Wednesday, July 25, 2012

They shoot hawks, don't they?

Ring-necked Pheasant

I was out of town for the past couple of weeks, and came home to a Google alert and half a dozen emails calling my attention to a Duluth News-Tribune op-ed from Sunday, in what the paper titled “Birder’s View: Hawks are eating all the songbirds.” Someone named Lars Fladmark, credited as an avid birder, wrote a passionate but disturbingly ignorant diatribe about hawks. He started by referring to Koni Sundquist’s recent point-of-view about the tragic decline in many of our most beloved songbirds, and wrote, “I started noticing a fall-off in numbers several years ago and even called local birding expert Laura Erickson to see if there were any known reasons. As Sundquist’s column suggested, people much more knowledgeable than me don’t know the reason.”

I don’t recall talking to Mr. Fladmark. He’s apparently one of the many people who call me at home expecting instant bird information. Something as complex as why birds are declining can’t quickly be summarized for an unexpected phone call. I wrote an entire book, 101 Ways to Help Birds, which touched on a great many things that are hurting birds, individually and as populations. The over 700 species of birds in North America each faces unique issues. Mr. Fladmark is right—I don’t know “the reason,” because there isn’t a single reason. But he thinks he’s figured it all out. He writes, “The birds have gone to lunch. It’s really that simple.” He describes gruesome kills of pheasants he stocked on his North Dakota property and claims that hawks are killing them all. He explains: “I used to believe hawks ate gophers, mice and other creatures. That’s propaganda. A hawk is designed to kill what flies. Clumsy on the ground, agile and fast in the air, hawks are equipped with talons and a beak that rival any butcher-shop tools. And they hunt and kill repetitively all day long.”

Ring-necked Pheasant

I do understand how difficult it is for many of us to observe predation first hand. I’ve averted my eyes more than once when a hawk has snatched up one of my backyard birds, and had a hard time looking at the dead pheasants and ducks my brother brought home. But although he is a hunter himself, Mr. Fladmark was so traumatized by witnessing hawk kills that he doesn’t consider that pheasants might be disappearing due to his land management, which he describes as simple shelterbelts of juniper between cornfields. According to the pheasant entry in The Birds of North America, published by the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, pheasants succeed in hay and grain agricultural areas, “especially areas with grassy field borders, wetlands, and numerous small patches of idle land with tall grass, forbs, and lesser amounts of brush and trees.” According to his own description, he’s providing far more limited habitat.

He said, “On my land, 13 miles from town, there’s not a bird to be seen, not even the ubiquitous meadowlark. ... Lots of trees on my land but, sadly, no birds.” He blames this on the presence of hawks, but what does he think they’re eating, if there are no birds except the pheasants he brings in? I’m one of the people most vociferously talking about the declines of many birds, but I’ve yet to find a spot where I can’t find any birds at all. Continent-wide, those “ubiquitous meadowlark[s]” are indeed declining, but that is due to a whole panoply of causes, including pesticides, changes in large-scale farming practices, feral and farm cats, and mowing fields during nesting season. Where Western Meadowlark numbers in North Dakota are fairly stable, it’s attributed at least in part to the amount of native habitat remaining and to the amount of cultivated land that is seeded to perennial cover—not to the corn and junipers that Mr. Fladmark believes are all any birds need for healthy lives. If his 320-acre farm is indeed as devoid of birds as he claims, he’d be wise to look objectively at what’s wrong with his farm rather than blaming his problems on hawks.

Eastern Meadowlark

I can’t possibly name all the reasons that birds are declining in a brief commentary, but they include cats and windows, which each kill half a billion to a billion birds each year in the U.S. They also include lead shot and bullets poisoning ground feeding birds as well as scavengers, communications towers, pesticides, habitat destruction, automobile collisions, mercury and other toxins, diseases such as West Nile Virus, and our skewing the natural balance in a great many ways. In some cases, this may include skewing the numbers of some hawks as well as geese, crows, and other birds that capitalize on a human-altered environment. Many of these changes were mushrooming at the same time that we started protecting raptors. For every species that is thriving near humans, from Bald Eagles, Cooper’s Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Peregrine Falcons to crows, robins, starlings, Canada Geese, and Wild Turkeys, there are many more that haven’t been able to adapt to the changes we’ve made to the landscape and to our climate.

Mr. Fladmark concludes his essay with the profoundly ignorant yet provocative question, “Now, should we not convert Hawk Ridge to the Hawk Ridge Raptor Shooting Center?” As long as he brought my name into his essay as an “expert,” I’ll answer his question with my expert answer. Absolutely not.