Raptorphilia

 

(This column was first published in the February 16, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)

 

We humans have animal favorites. The deer -- our beloved Bambi -- is surely the best example. But there are many others: beautiful cardinals and orioles; soft, cuddly housecats; the industrious beaver; sleek, beautifully patterned leopards and zebras; magisterial eagles.

 

Some of our favorites, however, are only recent choices. In particular, to people of my parents' generation hawks were like foxes and coyotes, varmints to be shot whenever possible. They were predators that took chickens from barnyards and gamebirds from woodlands. That generation's attitudes were recorded in their names for these birds: red-tailed hawks were hen hawks and red-shouldered hawks were chicken hawks. The kestrel was called sparrow hawk; the merlin, pigeon hawk; the peregrine falcon, duck hawk.

 

During those years thousands of hawks were shot along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains during their fall migrations.

 

No longer.

 

Today hawks are favorites, especially of birders. At dozens of locations bird watchers turn out in droves just to record the passage of raptors on migration. The most famous of those locations is Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania but we have several of these lookouts in this region. One is in Hamburg's Lakeview Cemetery. Others nearby are in Rochester, near Westfield and in Grimsby, Ontario.

 

And of course hawks and owls are now protected under international treaties.

 

I join those who admire hawks. You need only look at the wildness in a hawk's eye to appreciate how well they represent a fierce kind of freedom.

 

Still I am concerned about them and that concern was underscored by a study carried out by a ten-year old youngster named Hillary Dextrase from the Toronto suburb of Peterborough.

 

Hillary studied a nesting pair of merlins.

 

The merlin is a falcon, smaller than a crow, only about the size of a flicker. It is just slightly larger than its closely related relative, the kestrel. Until recently merlin habitat was the northern boreal forest; now, however, they are beginning to find good accommodations even in urban areas.

 

A number of these hawks have wintered recently on the University at Buffalo Main Street Campus and last year a pair nested in a nearby neighborhood for the first time.

 

In Spring 2002, Hillary discovered her merlins and decided to study their food habits. To do so, twice each week she walked along a sidewalk of her neighborhood to pick up feathers dropped from the raptors' prey. She did this for eleven weeks while the falcons raised a family.

 

Hillary took her project seriously. She had help in feather identification from naturalist Chris Risley. Together they used study skins from nearby Trent University for comparisons.

 

Here is a list of bird species she found together with the number of individual birds: cedar waxwing 13, barn swallow 9, American goldfinch 5, unknown sparrow 5, American robin 5, Northern cardinal 4, rock pigeon 4, European starling 4, tree swallow 3, house finch 3, house sparrow 3, blue jay 3, unknown flycatcher 2 and Eastern kingbird 2. And one each: white-throated sparrow, downy woodpecker, purple finch, song sparrow, yellow warbler, horned lark, dark-eyed junco and an unknown swallow.

 

That's a total of 73 individual birds subtracted from that one neighborhood, an average of one a day over her study period. But understand: hers was only a twice weekly sampling along a single sidewalk. Even more birds constituted that significant harvest.

 

Birders resent free-running housecats that kill a bird a day but what about hawks? I have not seen the increased number of raptors blamed for the decline in songbirds. Surely they should share responsibility. In any case we should be concerned.-- Gerry Rising