The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey sees nearly 800 raptors come through its Raptor Trauma Clinic each year. The victims of vehicle strikes, environmental toxins, and other human-wildlife conflict, babies that fall from their nests or become orphaned, and those with unexplained illnesses, all have a chance of survival in the capable hands of the clinic staff. But each patient also provides a goldmine of data for scientists to better understand raptors and their habitats, diets, threats, genetics, and much more.
The Center frequently collaborates with researchers from around the state, the country, and even the world to improve the field of raptor conservation. Many of these collaborations come from the nearby University of Central Florida (UCF), where researchers have used data from the Center to study the abundance of microplastics in the environment, the presence of different species of external parasites, and the bioaccumulation of heavy metals in the bodies of raptors, to name a few.
In 2018, UCF Department of Biology graduate Julia Carlin partnered with Audubon Raptor Conservation Specialist Sam Little to study the frequency of microplastics in the digestive tracts of native Central Florida raptors. The individuals studied were all nonmigratory, inlanddwelling birds that were either dead on arrival at the Raptor Trauma Clinic or died within 24 hours of arrival. The findings were astounding: All 63 birds examined had microplastics in their digestive systems, totaling more than 1,200 pieces of plastic. The study was the first to look at microplastics in raptors specifically — while fish and seabirds are well studied, the protected status of many raptor species makes it difficult to study them. The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey holds all necessary permits to perform and participate in research. Read Carlin’s thesis here: bit.ly/47YwHoa.
Another UCF graduate is working with the Center to find reliable, non-lethal sampling methods for detecting heavy metal pollutants in birds of prey. Starting in 2019, Jennifer Bouchenot focused her research on the blood feathers of Red-shouldered Hawks, hypothesizing that these feathers, which contain an active blood supply, could provide an accurate yet easily collectible sample of heavy metals in a bird’s internal organs.
Retrieving samples from live birds allows scientists to view the birds as biomonitors, canaries in the coal mine of a polluted ecosystem. In the four years since her research began, Bouchenot continues to pursue more accurate, less invasive sampling methods: Her latest involves a device used to detect heavy metals in soil. Read Bouchenot’s thesis here: bit.ly/46ZzRqD.
The Center for Birds of Prey is well known for its rehabilitation program, but the research happening here has implications beyond any individual bird. In working with researchers across the country and within Central Florida, the Audubon team makes the most of these opportunities to advance raptor science, benefitting these species long into the future.