When Its Rainforest Disappeared, This Raptor Became a Beach Bum

To save the critically endangered Ridgway’s hawk, scientists sent it to this Dominican resort town.

Ross Tsai/Flickr

There are plenty of luxury resorts where you can find palm trees, infinity pools, and catamarans. But only in the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana can you sip piña coladas in the sand as critically endangered, snake-snatching birds of prey circle the Caribbean skies above.

Ridgway’s hawks haven’t always indulged in the all-inclusive lifestyle, though. After decades of habitat loss from rampant deforestation, fewer than 150 breeding pairs of these birds remain. So conservationists with the Peregrine Fund, an organization with a mission to save raptors all around the world, brought the hawks to the Punta Cana area in 2009 in the hope that the birds could establish a new foothold for their rapidly dwindling numbers.

Ridgway’s hawks were once common across Hispaniola, the island the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti, but the population took a nosedive after rainforests were cleared for livestock grazing and coffee plantations. By the 1980s and ’90s, Los Haitises National Park, about 80 miles northwest of Punta Cana, had become their only refuge—if you could call it that.

Even within the confines of a national park, the birds were vulnerable to human interference. No one is really sure why, but the hawks have acquired an unfortunate reputation for being chicken hunters—even with only one recorded instance of a Ridgway’s eating a single week-old chick. The bad rap has been enough to drive locals to kill the raptors on sight. This means shooting them with guns, throwing sticks and rocks at their nests, and even setting their trees on fire.

The situation is so bad that a 2015 study published in Bird Conservation International found that 60 percent of the 216 Ridgway’s nests monitored by scientists between 2005 and 2009 had failed to produce a fledgling. The scientists attributed most of these failures to direct human disturbance.

But the tide may have begun to turn for these beleaguered birds. The Peregrine Fund started working on Hispaniola in 2002, sending scientists and volunteers to rural areas around Los Haitises National Park to talk about the birds and their plight. They provided conservation and biodiversity teaching material for classrooms and planned conservation-minded activities for communities, like field trips so kids could see these animals in the wild. Local attitudes toward the birds are slowly softening, and the fund is even trying to get the government to declare May 25 as Ridgway’s Hawk Day to help ingratiate the raptors to their fellow Dominicans.

But the species needs more than a public relations campaign. In the past century, Ridgway’s hawks have disappeared from 96 percent of their former territory—a surprising statistic since we are not talking about ecologically picky birds here. One study found that these raptors were once common in “nearly every terrestrial cover type” on the island, at elevations from sea level up to 6,500 feet. They eat lots of snakes and skinks, but also frogs, bats, and mice. Heck, they’ll even munch on centipedes in a pinch.

Life's a beach for Ridgway's hawks at the Puntacana Resort and Club

PresidenciaRD/Flickr

This is why the Peregrine Fund started capturing wild Ridgway’s hawks and then releasing them around the Puntacana Resort and Club in 2009. Conservationists thought that because the birds are so highly adaptable, they might be able to make do in the more touristy settings along the island’s coastlines.

And they were right—the birds seem to have taken to these posh environs quite nicely. In a study published in October in The Condor, scientists showed that translocated juveniles not only survived the move to the resort but were more likely to pair up and start pumping out chicks than the juveniles in the rainforest of the national park.

The scientists’ hunch is that back in the forest, the young bloods would have to compete with older, more mature males for breeding rights. But at the resort, there’s more room to spread out and fewer birds to compete with. (Or maybe love is just in the air. White-sand beaches and copious frozen drinks have been known to turn human honeymoons into babymoons, after all.)

The tourists seem to like them too. Russell Thorstrom, a coauthor of the new paper and the Peregrine Fund’s program director, says local schools come and visit the release sites, as do nature-minded vacationers. And the Puntacana Resort and Club has even provided support for the reintroduction effort through donations of supplies, building materials, lodging, and food to the personnel.

Of course, life at a beach resort isn’t all paradise. While the birds are less likely to be shot by a farmer, they are more likely to get hit by a car or zapped by electric lines.

The good news, says Thorstrom, is that the conservationists and utilities can eliminate the power line problem by retrofitting the conductors, wires, and poles to make them less lethal to wildlife. The Peregrine Fund and organizations such as Grupo Puntacana Fundación and Fundación Propagas have been working with local utility contractors to ensure that more than 100 power lines in and around Punta Cana have received hawk-proofing.

The Ridgway’s hawk still has a long way to go, but Thorstrom is optimistic. The species’ population has doubled since the early 2000s, and next year Thorstrom and his team will begin searching for another site where these birds can experience the good life.

Who knows―maybe you’ll be able to cross the Ridgway’s hawk off your bird-sighting list the next time you plan a little fun in the sun. The odds of seeing this critically endangered raptor are about as good as they’ve been in a century.


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