ones prey on rodents, many farmers truly appreciate them. The American kestrel, a smaller falcon, and the Eastern screech owl feed on insects. The great horned owl and the red-tailed hawk feed on rodents. Grasshoppers, cutworms, as well as rabbits and field mice are capable of destroying entire fields of crops if left to reproduce freely without any birds of prey to feed on them. Controlling pests through this method is called biological control. If a farmer can control pests by natural predation, he has no need to use pesticides or insecticides, which helps protect the environment.
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