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This Week’s Creature Feature: An Insidious Killer Gone Wild

Birds of prey falling victim to poisoned rodents

     I have lived in the same neighborhood and driven to work south from Annapolis on Route 2 just shy of 30 years. As a lifelong watcher of birds of prey, I have observed over the years where certain birds maintain territories and nesting sites. In 1995, my neighborhood was home to two pairs of red-shouldered hawks, one pair of red-tailed hawks and a pair of Coopers hawks. I knew where their nests were and watched as their offspring left the nest each year. As I took walks in the community, I carried a 400mm lens on my camera to catch them as they perched or soared near me. I saw at least one of the birds everyday.
      Likewise, as I drove, I would check up on other nesting pairs. There were red-shouldered hawk pairs near the water tower on Harry Truman Boulevard, another pair at the horse field across Rt. 2 from Gingerville,  another at Rt. 2 and Birdsville Road and just south of Southern High School. Red-tailed hawks don’t live as densely, but there was a pair whose nest was behind the old Hechingers, now Home Depot, in Parole.
      Over the last five years, I rarely see a hawk or find any nesting in any of the areas that I travel. 
      There are many reasons why the local population has decreased. The most likely cause started with new rodent-control agents. Second-generation rodenticides are an insidious killer of predatory animals like hawks. Poisons like bromadiolone, chlorophacinone, difethialone and brodifacoum (dCon) cause massive internal bleeding. Even if it doesn’t kill the rodent, it builds up in its tissues, weakening it. Sickened rodents, like rats, mice and squirrels become easy prey. If a hungry hawk eats several sick animals over even a week, the hawk can die as the poison accumulates. A study of ill owls and hawks brought in to Tufts Wildlife Clinic showed that 86 percent (139 of 161) were poisoned by rodenticides.  
      The politics of these poisons is complex. Between 1999 and 2003, they poisoned 25,549 children. Because of statistics like this,  the EPA removed the culprits from the home market in 2014 — but only after all stock was sold. However, they are still sold in bulk for agricultural use and professional extermination. The black boxes present around restaurants and shopping centers have rat poison in them, and is used extensively around farms.
       It has been difficult to find a substitute for long-acting poison as a cheap, effective form of pest control. One should be found.  
Correction to last week’s Creature Feature, Who’s an Albino? ­
      White deer in Seneca, New York, and white (gray) squirrels in Brevard, North Carolina are locally protected, not federally protected. White deer are targeted by many hunters and not protected in our area.