March 3, 2017

Like a Hawk

The problem with wildlife is that the creatures in your garden haven’t seen all those Walt Disney movies and so they don’t know how they’re supposed to behave.  It isn’t just that they don’t spontaneously break out into cute songs.  It’s that they behave like, well, animals.
Take our birdfeeders.  Back in November, we purchased a twin-hooked steel pole, an Audubon-approved feeder, a 50-pound bag of sunflower seeds, a suet cage, and a six-pack of suet cakes.  We placed the pole out behind our house and almost immediately were inundated with birds.  And, not just any birds.  We had chickadees, house wrens, flickers, downy woodpeckers, and orioles.  We were stewards of the land.
We felt so good about the first pole that we acquired a second one and mounted a worm feeder atop it, then stocked the feeder with freeze-dried meal worms (who knew?) to attract yet other bird species.  That was followed in short order by a third pole with still another seed feeder and suet cage.
The enemy
Then, two things happened.  First, squirrels discovered the feeders.  We would see them during the day, sitting around in the trees, smoking little cigarettes, shooting craps and listening to gangsta rap, waiting for us to turn out the lights in the house.  Late at night they would then quickly scale the poles, knock much the seed out of the feeders, and gorge themselves until dawn.  Come daylight, we would find empty feeders and obese squirrels. 
Worse, one squirrel crew set about chewing off the bottommost two perches.  One morning we discovered they had very nearly succeeded in chewing through the connecting pins that held the bottom of the feeder together.  One more pin and there would have a glorious avalanche of seed that would have found a place in the lore of the Grand Council of Squirrels.  That feeder is now held together with steel-infused strapping tape.
Squirrels tried to gnaw out
the bottom of the feeder
We reminded ourselves that we had put up bird feeders.  Not squirrel feeders.  We began greasing the poles and took pleasure at watching squirrels take flying leaps onto the poles, only to slide ignominiously down to the ground; the seed safe from their gluttonous grasp.
But then, without notice, the second thing happened: the birds disappeared.  We tried to tell ourselves that our neighbors must have put up newer, better feeders; possibly with live music and a cappuccino machine.  It made no sense that we would be so readily abandoned.
One afternoon two weeks ago, we were chatting with our across-the-street neighbor.  Her two boys have a seasonal ice rink in their front yard and can skate on it for hours.  But, our neighbor said, sometimes the boys put down their hockey sticks in fascination just to watch and admire the hawk.
“What hawk?” we asked.
Yep, there's a hawks nest
Our neighbor obligingly pointed to a sixty-foot-tall pine at the front of our property and move her finger up the tree trunk.  There, fifty feet up in the air, was a massive aerie.  From it, a hawk could gaze up and down the street looking for unsuspecting mice and moles.  And, by turning its head just a little to the right, it could monitor the comings and goings at our feeders.
Hawks are carnivores. It is well known that hawks eat small mammals such as mice, rats, voles and other rodents. Less well known is that hawks – and especially red-tailed hawks like the one we had seen numerous times in the wetlands behind our home – also eat smaller birds, frogs and reptiles.  (When a two-foot-long garter snake disappeared from our garden, Betty did not go looking for a culprit.)
When a bird is snatched from a feeder by a hawk, the other birds scatter and look for less vulnerable feeding spots.  After a period of time, they’ll return to the scene of the abduction.  It’s a cycle that will repeat itself as long as supplemental feeding is needed.
'Our' red-tailed hawk
What’s a steward of the land to do?  It is not that we placed the feeders in too exposed an area.  The tree canopy is less that twenty feet away and birds perch within a few seconds flight from the feeders.  But hawks are excellent hunters, and they are silent and swift. We’ll leave the feeders in place until our over-wintering avian friends no longer have use for them.  As for the hawk, it’s part of nature.  Hawks got to hunt.

But the squirrels?  Let them order take-out pizza or whatever those Disney rodents live on.  I’m going to keep greasing those poles.