Sunday, April 15, 2007

Your Feathered Jewel Might be a Hawk's Next Meal

For the better part of our country’s history, raptors were considered “vermin,” rapacious creatures to be shot on sight. Many States maintained bounties on raptors well into the 20th century. In the enlightened dawn of conservation in the early 1900s, learned individuals such as conservationist William T. Hornaday began preaching the concept of “good” hawks and “bad” hawks. In simple terms, buteos were judged to be “good” and accipiters “bad.” Even such notable contemporary artists, educators, and ornithologists as Louis Agassiz Fuertes*, Mabel Osgood Wright, and George Miksch Sutton railed against the dastardly habits of the bird-eating hawks. It may come as a shock to some that not until 1972 did all of the raptors (hawks and owls) receive full Federal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

This Cooper's Hawk has just devoured a Rock Pigeon. Photographed by Phil Eager, as originally posted to
Bildstein (2001) has written this interesting history (.pdf) of changing attitudes toward raptors. As he notes, the accipiters still have their detractors, and they come from a most unexpected quarter:
. . . many birdwatchers, especially those maintaining backyard birdfeeders, continue to call Hawk Mountain Sanctuary to express outrage at the seemingly persistent predatory activities of sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks at their bird feeders. Both species of accipiters appear to be increasingly willing to enter human-dominated landscapes; most likely in response to reduced human-caused mortality there. Although most callers seem resigned to this situation, particularly once they have been informed that removing a single raptor from a backyard is likely to be as ineffective as removing a single gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), others appear determined to “do something themselves” about the situation, including, a few have suggested, shooting the hawk (Bildstein, personal observation).
Such attitudes suggest that we still have a long ways to go in teaching basic principles of ecology and natural history to the general public. Seeing a hawk swoop in and grab a cardinal or goldfinch may be disturbing to the unitiated, but it's nature at its finest. Instead of bemoaning the loss of a favorite songbird, birdwatchers should rejoice at the chance to witness one of natures finest avian hunters in action. Those who persist in feeding the birds, should be prepared to offer up an occasional sacrifice to the hawks. They also have to eat.

Citation: Bildstein, Keith L. 2001. Raptors as vermin: a history of human attitudes towards Pennsylvania’s birds of prey. Endangered Species UPDATE 18: 124-128.

*A lengthy memorium written by Frank Chapman in honor of Louis Agassiz Fuertes can be read at the link below (HINT: to ensure that this lengthy .pdf document doesn't crash your computer follow these simple steps: right-click on the link, left-click "Save Target As...," left-click "Save," and left-click "Open"): Fuertes memorium.


Blogger John B. said...

It is interesting how food gets moralized. Hawks probably treat their prey more humanely than we do. But somehow the hawks end up being the bad guys.

April 15, 2007 9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My first thought on reading this post was, "Man, what I'd give to see a hawk swoop down onto my feeders!" That would be quite a sight.

I did once see a red-tailed hawk swoop out of an oak in Central Park and grab a rat out of the bushes behind the very bench my husband and I were sitting on. It returned to its perch and devoured the rat, piece by piece. Now THAT was a fantastic sight!

April 16, 2007 7:13 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Thanks for the comment, Iris. That sounds like it was quite an exciting day in Central Park!

April 16, 2007 8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the tiny little stream bed behind our house, with its pathetic "forest" of second growth and massive number of deer, we have quite a few raptors - possibly because we are so close to Rock Creek Park. Our galah (yes, captive-bred) alerts us to them with intense hysteria. Not a great strategy. He's already extremely conspicuous because he's bright pink (we say he's a color not found in nature) and now he's flapping around wildly and shrieking his head off. The appropriate response would be HIDE IN ONE OF THE MANY BOXES MOM AND DAD GAVE YOU. But he's a flocker by nature, and the appropriate response for flockers is to take wing and create chaos, because that reduces YOUR chances of being the one that gets nailed. So he's just doing what comes naturally. Nonetheless, it is still pretty funny to watch. We had hoped for a nest this year - a Red-tailed started to build but then thought better of it.

April 18, 2007 10:35 AM  
Blogger Patrick B. said...

It's interesting that the contemporary artists railed against the bird-eaters, but some of them had no problem shooting birds!

April 19, 2007 1:10 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

An interesting insight, Patrick, though I'm not sure to what degree Fuertes and Sutton worked from fresh specimens versus study skins, as is the wont of most of today's bird artists.

April 19, 2007 1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I usually side with the predators in this debate. It is strange how we tend to think of the small birds, the ones that frequent our feeders as somehow more valuable. I remember a friend in Fort Providence proudly telling me about killing a Shrike that had been preying on "his" birds, and wouldn't listen to any arguements about how shrikes relative rarity compared to the red polls it was feeding on, or how the shrike was just feeding at his feeder also, albeit differently.

We do tend to value "cuter" animals over others though, don't we?

April 19, 2007 11:37 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Yes, there is definitely a "cuteness" factor to be considered. Good point, Clare.

April 20, 2007 4:04 AM  
Blogger Rick Lee said...

My next-door neighbor feeds the birds. About 5 years ago I saw a red-tail hanging around occasionally. I also saw a pile of mourning dove feathers on the ground. I didn't see the deed, but I found it exhilarating. I am fascinated by raptors. I'd love to see more of them and fewer mourning doves any day.

April 22, 2007 10:12 PM  

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