In response: Hawks and songbirds have coexisted for eons, so maybe we're the problem
After reading the July 22 "Birder's View" column, "Hawks are eating all the songbirds," I felt compelled to respond in defense of raptors. The foundation of writer Lars Fladmark's argument seemed to be that the federal protection of raptors has a...
After reading the July 22 "Birder's View" column, "Hawks are eating all the songbirds," I felt compelled to respond in defense of raptors.
The foundation of writer Lars Fladmark's argument seemed to be that the federal protection of raptors has allowed their populations to ravage the populations of songbirds. He wrote, "Think back to when raptors became federally protected and follow the decline of the birds." However, with the exceptions of eagles and threatened and endangered species, raptors are only federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, an act that also protects 800 non-raptor species.
The hawks that kill pheasants in the Dakotas are broad-winged soaring hawks called buteos, a group that includes the red-tailed hawk. Generally speaking, 80 percent to 90 percent of its diet is rodents; this is not "propaganda." The other 10 percent to 20 percent of its diet is comprised of reptiles and birds. The reason buteos eat so few birds is they can't catch them. They are nowhere near fast enough or agile enough to survive on swift, evasive songbirds. Contrary to Fladmark's assertion, they are not "designed to kill what flies."
Now bring ring-necked pheasants into the picture. These delicious, largely terrestrial and relatively slow birds were introduced to the United States as a game bird in the 1880s. They are now the ecological equivalent of a Chinese fast-food restaurant: The foreign birds are tasty, easy and abundant, and the hawks are capitalizing on it, as would any predator worthy of the title. No
80 percent to 90 percent rodent diet for these hawks; they can survive on pheasants alone. No wonder Fladmark saw so many hawks circling his pheasant farm -- it was a buffet.
As for hawks eating songbirds: while buteos are not agile enough to survive on songbirds, accipiters, another group of hawks, are. They're smaller and nimbler, and they eat songbirds almost exclusively. Contrary to Fladmark's "hawks avoid human presence" comment, accipiters have adapted so well to urban populations they are now commonplace in cities. They're especially fond of pigeons and are patrons of backyard birdfeeders. With such natural predation within city limits, hawks, yet again, are not the reason for the avian barrenness of Fladmark's properties.
Predator-prey relationships keep the natural world alive. It's a balancing act: If there are too many predators, they will eat all the prey and die out from starvation, and then the prey populations will rebound. If there are not enough predators, the prey populations will skyrocket until either the predator populations catch up or until disease epidemics occur (think chronic wasting disease among deer and elk). Along with all other animals, raptors and songbirds have been dancing this dance for millions of years. A federal law that protects all of these birds merely gives nature room to behave naturally.
I do not know why songbird populations are declining, but rather than advocating the illegal shooting of an ecologically essential group of birds, as Fladmark did, let's try looking at man-made causes of avian mortality: window strikes (97 million birds per year), car strikes (60 million), electrocution (tens of thousands, although more than 35 percent of those are raptors and 34 percent are ravens (federal protection only goes so far)), and more (read up at sibleyguides.com).
I can only assume Fladmark's unfounded and misinformed bias against hawks is a direct result of his understandable fondness for songbirds and game birds. He seems to take the natural predation of these birds as a personal affront. Perhaps if he learned to appreciate raptors the way he does the other birds, he wouldn't feel the need to encourage the persecution of these beautiful animals.
Sarah Schmeer of Fort Collins, Colo., has worked in bird of prey rehabilitation and environmental conservation education for the past eight years.