Wildlife and Sad Endings

recordonline.com – A red-tailed hawk who made the academy his home for 15 years has been killed by a car

The column linked above talks about the untimely demise of Uther, a male red-tailed hawk who had lived at the military academy at West Point for 15 years. Uther apparently was taking advantage of a roadkill squirrel carcass when he himself was hit by a car. Although he was taken to a vet’s office, he died of his injuries.

When it comes to wildlife to which humans have interacted, the historical data shows that sad endings are the rule, not the exception. From Gavin Maxwell’s companion otter, shot by a peripatetic minister with a thing for blasting anything that moved with his trusty shotgun, to the unnamed and unrecognized masses of displaced wildlife that die because of habitat loss, it seems that exposure to humans is at the root of much non-human nasty, brutish, and short living. We applaud the adaptiveness of “Pale Male”, the Central Park red-tailed, and the various peregrine falcons that have taken up residence in our cities to prey upon the excess pigeon population that naturally follows urbanization. Less often do we note the abruptly shortened lives of others, like Harris’s hawks in Tucson, Arizona, whose average lifespan on entering the big city is a couple of years because of the risk of electrocution on the power poles in use there. Living around and among humans is dangerous work for wildlife.

In general, even when you think you are doing some particular bit of wildlife a favor, there is much potential for bad endings. Even most wildlife reintroduction projects, which have taken into account many of the common problems with putting human-reared animals back into the wild, often find themselves essentially feeding the predators in the reintroduction site rather than appreciably raising the numbers of the target population. One project trying to reintroduce Attwater’s prairie chickens in Texas had what they called “Black Monday”, when in the morning they released about thirty birds, and by the next day there were only a few left alive.

This is an issue that I think about from time to time concerning our falconry birds. How should a falconry bird die, after all? One can hope for an aged bird, long too weak to fly to prey effectively, simply dozing off on a perch and not waking up again. But what one is likely to get is a bird that succumbs to an illness (given West Nile virus and bird flu as exotic newcomer diseases to supplement aspergillosis, parasites, and other maladies), get shot by a gun hunter, gets trapped by a leg-hold trap, gets zapped on a power pole, gets lost in the field, or otherwise meets with an end unforeseen and unwanted. As a passage-trapped bird, our birds at least have some inherent distrust of humans to guide them if they get separated from us. That may sound odd, but the fact is that our best hope for recovering our birds if we get separated from them in the field is enhanced if they don’t immediately seek out the nearest humans and try to get acquainted with them. Most people simply aren’t prepared to trust that an apparently wild bird of prey coming near them is not a threat.

What I try to keep in mind against the likely onset of sad outcomes is, in the case of our falconry birds, the memory of the time that we have been able to spend as a cooperative team hunting in the field. We try to take care that we aren’t taking some huge risk each time we do go out, but there is no way to pursue falconry without some element of risk. This is just part of what falconry, and life, are about.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

One thought on “Wildlife and Sad Endings

  • 2007/04/16 at 2:14 pm
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    Hmmm… just saw that a video on YouTube is available of some kid taking his pet mouse outdoors to play in the sunshine, when a hawk drops in for lunch. The video does graphically demonstrate why you want to put your prey item in your bal chatri and not on it, though.

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