Birder's View: Hawks are eating all the songbirds
For six years I debated sending this letter but always decided against it as I didn't want to become the most unpopular man in Duluth. Koni Sundquist's "Birder's View" column on June 24 ("Where have all the birds gone?) reminded me, rather sharpl...
For six years I debated sending this letter but always decided against it as I didn't want to become the most unpopular man in Duluth. Koni Sundquist's "Birder's View" column on June 24 ("Where have all the birds gone?) reminded me, rather sharply, however, that it's time to put up or stay shut up.
Like Sundquist, I am an avid bird lover and bird feeder. I recall fondly the hundreds of grosbeaks that used to flock around our feeders on their spring and fall migrations, plus all the other varied species that made filling the feeders a morning and evening joyous duty. 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.
But I'm afraid I do know the reason -- at least in part.
The birds have gone to lunch. It's really that simple. Allow me to explain.
Among the birds I treasure is the Chinese ringneck pheasant. I treasure it so much that when I retired I purchased a 320-acre farm in North Dakota. I always considered the pheasant the finest game bird in existence, and I've spent many great years avidly pursuing pheasants. Not this time, however. My purpose with the farm was to learn if their reproduction rate could be increased significantly if land was managed solely to provide good habitat and feed. Not for hunting. I've shot only two pheasants in my 10 years there, and that was just to remind my dog what she was supposed to do.
Each year I have stocked 200 to 300 adult pheasants but only 10 roosters. I've planted 50 acres of corn and left it standing, stocked 19 feeders in the winter and planted 440 juniper trees for shelter belts, etc. Reproduction was my goal, so my program should have been successful, right? Wrong. It failed badly.
While the local pheasant population certainly expanded somewhat during this period, my estimate is that we never achieved more than a 2 percent reproduction rate in our best year. Why?
From morning until night there were five or six hawks in the air at all times over my land killing any bird they could find, from chicks on the ground to full-grown pheasants in the air. With great eyesight, hawks can spot any pheasant moving from any height, even under heavy cover. They land near the bird and scare it into flight. Within about 100 yards they hit the bird, break its wing and land to eat the bird alive. I've watched this too many times, and it's always the same. And the sounds are enough to make you ill. I've scared up hawks in the process of dining to see a bird half-eaten with its eyes still staring at me.
So, you ask, what does that have to do with songbirds? The answer is: everything. Until this experience, 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.
A full-grown pheasant in the air is as good as dead.
At first I didn't correlate this to songbirds. However, I have a house in a small town called Gackle, N.D., that Sundquist would love in the summertime. Birds and birdsong everywhere: mourning doves, swallows, purple martins, robins in profusion. But only in town. On my land, 13 miles from town, there's not a bird to be seen, not even the ubiquitous meadowlark. The only birds that nest and survive in the greater Gackle area are those in town where hawks avoid human presence. Lots of trees on my land but, sadly, no birds.
This is the last year of my North Dakota experience, as declining health forces the issue. But I'm quite confident of my analysis. Think back to when raptors became federally protected and follow the decline of the birds. Watch the hawks follow and feed on the annual bird migration. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" may well occur, but not because of DDT. Rather, a misguided law could be to blame.
There is a cardinal rule that should never be forgotten: When you move to protect a predator, you declare war on its prey.
Now, should we not convert Hawk Ridge to the Hawk Ridge Raptor Shooting Center?
Lars Fladmark is an avid birder who lives in Duluth.