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Volume 15, Issue 33 ~ August 16 - August 22, 2007

Man against Bird

There are good birds and bad birds in the Burton book

Man’s hostility toward hawks and owls probably began when he questioned their right to kill and consume grouse, ducks or any other prey that might serve as food for himself.

–John J. Craighead and Frank C. Craighead Jr.

in Birds of Our Lives, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife book.

I’ve not directed much animosity at owls, but hawks — that’s another thing. Owls are nocturnal; they primarily do their dirty deeds under the cover of darkness. Hawks are daytime predators, and we see more of them.

My first brush with a hawk came when I was perhaps five or six visiting Grandma Burton’s New England farm. While Aunt Caroline was off teaching school, I tagged along behind, even when it came to things like cleaning the smelly hen house, as she was doing this particular day.

Grandma, a widow who appreciated company doing her chores, was shooing the hens outside through a small opening leading to their pen when I opened the main door to go outside and watch them emerge; two pullets escaped. No problem; I’d help Grandma round them up. One of my pleasures on my visits to the farm was helping shoo chickens or, even more exciting, the search for the milk cow on the not too infrequent occasions when she found a weak spot in the pasture fence.

Thanks to Aunt Caroline, I was a budding bird watcher. At a nearby stone wall, I would sometimes flush a covey of quail that Auntie called bobwhites, whose call she paused to listen to no matter what she was doing on the farm. Long before I got to the wall, the quail flushed. So did some meadowlarks.

Then a big bird, the biggest I had ever seen, came out of the sky and landed atop an apple tree behind the woodshed, eyeing one of the small hens. I ran inside to ask Grandma about this strange, big bird. Hoe in hand she looked out the door, then fast as she could headed to the tree waving the hoe and shouting shoo! shoo!

I was mystified; Auntie always cautioned me to be quiet and still when we saw birds. Yet here was Grandma ready to do battle with one. The big bird took off, and Grandma and I rounded the two hens into the pen. Then she took time to tell me about the intruder.

It was a chicken hawk, she said, a bird like an eagle that ate other birds and small animals. She didn’t want it around. Nor did I, with illusions of being carried off by one as I had seen in books about eagles. I knew eagles were around because Auntie told me about seeing a bald eagle on the farm.

There began my budding dislike for hawks. I was too young to understand the balance of nature, and for a few days I followed Grandma closely when outdoors. The fears vanished soon, but not my distaste for predators of the sky.

To Catch a Crow

When I came to Maryland 51 years ago, I took up crow shooting for a few years. They weren’t among my favorite birds, either. I recalled how they would eat freshly planted kernels of corn. A few times the corn had to be dipped in tar to discourage the crows. Grandma said they were also bad birds. That stuck.

I soon discovered Maryland crow hunters found their best shooting when they used a tethered hawk as a decoy. Crows live and fly in close-knit communities; when one is threatened, hundreds of others will answer its distress calls. We’d mimic that call with mouth calls. Crows would fly to aid a comrade, see the tethered hawk placed out in the open, call out — and quickly the skies would be filled with crows. We’d shoot until the barrels of our shotguns became hot.

I soon gave up crow shooting; I don’t want to kill anything not headed for the table, and I never met anyone who could vouch for crow as table fare, though I met a few who gave it a try.

The Law of the Backyard

During that time, conservation was making giant strides. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had banned the killing of hawks; still, some counties in Maryland were paying bounties on them; Washington and Frederick counties, as I recall, were among those, at the insistence of farmers.

My dislike for hawks went in remission until about 35 years ago, when I moved to Riviera Beach in North County and took up bird watching and feeding. I have 18 feeders and 21 birdhouses to tend. The few times the yard would go absolutely quiet, I could look around and see a hawk.

It wasn’t until a decade ago that I detected more periods of silence — and more hawks. I had built up a good colony of songbirds from Carolina wrens and cardinals to finches and sparrows. So I resented the times I felt I had to give up feeding until the hawks had moved on.

Last year, three Cooper’s hawks moved in, sometimes roosted practically side by side atop an old tall apple tree. There was nothing I could do about it. I discontinued feeding for three months. Only two reappeared this year, and they had become brazen enough to perch on the birdbath. Once again, the lawn was silent.

When I vacationed in Vermont two weeks ago, a friend, Denise Albrecht, took over watering plants and vegetables. That’s what she was doing when she noticed a lethargic big bird by the fence. It was a Cooper’s hawk. After making many calls she found a wildlife shelter in Dundalk. She carefully put the sick bird in a box and drove it there.

It was given shots and other medication. The preliminary diagnosis was West Nile disease or poison via a poisoned mouse or rat it consumed. The hawk died during the night. When I returned from Vermont, the lawn was alive with birdlife. I haven’t seen any signs of the last hawk, which I’m beginning to think suffered the same fate.

I can’t say I welcome their demise; that’s too drastic. But I don’t miss them. I do miss the quail. For years, I had one or two coveys on the slopes leading to Stoney Creek, and I put two and two together. The coveys vanished about the time the hawks moved in.

Studies in Georgia found two hawks the foremost enemies of quail: the sharp-shinned and the Cooper’s. Some hawks can be beneficial to bobwhites. The marsh hawk feeds on rats that destroy bobwhite eggs.

It’s a complex world out there in the backyard. I learn something new almost every day. And I know if those three hawks are gone for good, others will one day replace them. Nature hates a vacuum, but I’m going to enjoy it while I can. The songbirds and squirrels hereabouts will be well fed with much to sing about. Enough said.

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