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Article Title: Hawks, Highways and Habitats: From Hunters' Guns to Auto and Truck CollisionsEdition: February 2001
Category: Outdoors/Natural History
Author: Yvonne Straus
Editor's Note: Jake Brown & Nat Frothingham contributed to this report
Introduction by Mike Cox, Director of the Vermont Raptor Center in Woodstock
We have seen dramatic declines in the number of birds that are injured by projectiles. All of the these birds are now protected by state and federal law.
We have created roadways that cut through habitats. Animals have to cross these roads to get to their ranges.
We have to learn what our impacts are. We have to apply our knowledge to minimize those impacts. Be aware as you drive that wildlife is out there. Observe the simple, age-old message, "Just don't litter." Be watchful. Be mindful. Don't throw litter -- even an apple core.
(End of introduction.)
As late as the 1920's the hunter's gun was greatest enemy of the hawk. Today, it's the automobile. And the irony today is that for great habitat and good hunting, it's the big highways, like our own Interstate 89, that are favored by hawks.
First, these big roads cut through the ranges that animals, including the prey of hawks -- need to cross.
Second, the interstate highways are strewn with food that prey like to feed on, everything from apple cores, French fries, grain spilled from trucks. It's all there both on the road and along the edges.
Third, the edges and the median strips of the Interstate highways are mowed and trimmed and there is little cover to hide the rodent populations.
The result is hawks on highways, and hawks getting hit by cars and trucks.
"If you had to cross the road every time you went to your refrigerator chances are, you'd get hit by a car," says Mike Cox, director of the raptor center at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Woodstock.
It's common knowledge that thousands upon thousands of birds of prey were shot. These magnificent birds were killed for sport and out of misinformation. As VINS Mike Cox reminds us, at places like Hawk Mountain, in Pennsylvania, where as many as 17,000 raptors a year have been spotted, there was what he calls "a lot of persecution." In the 1920's hunters by the score would set up on Hawk Mountain and the guns would go off and a bird would disappear in "a puff of feathers." In the early days raptors were viewed as vermin, as livestock killers, as game bird killers. Soon we learned something that opened our eyes to the real truth: we discovered that raptors are not damaging and are not competing with us humans. Hawks in general do not pose any danger to humans, livestock, chickens or other fowl. A family of red-tailed hawks, however, says Cox, can eat as many as 4,000 mice a year.
Most of the hawks along Interstate 89 are Red-tailed hawks -- (Buteo jamaicensis). Eastern Red tailed hawks (variety borealis) can be seen standing on dead trees or perched in the open to get something to eat. They look for small animals, such as voles field mice, rabbits, squirrels, some songs birds, and sometimes snakes.
Red-tailed hawks breed in Eastern North America exclusive of Florida. Migratory in north; resident farther south. It is also possible that some that remain are those which have nested in Vermont.
Red-tailed hawks are a native species, a migratory hawk species. "My guess is," Brian Pfeiffer (a known bird expert) commented, "that most or all of the Red-tailed hawks migrate south and that the hawks that we see here in the winter migrated here from up north." By now, migration has ended.
Red-tailed hawks have a wingspan of 50 inches and wings are broad and fairly rounded; their plumage is also extremely variable. Its distinctive call is a heavy and harsh keeeeer. Its habitat is inconsistent, sometimes woods with nearby open land; but also plains, prairie and groves, even desert.
Another raptor that loves to stay around Interstate 89, is the Rough-legged hawk, (Buteo lagopus) an arctic breeding hawk, that swoops, soars, and loves to exercise even more so than the Red-tailed hawk.
Sharp shinned hawks are occasionally spotted in and about Montpelier. They love bird feeders, and according to Bryan Pfeiffer, they sometimes "pick off" a songbird.
In winter, most of these raptors have a hard time catching food. It's a time of stress, starvation and often death.
But the worst enemy of hawks and other raptors is man. Poisons are a major problem, as are collisions with buildings, windows, wires. Raptors also suffer, sometimes die, from eating mice, rats and birds that have been poisoned with lead.
An Yvonne Straus AdvisoryIf you have a rat or mouse problem and you use poison to control this issue, try not to dispose of the dead mouse on the grounds or woods. Throw them away in the garbage can in a plastic bag. Hawks will find the dead mouse and/or rat, eat it and die of poisoning. Instead try to use the old-fashioned mousetrap for mice. For rats and such, use a sticky paper trap but please do not to leave these on the ground either as hawks can get caught in the gluey stuff and later die from the sticky substance that is there. Consider mice killing using humane mouse traps. It is also less messy and safer. With this precautionary action, you and I are helping these magnificent birds to survive.
Statistics About the Birds Taken to the VINS Raptor Center in Woodstock for Rehabilitation, 1997-199832 percent hit by cars
24 percent unknown trauma
15 percent young birds kidnapped or orphaned
11 percent other
5 percent collision with buildings and windows
5 percent starvation
5 percent entanglement in a building, fishing line, or in a fence
3 percent projectiles of all kinds, including gunshots and arrows.
Rough-legged HawkLength 21 inches, Wingspan 53 inches, Weight 2.2 pounds.
It's Winter range includes Vermont, it's summer and breeding range is the far Arctic North including Hudson's Bay and surrounding islands and land masses.
This large lanky buteo of wide-open marshes, fields, or tundra hunts small rodents from the air, hovering easily. Rough legged hawk takes rodents too, plus sometimes small mammals and eats carcasses by the road, (especially when food is scarce during the winter) thus helps us clean up.
This information is from the National Audubon Society The Sibley Guide to Birds, written by David Allen Sibley, page 125.
Yvonne Straus writes and lives in Vermont.
I want to thank Brian Pfeiffer, founder of Vermont Bird Tours. He is currently writing a book about Bird Watching in Vermont. Mike Pratt, Rehabilitation Coordinator at VINS in Woodstock, Vermont. Michael D. Cox Director, Vermont Raptor Center-VINS, for their helpful information for this article.
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