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As the human population continues to skyrocket, so does the number of people living in or around urban areas. So, what does this mean for local wildlife? FIU Tropics PhD student  explores this question in a unique study focused on an avian apex predator that flies above our own backyard.

Through her work with our Department of Biological Sciences and major advisor Dr. Joel Trexler, Molfetto is researching how urban habitats have impacted Red Shouldered Hawk demographics in South Florida. By studying how this generalist raptor species is adapting to urbanization, her work will offer clues that reveal how more specialized species and top predators might adapt.

The study also distinctively highlights the broader role that birds play in the field of urban ecology. As Molfetto explains, however, birds play far more than just an ecological role in the world— they also stand to connect people with the nature that unassumingly surrounds them.

“More and more people are living in cities and don’t have a connection to nature. As these birds come into cities, it’s a reminder that nature happens everywhere.”

When environments change, top predators are sadly the first to suffer. Although the majority of studies on urban ecology have focused on mammals, as the most visible type of urban wildlife, bird populations can actually serve as indicators of environmental well-being.

A top avian predator that frequents both national parks and college campuses like the Red Shouldered Hawk therefore makes the perfect research subject. What’s more, their striking feathers, distinct call, and heavy presence in South Florida make them easy- and exciting -to spot.

By collecting data on the first-year survival, reproductive productivity, and diet of this species across an urban gradient, Molfetto will be able to examine how urban habitats impact these demographics in South Florida— a place that is near and dear to the Miami native.

“I grew up in South Florida and I love this place. It should be known as an amazing wild place. We’re the only county in the lower 48 states with two national parks, we have over 400 bird species, and so many endangered species than make their home here.”

Already broadening her experience as a Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Graduate Fellow, Molfetto is determined to use her research experience to someday leverage policy that protects the wild places of her state and country.

To learn more about this work, visit the South Florida Raptor Study website. If you spot any Red Shouldered Hawks in your area, please contact Donna at