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California Drought 'Emaciates' Hawks and Owls, Forces a Lost Generation

By Michael Kuhne, AccuWeather.Com Staff Writer
June 7, 2014; 3:17 AM ET
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Perpetual drought across the coastal regions of Southern California has left raptors emaciated, contributing to silence in their once populated breeding grounds.

In regions usually swarming with hawks and other birds of prey, nests remain empty, Audubon California Bird Conservation Program Director Andrea Jones said.

"We're losing an entire generation," Jones said. "This has been going on for a while and we have seen significant declines in species including red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles and White-tail Kites."

(IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Thinkstock

A major contributing factor is the drastically reduced food supply consisting of insects and small mammals that various bird species feed upon.

"The impact of the drought has been pretty severe," Jones said. "We know that it is one of the worst breeding seasons on record."

Jones said that there have been very few active nests spotted, including a webcam set up to observe the nesting of Barn Owls located at Audubon California Starr Ranch Sanctuary.

"Birds are just not nesting," she said. "They're not laying eggs."

Even though one Barn Owl egg was laid at Starr Ranch Sanctuary, it was abandoned by its mother because the male quit supplying her with food, Jones said.

Barn Owls can lay many eggs at a time, but even the lonesome egg could not be supported this March. The embryo later died after being completely ignored upon its mother's return.

Jones said various species of bird are emaciated and are not exhibiting normal breeding behaviors.

"They're very thin," Jones said, adding that the raptors are coming into contact with humans more often because they have to venture into areas they normally do not to hunt.

(marcelauret/iStock/Thinkstock)

The drought is impacting the entire ecosystem - because of a lack of grass, which inhibits insects and small mammals from reproducing, it has reduced the supply of a variety of species, not just birds, she said.

Alleviating the drought is also dependent on the timing of the rainfall.

"You have to have rain at the right time of year," she said, adding that even if it rains, if it doesn't happen at the right time it does not allow the food supply to replenish itself.

Even in the Central Valley, California's rich agricultural hub, drought has drained water supplies for farmers and migratory birds alike.

Jones said the organization is working on conservation projects and policy to ensure there is water available for both farmers and bird species.

"It's going to be challenging in some places," she said. "We're working more on a policy level in keeping some of that water on wildlife refuges."

Animals that thrive in wetlands such as cranes and waterfowl are also at risk, she added.

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"The drought has impacted all birds because even song birds are dependent on insects," she said.

It is uncertain where many of the birds have gone, or to the extent in which their numbers have dwindled at this time, Jones said, adding that a better assessment of the situation will be available in the fall when millions of birds migrate to specific regions.

"We know where the birds will be and we can see what's going on and how the birds are doing," she said.

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