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  • March 4th, 2018

BYE BYE BIRDIE?

By Joel M. Vance

It was perched on a telephone wire alongside a county highway at dusk on a chilly January evening, a kestrel or sparrowhawk if you prefer, and it occurred to me it has been a long time since I saw one. Once, the sight of a sparrowhawk perched along the right-of-way of any rural highway in my part of the United States was as common as that of any wild creature.

You would see them hovering above the grass on the right-of-way or sitting on a fence post or on a power line, waiting to pounce on supper— perhaps an incautious vole or field mouse or grasshopper. Kestrels are the smallest of the hawks, elegant little birds as charming as any existing member of the airborne kingdom.

Yet, the kestrel population has declined by 50% in the past few decades, victimized by factors that, as yet, are not publicized enough to cause alarm in the general populace, the way hard pesticides did when Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring” brought to light the peril facing the American bald eagle, the nation’s symbol. Agricultural chemicals, used to get rid of insect pests plaguing farm crops also caused thinning in the eggs of eagles which resulted in a decline of reproductive success so severe that the birds were threatened with extinction.

You won’t find the kestrel portrayed on coins or other symbols of the nation, but does that make the little bird any less desirable in the natural world than the bald eagle? Chances are the same factor that nearly doomed the bald Eagle is a major factor causing such an alarming decline in the population of sparrowhawks— agricultural chemicals. Though hard pesticides like DDT have been banned for many years, the agricultural community still sprays crops with, possibly, less hazardous chemicals— but they still cover agricultural crops with substances that decimate the food source of many citizens of our natural world.

What research has been done on the decline of sparrowhawks is sketchy. In fact agricultural chemicals are not the only possible culprit in the decline. One theory is that predation by Cooper’s Hawks on their smaller relatives is a contributing factor. If so, bullying is not endemic only to human beings—little birds get picked on as well as little kids, although apparently with more dire consequences.

Researchers think that even the stress of living in close quarters with human beings may be a contributing factor. God knows, humans closely packed become freaked out. A rabbit biologist once told me that when rabbits become overpopulated they act just like human beings: “they develop ulcers and they die,” he said. No one has checked to see if sparrowhawks are candidates for Maalox.

Carson’s book caused a sensation and a reaction so enormous that the hard pesticides, the worst of the malefactors, were banned for use in agriculture. Slowly, the eagle population, rebounded and today the national bird no longer is threatened by becoming another passenger pigeon, a sorry testament to man’s inhumanity to nature. We killed off some of nature’s once prominent citizens. Is the kestrel also on man’s hit list?

Researchers simply don’t know the reasons behind the decline but lay the blame on pesticides as one primary cause— not a bad surmise, since pesticides are both omnipresent and responsible for the decline of many of nature’s citizens. Think Monarch butterflies, honeybees and other useful creatures. Aside from blaming the decline on predation by Cooper’s Hawks, which seems to me to be doubtful at best, others say competition for nest sites from starlings is responsible. Starlings, of course, are an introduced bird, originally stocked by people who wanted to establish creatures mentioned by Shakespeare. How well that silly experiment succeeded is evidenced every evening when massive flocks of starlings go to roost, but whether they compete with kestrels is mere supposition.

Agrichemical voices are loud ones in the halls of legislation and the chances of ridding the world of dangerous chemicals, used to ensure ample crops is likely impossible. The question is, how do you reconcile the need for corn and soybeans with the need to see a kestrel perched on a telephone wire? Generally, and sadly, the answer is that, whatever the needs of nature’s citizens, they come in second to the perceived needs of human beings. It’s the old case of everyone is equal— but some things are more equal than others.

It’s likely that clean farming deserves at least some blame for the kestrel decline. The practice of skimming the landscape of groundcover to favor farming practices certainly has a deleterious effect on wildlife and it makes sense that the absence of grass cover where kestrels hover on the hunt has an effect on their ability to pounce on supper.

It takes overwhelming public outrage to reverse what all too often is irreversible damage to the natural world and so far that outrage is not reached to the world of the sparrowhawk. We have yet to become incensed by the decline of the honeybee, an insect which pollinates much of the food that we eat and without which pollination we face an agricultural Armageddon. But that’s a long way in the future, if at all, and we can let some future generation worry about it— or at least that’s the laissez-faire attitude that we always have adopted when science warns us of danger just over the horizon. Think climate change, for example.

Not to be the chicken who cried “the sky is falling” but it’s difficult to ignore signs of planetary decline. An estimated third of the world’s coral reefs are dead or dying—the first time in the history of the world as we know it that an entire ecosystem is threatened with extinction. The health of the world’s oceans, which constitute the bulk of our universe, are at risk. Glaciers are shrinking, the polar ice cap is shrinking, the polar bear population is shrinking. Where does it end? Is the sky falling? Maybe not, but something is looming above us and it’s not good. The more we refuse to learn to live with the natural world, the more we are doomed to destroy it.

Once, years ago, we played host to a pair of sparrowhawks for a couple of weeks. The birds had been taken from the nest by some well-meaning but misinformed citizen and had been confiscated by the conservation department and were part of the department’s live animal exhibit at the Missouri State Fair. But they needed a home until they could become self-sufficient in the wild and I volunteered to play daddy as long as necessary.

They were obviously only days from full flight and I wondered if they would be able to make their way in the natural world, but after all that is the way of the wild—sink or swim. Either you survive or you don’t. I banked on the birds’ natural instinct to kill to survive and hoped that instinct would kick in and save them. It was late summer, so there was an abundance of insect life and other prey that, if they would allow their heritage to rule, would provide them with the food they needed before cold weather came.

They were caged when I brought them home but we opened the cage and let them free to do as they pleased. They perched on the railing of our back porch and I caught grasshoppers for them, chilled the insects in the refrigerator until they were slow enough for the little birds to catch, and the kestrels eagerly pounced on them. I supplemented live food with hamburger and the birds thrived on their McDonald’s diet for a week or so and then they began to make tentative flights off the railing and into the world they were intended for. Gradually their returns to the table I set for them became fewer and fewer, and one day they were gone and I never saw them again. Long live, beautiful little birds—you brightened my life for a moment in time.

It’s appropriate to call the little hawk the American kestrel because approximately one third of the world population of kestrels are found in North America. According to the breeding Bird Survey kestrels are on the decline in many areas but indications are that the population actually is increasing in the central part of the United States, giving the lie to my feeling that kestrels are on the decline where I live.

But kestrels for all their visibility are hard birds to study. They’re always on the move and the only way to get a definitive handle on species viability is by long term studies, using modern tools such as banded birds, computer modeling, coupled with human eyesight. And that combination over the long haul does not exist as yet, leading to a murky picture of the future for the American kestrel.
In the absence of whatever factors limit kestrel population, the birds should have the ability to repopulate quickly.

A mated pair will incubate from 4 to 7 eggs for a month and the hatched chicks will be fledged and ready to fly in another month. Assuming a high survival rate, kestrels could quickly replenish a depressed population. That’s the way creatures with low survival rates manage to maintain healthy numbers, such as quail, doves and wild turkeys who lose many youngsters, but make up for the losses with high egg production.

Meanwhile, when the lonely gray days of winter fade to the heat of summer, I’m hoping that a trip down a gravel road will afford me the sight of several kestrels perched or hovering alongside the highway. The hot summer sun not only will warm my body,it will warm my soul.

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