Hope for Things with Feathers

One state’s efforts to save birds of prey provides case studies for conservationists everywhere, in a small but richly illustrated package.

The Raptors of Iowa. Paintings by James F. Landenberger. Essays by Dean M. Roosa, Jon W. Stravers, Bruce Ehresman and Rich Patterson. 103 pages. University of Iowa Press.

The broad-winged hawk, as painted by James F. Landenberger. From The Raptors of Iowa.
The broad-winged hawk, as painted by James F. Landenberger. From The Raptors of Iowa.

Raptors may not be the first group that comes to mind when considering Iowa’s birds. Indeed, having grown up bird-watching in the state, my childhood memories of raptors are rather scarce and largely limited to the satisfaction of seeing and identifying an occasional rough-legged hawk over the expansive snowy landscape during school-bus rides.

This slender volume serves less as a treatise on the raptors of Iowa (as the title suggests) than the result of a self-directed project the late artist James F. Landenberger set for himself: to paint nearly all of Iowa’s hawks, falcons, eagles, owls and vultures. Landenberger won awards for his paintings of wildlife, starting with waterfowl and later including songbirds, fish and other wildlife. Accompanying each painting is a brief paragraph noting details of each species’ life history and status in Iowa.

Besides the paintings, the collection includes four essays by Iowa wildlife conservation professionals. Each provides personal reflections either about Landenberger or, more often, about the author’s path to an interest in raptors and the changing status of raptor species in Iowa during the past century.

Dean Roosa relates childhood observations of hawks, which left lasting impressions, and describes memorable incidents while studying and banding nesting great horned owls. Roosa calls attention to well-known and now largely overcome problems with trapping and shooting of raptors and highlights successful raptor conservation programs in the state.

Significantly, these projects have taken place in the state where, as the author admits, the largest percentage of wildlife habitat has been lost.

Jon Stravers’ essay provides penetrating behavioral observations from his career studying red-shouldered hawks in northeastern Iowa. The red-shouldered is a woodland species and therefore rare in this row crop state. He also describes the phenomenon of fall migration in raptors and documents some significant recoveries of individual birds banded or recaptured after traveling great distances.

The book’s final and most instructive essay, by Bruce Ehresman, covers several specific raptor conservation projects that have taken place or are underway in Iowa. These projects should be viewed not as parochial descriptions of one state’s answer but, rather, as examples for opportunities available for successful conservation elsewhere. Significantly, these projects have taken place in the state where, as the author admits, the largest percentage of wildlife habitat has been lost. Barn owls, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks and ospreys are all benefiting from the attentions of wildlife managers. One of the most successful of these hands-on projects, and one that has been exported to many other states, is Iowa’s innovative American kestrel nest-box program. The vast agricultural fields of Iowa offer few trees and even fewer nest cavities for this small falcon, and the installation of more than a thousand nest boxes on the backs of state highway signs provides breeding sites coincident with linear strips of grassy roadside hunting habitat. Some two-thirds of these boxes are used each year, a testament to creative wildlife management.

The essays largely succeed in providing context for the book’s main purpose: the publication of Landenberger’s 32 bold and detailed raptor paintings. Most of these portrayals depict perches, vegetation and other intricate foreground elements that add to the overall aesthetic and help avoid the potentially stark iconography of portraits that lack environmental moorings. Many include postures of action or imminent action, such as recently captured prey or a momentarily unbalanced red-shouldered hawk alighting on a branch.

The Raptors of Iowa calls attention to the considerable diversity of birds of prey that can be found there if sought. Although more in-depth information about each species’ occurrence in Iowa would be welcome and might be expected given the book’s title, those with an interest in bird art or tales of raptor study may enjoy this volume.

A childhood interest in birding led Dan Reinking to a career in ornithology. He is a senior biologist with the George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center of the Oklahoma Biological Survey at the University of Oklahoma. He has conducted research on grassland birds and has coordinated Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas and Winter Bird Atlas projects.