Did "Park Rangers and Vet Offices" put out warnings about an unusually high number of hawks endangering small pets this year? No, that's not true: This post has been circulating on social media for several years, at least since 2015, and the specific "Park Rangers and Vet Offices" that purportedly issued those warnings in the first place have never been identified. Raptor specialists say that hawks cannot carry more than their own weight, and that even a bald eagle could not carry off a 12-pound dog.
The "Hawk Warning" post has been on Facebook since October 23, 2015, and recently resurfaced in a post (archived here) published on March 11, 2021, with the caption, "Keep an eye on your pets!" It opened:
Park Rangers and Vet Offices are putting out warnings.
This year the hawks really seem out in force
The pets that are in real danger are ones who are 12 pounds and under.
These are the pets that hawks can swoop down and grab.
Do not leave your pets outside without supervision.
This post has some of the text marked out, presumably to spread to a wider audience. Earlier versions of the post specify:
...Out in force off the East Coast
This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:
(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Mar 16 18:20:53 2021 UTC)
The claims of the hawk warning post can be broken down into three questions:
- Were specific warnings issued by Park Rangers and Vet Offices?
- Can a hawk carry a small dog or cat?
- Is it safe to leave small pets outside unsupervised?
The answer to each of these questions is, no. This meme seems to have originated in the New Jersey area in 2015, and resurfaced the following year.
"Park rangers and vet offices"
Philadelphia.CBSlocal.com looked into the question in an article, "Experts: Recent Posts Warning Of Hawk Attacks On Pets Exaggerated" on March 9, 2016. KYW Newsradio was unable to find a local source of the warning:
The origin of this warning is unclear. KYW Newsradio checked with park rangers, vet offices, animal control departments and even Pennsylvania and New Jersey divisions of fish and wildlife ...and none of them know of any such hawk warning.
Hawks flying away with dogs and cats?
Lead Stories contacted three raptor experts for their take on the message conveyed in this meme.
We reached out by email to Erin Katzner, the director of global engagement at The Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho, a nonprofit organization with a mission to conserve birds of prey worldwide. Katzner responded on March 17, 2021, saying in an email:
Raptors can not lift more than their own body weight and large raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls typically weigh no more than four pounds. An eagle typically weighs closer to 9-10 lbs but is also very unlikely to attack a house pet. While a bird of prey could prey on a small house pet, it is uncommon for them to do so. It is always a good idea to keep an eye on small house pets when they are outdoors because of other predators who are more likely to prey on pets, like coyotes, and because of humans who may accidentally hit a pet with a car or pick up a pet thinking it is a stray.
Hawks, owls, and other birds of prey are very good parents and will defend a nesting territory from perceived threats. A pet could be a perceived threat, but so can people who venture within too close a radius of a bird's nest. Raptor territory size depends greatly on the species of bird. A bird of prey will defend their full territory from other birds of prey, but will only defend a small radius around their nest from pets and people.
While a bird of prey killing a house pet is uncommon, house pets killing birds (including fledgling birds of prey) is a serious threat. Research has shown that predation by domestic cats is the number one direct, human caused threat to birds in the U.S. and Canada every year. In the U.S. alone, outdoor cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. You can learn more about this serious issue at: abcbirds.org/program/cats-indoors/cats-and-birds
Lead Stories also contacted Raptor Rehab of Kentucky Inc. The mission of this nonprofit is to rehabilitate injured raptors, raise orphaned birds of prey and increase public awareness about the importance of raptors. We spoke with John Wicker, who said in a March 16, 2021, email :
The only Raptor that is a threat to (very) small dogs is The Great Horned Owl. Small dogs out at night could be food. Your dogs and cats face far more danger from other dogs and coyotes.
Yes- you have coyotes in your neighborhood!!!!
Are house pets safe outdoors?
We spoke by telephone on March 16, 2021, to Paul Strasser, a wildlife rehabber who works with raptors and North American wildlife at the nonprofit The Red Wolf Sanctuary in Indiana. His response, first and foremost:
Don't leave vulnerable pets out. Big eats little.
Strasser did not hesitate to acknowledge that small pets should be supervised and protected when outside -- but was the threat they faced going to come from above? That is very unlikely. Most hawks only weigh a pound or two. A hawk cannot carry more than its own weight, so it cannot fly off with a small house pet, but a hawk might injure a pet without carrying it away. Strasser also mentioned that unattended house pets are themselves responsible for a lot of harm to native wildlife.