Backyard Wildlife

Wednesday, February 2, 2000

"A World Overhead", pastel, by the author

There was a death in my neighborhood recently--right in my own backyard.

I glanced out the door to my backyard on a still, brilliant January morning, the open air sparkling with fine snow flurries glistening like tiny diamonds floating aimlessly in no hurry to reach the ground, and the rooftops, branches and grass lightly dusted with the finest of down. Then a bit of movement caught my eye, just beyond the edge of the deck-the killer, its back to me, standing astride the breast of its victim, spatters of blood in the snow all about, turned its head...

A variety of birds are typically insistent at the feeders on the deck and in the backyard on clear frigid mornings like these, knocking each other about, hopping around and flying back and forth to the trees, but the scene was oddly still aside from the airy glitter. The young Cooper's hawk had taken another victim, a rather large rock dove, from the ranks of my avian visitors. No wonder the crowds had completely disappeared. I would probably run and hide in the basement if a comparable threat appeared to me in my surroundings.

As any good birdwatcher would do, I grabbed my camera, always ready by the door to document visitors, threw on a coat and shoes and eased out the door.

No need to worry that the hawk would fly away. It was in no manner intimidated by my appearance. I snapped one photo as soon as I was out the door, then edged closer to the scene, clicking away with the shutter, until I was no more than ten feet away, although still on the deck. The hawk continued to survey the yard.

Whether perturbed by my intrusion or because it was time to be off, the hawk dug its talons into the breast of the dove and flew over to my neighbor's hemlocks, just beyond my fence, and a chorus of crows suddenly started a ruckus all around. I watched the tree, waiting to see if I'd have a chance at any more photos of the hawk.

As I listened to fluttering and flapping in the dense hemlock but unable to see into the tree, I wondered how the hawk would be able to perch while holding a dove that large. Using one set of talons to perch and the other to hold, or using its beak to hold while...

Suddenly the dove hit the ground under the hemlock, and while the flapping continued a red-tailed hawk either flew out of or around the tree from the other side, swirling around and down and under the tree, landing next to the dove. It stepped up onto the dove, dug in with its talons and with two deep undulations of its wings took off from under the tree, rising and turning with one more graceful wave and circling away.

The crows continued their loud conversation then took off to follow the red-tail. The Cooper's hawk soared out of the hemlock to a nearby wild black cherry, perching very near the top, out of range of my camera lens but clearly visible in the deciduous tree.

Snow flurries continued to sparkle in the crisp air. The whole incident had taken about five minutes.

Later that day, when the light dusting of snow had melted, I found two circles of feathers and down in the grass, similar to what was left behind from that morning's incident, where apparently the hawk had dispatched with other doves. On another day I noticed small feathers and down continually drifting through the bare branches of the maple in front of my house and went out to find the hawk in the dense Norway spruce next to the maple...I'll leave it up to your imagination.

I have read that in order to discourage the hawk from considering my yard a diner I should leave my feeders empty for a few weeks or more so that the birds would move on. Without enough birds to choose from, the hawk would then leave, too. I tried this when I had first noticed a hawk several years ago, but I only lasted about five days, and there were plenty of birds around before I started feeding them, anyway. Perhaps I am making these birds easy prey for this predator, or perhaps they are in danger from it wherever they go.

After all, I encourage the birds to stay around through the growing season-the cardinals, jays and other bug chasing birds work hard all summer long (along with the spiders, toad and garter snake) to keep my garden free from aphids, whiteflies and whatever other little bug pests they happen to find. It's part of the big chain of events which is nature supporting itself, and the hawk predating other birds is a part of that chain as well.

What makes the appearance of the hawk most amazing to me is that I live in Carnegie, two streets from the main street, not six miles from the Point. Sometimes it seems that no matter what we do to this earth, the lives of the wild creatures carry on around us, although abbreviated, interrupted and more difficult to be sure. We feel that we can't live without brand new housing developments, office complexes and shopping centers within three miles of our homes, but the birds, raccoons, groundhogs, bats, deer and other wildlife seem to make do with what we leave them.

And if we leave them more than just a little or maximize what we have to offer by naturalizing areas of our own yards or neighborhoods and not using chemicals, we work with that natural cycle.

Wildlife isn't only what's "out there" in undisturbed woods and fields-it's also what's in our backyards, if we take the time to look and know what to look for. And once we see the diversity of species that live there and learn how they all coexist to keep each other in balance, it's hard not to imagine our backyards and whole neighborhoods as small ecosystems and respect the other creatures that share our space. Once we do that, it's a small step toward building an awareness of and respect for the rest of the world around us.

This awareness doesn't need to lead to a paralysis of development, but it should lead to a reconciliation of what we feel are our priorities with the needs of the creatures who share our space, plus what our environment needs to nurture and support all of us.

I've been feeding the birds at this house for about ten years, and in those years I've seen less diversification of bird species; now most of my visitors are the sturdy doves, sparrows and starlings, although I have a few permanent blue jays and cardinals. But the tufted titmice and cedar waxwings no longer visit, and the late summer oriole which had always terrorized the fall webworm cocoons hasn't shown up for a couple of years.

During these years, open space and former farmland, which used to sit just on the edges of the borough of Carnegie, is quickly disappearing under development, as are the undeveloped areas in Collier, Robinson and Moon Townships. It's pretty clear that we've chopped up the local environment and made it either undesirable or unlivable for many species of birds and other creatures who used to live here.

The death of the dove is really a symbol of the continuance of the natural environment. The real death in the neighborhood is the permanent change to the environment and the loss of some of the members of this habitat.

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