The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Angel of Death
by Ronald Smith, McAllen Monitor

The Angel of Death haunts our backyard. She comes silently and swiftly on broad wings between the houses or dropping over the hedge. Sometimes, she courses the length of the corridor past our sunroom and living room windows. We have been amazed by her plunges into the foliage, twisting through the tangled branches without a pause.

We are aware of her strikes even when we cannot see her. The Plain Chachalacas signal them with raucous outbursts.

Our "angel" is a female Cooper's Hawk, one of the accipiter genus, that clan of short-winged, long-tailed raptors that usually prey on smaller birds and rodents.

They will actually chase prey on foot into the bushes. I saw a program once in which an accipiter was filmed slashing through a maze of branches and leaves which had been fiendishly constructed by scientists. Slow motion film showed the bird's remarkable contortions and skillful moves to avoid an accident such a predator cannot afford to have. The short wings and the long tail rudder are perfect adaptations in this kind of chase.

Appropriately, today the hawk struck at the House Sparrows in our very large Turk's Cap shrub. All avian protests exploded. My wife opened the sunroom door and yelled. The hawk burst out of the cover and fled. Not ten minutes later she returned, shooting into the shrub oblivious to any interference. Another human protest, and she left.

Ours is probably a young bird, mostly brown with streaked breast and glaring yellow-eyes. There is a male about, too. He is slate-gray and rusty-barred, red-eyed and somewhat smaller, as are most male hawks. (A very similar species is the Sharp-shinned Hawk, famous for the biggest reverse sexual dimorphism in North American birds! Don't be alarmed: this is not a Dr. Phil show title. RSD just means that contrary to most creatures, the males are smaller, about eleven inches, than the females, sometimes weighing 3.5 ounces to the ladies' 6 ounces.)

Our yard raptors are both dramatic and beautiful but also a threat to the creatures in our microcosm here. They live to kill. Hence, we have a dilemma. Their presence is due to the bird feeders and bird baths we scatter about the yard in order to enjoy our love of nature and its feathered beauties.

True, they do not always take their target. Studies have shown that the rate of success of an attack may be way less than 50 percent, and they might go a day or so without a kill. One could say that a House Sparrow here or there or a Great-tailed Grackle a day would not be missed in the scheme of life, but would we like it if they picked off a Great Kiskadee or a Northern Cardinal? We humans are such discriminators. We have good birds and bad birds!

Then there is the argument that this is merely the balance of nature: those who prey are preyed upon. You know the old cartoon of the fish sequence in which larger ones continue to devour the smaller ones in a chain of survival.

Because of our desire to observe nature and hold it closely, we have created a convenient killing field. However, think about this: millions of birds are killed every year by house cats that are allowed to roam, high rise glass buildings, cell, radio and TV towers, and in Europe and Asia, people still slaughter hawks and owls on their migratory routes. Perhaps it is better to turn our attention to all of these rather than worry about our backyard Angel of Death. Humans interfere with the natural world in so many ways --- we like to think our way is mostly a benefit. Did I hear the word "rationalize"?


At 8:05 AM, Blogger Pamela Martin said...

One could think of it this way: the feeders create a richer feeding situation for the raptor--no bad thing, they're bird feeders after all. But the coming together of the feeder birds is a kind of protection for them too--a trade off. More birds--more individuals to sound the alarm, and a better chance for each individual to avoid being lunch on any occasion.

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

I like pamela's analysis. We have a bird feeder and both Cooper's and Sharp-Shinned hawks cruise our yard regularly. The little birds do warn each other, and most often the hawks leave the yard without a meal. Everything that lives needs to eat, so I don't begrudge the hawk its food. And as you say, cats are responsible for killing so many birds (not to mention the number of birds that die flying into windows). It is not easy to watch a predator take its prey (at least for me), but it is how they manage to live.

At 10:11 PM, Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

Just wanted to say that a Cooper's Hawk came today and nearly made off with a Belted Kingfisher that had suddenly showed up and spent the day in our yard. I felt so protective of that kingfisher that I chased the hawk and (hopefully) saved the kingfisher's life. I thought of this post, and my previous comment. I put a post up about the experience.


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