Watching the skies for pacific northwest raptor recovery



When it comes to raptors, the Columbia Basin is home to some of the most amazing birds in the world. Golden eagles, short-eared owls and rough-legged hawks make their home in this changing landscape—this project aids in the protection of raptors and the shrub- steppe habitats they occupy by using expert technical and field assistance of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Woodland Park Zoo staff. This work is helping to answer research questions important to ecology and protection of these raptors and their habitats, such as defining migration corridors, identifying sources of contaminants, or learning how raptors avoid wind turbines. We hope to spark interest in conserving shrub steppe habitats by fostering an appreciation of these charismatic resident raptors through educational programs and stories that highlight these incredible hunters.



Due to continuing declines in migratory raptor populations in the shrub steppe—including golden eagles and short-eared owls—Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists began research projects on raptors in eastern Washington in the 1990s. Woodland Park Zoo supports and participates in this field research to help scientists better understand population declines and manage habitat impacts, including lead pollution, fires and wind power development.

With support from Woodland Park Zoo, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) researcher Jim Watson participates on the Western Golden Eagle Team, focused on planning and policy around lead contaminants, wind power mitigation, and eagle survival. In 2019, Jim participated in radio-tagging rough-legged hawks on breeding grounds in Alaska to determine the importance of different wintering areas, including Washington, to the hawk population in western North America.

In spring 2019, Woodland Park Zoo staff and volunteers joined WDFW scientists to conduct short-eared owl and prairie falcon surveys. WDFW collaborates in an eight-state program to assess population trends of and threats to short-eared owls, resulting in data that directly influences conservation actions by agencies.


Good News for Columbia Basin Raptors

Migration Routes

“Oma,” a golden eagle captured and radio-tagged in 2014 who winters in eastern Washington, successfully hatched her first eaglet in British Columbia in 2018, an international success story.

Scientific Data

In 2018, five golden eagles were radio-tagged, joining nine others, to provide data that helps WDFW assess populations, activity within historical breeding territories, and how nesting eagles navigate around wind turbines. WDFW also monitors lead levels in eagles, ingested when they feed on the remains of animals shot with lead ammunition, to determine the threat that lead poisoning poses.

Field Observations

For years, WPZ staff has conducted observations at hawk nesting sites at wind turbine projects in north central Oregon. Their field role is to observe nesting buteos (red tailed hawks, Swainson's hawks and ferruginous hawks) and record any interaction a raptor has with a wind turbine. Interaction is described as any time a raptor comes within 400 feet of a turbine on any side.

Over the years WPZ keepers have logged more than 265 hours of observation, and recorded 265 hawk visits to the encounter zone. In addition, the zoo has participated in bald eagle rehabilitation, giving us an opportunity to heal and display injured birds.



Raptors of the Columbia Basin need plenty of prey, wide open spaces to hunt and nest, and a healthy habitat to survive. You can help make these things possible by taking a few simple actions at home:

  • Lead contamination appears to be a serious threat to golden eagles. If you hunt, you can play a big part in stopping lead contamination from ammunition sources. Reduce your use of lead shot to eliminate lead in the environment. Talk to your local hunting supplier for lead-free alternatives.
  • Climate change threatens raptors, specifically landscape loss due to more frequent and larger wildfires as well as heat waves that jeopardize young birds in the nest. Do your part to mitigate your carbon footprint at home and advocate for climate change actions at the local and federal level.
  • Loss and degradation of shrub steppe habitat in Washington state’s Columbia Basin has reduced nesting sites and prey availability for ferruginous hawks and golden eagles. Get involved in habitat restoration and learn more about protecting these landscapes, especially if you are a community member in this area.



Ferruginous Hawks

These threatened hawks are a regal icon of the American west. They can be seen soaring over plains, prairie and dry grassland to swoop towards snakes, squirrels and rabbits in the sagebrush below. These raptors are migratory, coming to Washington to breed and raise their young in the arid shrub-steppe habitat, and spending winters as far south as Mexico.

Rough-legged Hawks

Rough-legged Hawks are close relatives of the Ferruginous hawk. Arctic populations fluctuate with rodent populations such as lemmings and voles. Soaring in cold arctic climates, these powerful raptors thrive in tundra regions, but spend winter farther south in areas like the Columbia Basin region. They are named for their feathered legs which is an adaptation for staying cozy in frigid arctic weather.

Golden Eagles

Inhabit the shrub steppe area year-round and are a candidate for listing in Washington as threatened. They are about the same size as a bald eagle and prey mainly on rodents but may scavenge carrion (meat of dead animals). These magnificent hunters watch for prey from high perches or while soaring on air currents over slopes. They may mate for life and build large nests on cliff edges or large trees.

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owls are often active during daylight, at dawn and dusk, and hunt low over fields and open grasslands. Their floppy wingbeat makes them appear much like a giant moth. Their prey consists of mostly rodents including voles, lemmings, mice and rabbits. When flirting, males spiral up into the air while making short, rapid hoots to woo a potential partner. Their nests are made in depressions in the dirt, built among tall grass or shrubs to keep the hatchlings hidden.

The raptors decline in shrub steppe habitats in the Columbia Basin ecoregion is most directly related to agricultural conversion that has resulted in loss of prey. However, lead contamination appears to be another serious threat, as are illegal poaching, electrocution and threats from climate change such as wildfires and heat waves.



Our Mission

Woodland Park Zoo saves wildlife and inspires everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives.

Land Acknowledgment

Woodland Park Zoo recognizes that these are the lands of the Tribal signatories of the Treaty of Point Elliott. We acknowledge their stewardship of this place continues to this day and that it is our responsibility to join them to restore the relationship with the living world around us.

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