Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reflections on the Return of a Cooper's Hawk

Every year for six or seven years now, a Cooper's hawk has set up his command post on my backyard gate.  He arrives within 10 days on either side of the winter solstice and departs shortly before the vernal equinox.

He is one small part of the natural rhythms of our planet that fill me with awe and curiosity about the universe.  I welcome his annual visit for many reasons, even if his diet consists largely of the songbirds whose warbles, trills and tintinnabulations bring me joy. He also hunts small mammals and rodents whose presence is less pleasant.

Just today the hawk reclaimed his hunting grounds for another winter season. I believe it is the same hawk, who established his hunting rights as a fledgling and has now grown to maturity.  If this is so, the actuarial tables for birds of prey tell me that unless disaster strikes him down, he'll be hunting from my back gate for another five to seven years.

There are those of humankind who would bring disaster upon him.  In Pennsylvania, where I once lived, the Kittatinny ridge of Blue Mountain overlooks one of the world's busiest migratory flyways for raptors.  Once, every fall, the "sportsmen" of the area would gather on Kittatinny's slopes with their arsenals and slaughter thousands of the "varmint" birds as they flew the gauntlet their genetic codes sent them to.  Many of the shooters believed the myth that raptors were  killers of livestock, poultry and game birds. There are photographs of 15-foot high piles of dead raptors  on the Blue Mountain valley  floor.  Now the magnificent predators are protected along a 13,000 acre preserve of public and private lands.  Some 20,000 to 40,000 pass safely through the corridor every Aug. 15-Dec. 15, or winter safely in its forests and crags.

In 2005 there was a decline in population of the voles and other prey of the great gray owl.  The owls expanded their territory southward in quest of food.  The great gray is a solo diurnal hunter; a few strays wandered from the northern Rockies as far south as the Organ Mountains of southern New Mexico.  Two or three times, along a wide arroyo on a high desert mesa, my dog Saxon and I spotted a great gray on its early morning hunt.  What an awesome sight!  Statue-still, it surveyed the open desert for a lizard or rodent; when it spotted one a hundred or more yards away it rose silently with a single flap of its great, six-foot wingspan.  Airborne, it glided down the arroyo, perhaps four feet above the ground, until it pounced on its pray.  With the meal clasped in its talons, it sat silently for a few minutes, wings slightly spread to shield its kill from other predators. The great bird vanished within a week of its appearance, never to be seen again in that locale.  I hope it flew back home  to Colorado or Montana.  I would hate to think some "sportsman" shot it.  Diurnal raptors cannot be legally hunted, but illegal shooting is widespread.

Man, the greatest predator, takes it upon himself to rid the world of other predators.  Shooting gray wolves, or lobos, is illegal in Arizona and New Mexico where the nearly extinct animals have been reintroduced.  The packs are back on the brink of extinction, thanks to the illegal shooting of pregnant females and alpha males. 

Man, arrogant and short-sighted,  is the only mammal on Earth who meddles with Nature's scheme of things and willfully causes great mischief within the natural order.  Often his ignorance is self-destructive. For example, carnivores are  vulnerable to pesticides, insecticides, and other human-made toxic chemicals. In a process called  bioaccumulation. chemicals passed up the food chain from plant to plant-eater, and from plant-eater to meat-eater, become more and more concentrated in the tissues of each succeeding animal. At the top of the food chain, we are poisoning ourselves.

In our greed and hubris, we do this malevolence to our planet and its living things even as we disparage the science that illuminates our guilt.

A moment ago I glanced out the window.  My hawk lunged from his hunting lodge atop the garden gate and darted off in pursuit of prey.  He's part of a kill-or-be-killed segment of the natural order, and he does what he has to do to survive, to bequeath his genes to another generation of beautiful predators, to keep the cycles turning. He does not deny what he is; he simply is.

Man, like the hawk and the owl, compulsively seeks gratification, but not because the preservation of the species requires it.  Mankind changes at its whim what is and has to be in a blind pursuit of immediate profit or  or short-term satisfaction, never mind the ultimate cost or consequences for generations to come.

What fools these mortals be.

Fly, my hawk.  Fly.

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