Stravers speaks about new book, The Raptors of Iowa
By Molly Moser
“I could tell a lot of stories,” said author, raptor researcher, and musician Jon Stravers during a presentation at Guttenberg Public Library on Thursday, Dec. 12. Stravers is co-author of the recently published book The Raptors of Iowa, which includes illustrations by painter James F. Landenberger.
Stravers has dedicated 35 years of his life to researching raptors, and is considered an expert on the red-shouldered hawk and the cerulean warbler. “That’s part of why I ended up writing a book, because my life has revolved around the nesting of raptors and the migrating of raptors,” Stravers told a captive audience of over a dozen on Thursday evening.
After numerous rewrites and decades of struggle over a highly detailed, coffee-table style volume, Stravers was asked to use a different style of writing. “They wanted stories, which took a week and a half to write,” he laughed.
Secretly, teased the author, The Raptors of Iowa is a children’s book. “One page, one bird,” he explained, and went on to describe his appreciation for the book’s illustrations. Landenberger’s watercolor paintings of each of the thirty-three raptors described in the book are reproduced in color. While the painter’s style is often delicate and gentle, the raptors depicted still exude the nature of a predator.
“The red-shouldered hawk is the species that really hooked me,” Stravers told listeners. In the 1980s, only three red-shouldered hawk nesting sites were known. Stravers began spending time in territories favored by red-shoulders – areas like Sny McGill, where smaller streams enter the Mississippi. “That interspersion of water and forest is wonderful to me. Once I was in it, that was it.”
Stravers spoke against a backdrop of photographs he’s taken throughout a lifetime of research. Showing a watery forest snapshot, he said, “I’m on my way to work.” Stravers clicked over to a portrait of four young red-shouldered hawks, noting that they nested at a height of 62 feet. “At three-and-a-half weeks, their feet, legs, and bones are complete. They’re the size of an adult,” he said.
When asked how he got such an intimate photograph of a nest 62 feet above the forest floor, the raptor expert said, “I was right there. I was up the tree.” He later admitted, “I got my first contract before my training was even complete, because I could climb.”
Stravers has studied the red-shouldered hawk in detail. Around year 16, he says, he began to decipher the language of the birds. “The male usually yells to claim his territory,” Stravers explained. The female, he says, has a much larger vocabulary. “Two days a year, she uses one phrase right before she lays her eggs. She doesn’t use that phrase again until the next time she lays eggs,” Stravers gave as an example. The female red-shoulder has a phrase for courtship, a special language for hatchlings, and still further phrases for her young when they begin to venture out of the nest.
About five years ago, Stravers put his extensive knowledge about the habitat of red-shulders to use studying cerulean warblers. “Red-shoulders are an indicator. If they’re there, it’s a good river habitat that hosts a plethora of other birds, like ceruleans,” said Stravers.
According to the expert, the cerulean warbler is one of the rarest birds in the country. They live for seven months of the year in the mountains of Peru, Venezuela, and Bolivia, at an altitude of 4,000 feet. They take about a month to migrate to northeast Iowa, where Stravers has discovered 191 active cerulean habitats.
His work with cerulean warblers played a major role in the recent designation of Iowa’s first Globally Important Bird Area. The designation covers 135,000 acres of protected land, including Yellow River State Forest, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Pikes Peak State Park and the Bloody Run and Sny Magill-North Cedar state wildlife management areas.
Stravers concluded his presentation with images of his late son, who was also a raptor expert, and his grandchildren enjoying the outdoors. “You know, it’s not just about the birds,” he said. “Getting kids into the environment is a big deal – getting them connected, getting them comfortable being out in it.”
The author apologized during the presentation for “getting off track,” by sharing intriguing tales of travel, fieldwork, and family. The audience, however, was enthralled by the wisdom of such a knowledgeable author. Said Stravers, “If you have these stories, you’ve gotta tell ‘em once in a while.”