Her work is one piece of a collaborative conservation project aimed, in part, at helping the nearly extinct population of Pinzón Giant Tortoises recover from the brink of extinction. (More on project details from a previous post here.)
“The experience has been both exhilarating and exhausting,” said Ponder, executive director of The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.
While rodenticide was applied to the Galapagos Island of Pinzón—the geographical center of the Galapagos archipelago—to help restore the ecosystem altered by invasive rodents introduced in the 17th century, Ponder was tasked with keeping hawks away from some of their usual prey—the island’s invasive black rats.
These rats have prevented the island’s Pinzón Giant Tortoise from successfully reproducing in the wild for nearly 150 years by preying on eggs and hatchlings. For more than 45 years, Pinzón tortoises have been raised in captivity and then returned to the wild when they are more “rat-proof” at about 4 years of age.
To prevent the hawks from consuming the rats, Ponder led the construction of a temporary enclosure for the birds on the island. She eventually captured 60 total fledglings, adult and juvenile hawks, instead of the expected 30-40 birds.
“The island’s hawks were curious about us,” said Ponder. “They would come near us to explore and investigate our presence.”
The hawks’ comfort with humans, in addition to their normally harsh environment that often makes locating food a difficult task, made the hawks relatively easy to capture and bring into safety.
But it was a tight squeeze, with 60 birds in a facility built for 30-40.
“We had to build an addition,” said Ponder, referencing a thirteenth room that was later added to the birds’ enclosure.
The hawks are generalists in their hunting habits and dietary choices; while the rats made up a part of their diet, prey as varied as insects and other birds are known to be choices, and are available to the hawks post-release. The hawks are expected to be released back onto the island December 21-23 by The Raptor Center staff member, Gail Buhl.
Learn more about the Galapagos island conservation project partners Galapagos National Park and Island Conservation, the Charles Darwin Foundation, Bell Laboratories, the Galapagos Government Council and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust here.