Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hawks vs Bluebirds: a different point of view

the European Starling --an ever-present argument against laissez-faire

Chris Lyons, who last wrote on this page about the orange chest color of redtail fledglings, has a different and compelling point to make about interfering with nature


I read your response to the person who is upset over 'his' bluebirds and squirrels being captured and eaten, allegedly by a Red-Tailed Hawk. I agree with the general spirit of your response, but not with the specific advice you give. Human beings interfere with nature simply by existing in the manner we currently do, and in the numbers we currently do.

To name one specific example: by reducing the amount of suitable nesting habitat for the Eastern Bluebird, and also introducing hole-nesting exotics like the House Sparrow and Eurasian Starling to North America, we have made it extremely difficult for Bluebirds to successfully reproduce, regardless of hawk predation (which I do not believe is considered a major threat to Bluebird populations overall). Bluebirds have dealt with native predators long before we arrived, but without the carefully maintained 'Bluebird Trails', maintained by groups like the North American Bluebird Society, http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/ their numbers could never have rebounded, and their beauty and music would be lost to us, by our own doing. Ironically, we first increased their numbers, by planting orchards that served as ideal habitat for them. We grew accustomed to having them in our gardens and backyards, came to love their beauty--then became increasingly disturbed as we saw them usurped.

The principle is very simple--we have reduced the number of natural tree cavities, and increased the number of competitors for those cavities.. Bluebird boxes even the odds a bit, by reducing the number of potential nest competitors, and placing the Bluebirds near people who will monitor them, and in some cases, intervene on their behalf. This is unquestionably a form of interfering with nature--but only in response to much more severe disruptions to the natural order, created by the workings of our civilization. It may be a doomed effort, but it is no more 'unnatural' than putting up boxes for urban-nesting Peregrine falcons, who are rarely able to successfully nest on human structures without our assistance. Red-Tails, of course, are quite able to nest successfully without our help--but we still give our help, now that we have decided they are majestic examplars of freedom, instead of heartless chicken killers, and exterminators of friendly songbirds. But they are what they always have been, regardless of the emotional filters we place around them.

In a sense, people angry about hawks preying on animals they feed and house in their backyards, purely for the joy of seeing those animals, are the successors to the small poultry farmers who shot any hawk they saw, in order to prevent their barnyards from being raided. In so doing, they often did more harm than good, even in relation to their own endeavours. But really, what bothered them was that they felt their property was being destroyed--they were so angry over the 'murder' of birds they fully intended to kill themselves anytime they wanted a chicken dinner. It was simply assumed that man had dominion over all of nature, and that we had both the right and the duty to manipulate it to our liking. We haven't really surrendered that notion, when you get right down to it.

Perhaps this man who wrote you hasn't done a good enough job following the guidelines set by the groups seeking to encourage Bluebird nesting. My father has Bluebird boxes on his property in South Carolina, which he maintains according to those guidelines. He also has plenty of hawks around. He hasn't noticed any particular problem with raptor predation--the main problem is that a lot of other birds like to use these boxes, such as Carolina Chickadees and House Wrens. Tree Swallows quickly find them in our area, though they are also quite capable of finding natural nest cavities.

I dislike the notion that it's possible for us to never interfere with nature, and the lives of animals. This is one of our most arrogant illusions, based on our image of ourselves as benevolent creatures. We can only pick and choose how we interfere, try to limit the amount of damage we do, and compensate for it in some instances--in so doing, we are inevitably going to make mistakes.

In a truly wild setting, where the old system of checks and balances is intact, we can usually sit back and let nature take its course, but there are increasingly few places where this holds true, and even in the deepest of wilderness areas, we are often intervening on behalf of one endangered species or another--all of which are endangered because of the way we have irreparably changed the world we live in, and not usually for the better. We intervene every time we try to put out a forest fire. We intervene every time we preserve an old growth forest. And we intervene if we do none of those things. We do not live in harmony with nature. If we wish to do so, we will have to give up all our modern conveniences, and go back to living the way we did in the stone age--and even then, there's some evidence we hastened the end of many species. As we may hasten our own end, if we don't watch out.

It would be nice if there was some immaculately cut-and-dried formula of moral righteousness we could follow here, but it simply doesn't exist. We have to make it up as we go along. With regards to our fellow creatures (and ourselves), we are never impartial--we always play favorites. We can and should try to allow for that, but I don't believe it's a trait we'll ever rid ourselves of. Anymore than we can rid ourselves of the tendency to accuse others of the same things we are guilty of ourselves.