Saturday, January 31, 2009

REFUGE…NOT REFUSE!

Like all predators, Cooper’s hawks are persistent. Seldom a day passes that a Cooper’s hawk—likely the same one—doesn’t make at least one pass around the cottage and through the bird-feeder area. The usual drill is to come zipping into the zone from upstream. This keeps the cottage between the incoming bird and potential victim, a hunting tactic which relies on surprise—one moment the unsuspecting birds are feeding happily, the next their worst nightmare of winged death is smack in their midst. Naturally, the feeder gang scatters explosively. Sometimes a confused bird practically flies into the hawk’s clutches. Occasionally, an unfortunate bird gets hampered by limbs or bushes blocking the escape route—a momentary delay that can prove fatal. Or the terror-stricken escapee may get fooled by the reflective mirage of the great room’s window, thump themselves silly, and thereby seal their fate. None of these scenarios are what you’d call a Disney Moment. Reality in nature can seem brutal…until you accept that every living creature on the planet eats to survive, whether they consume sunflower seeds or tufted titmice. My feeders attract songbirds which attract hawks— which are, after all, only another bird. Yet the situation I’ve created—lots of birds at the same location—does aid and abet the hawk. To help counteract this unintended partisanship, nothing beats an old Christmas tree. When the holidays have ended and the decorations have been removed, rather than dragging my decommissioned tree curbside to await the trash haulers, or adding it ignominiously to the compost heap, the tree gets deployed for secondary seasonal duty. Laid on its side near the box elder, at the center of the feeding area, the old evergreen provides an immediate hideout when there isn’t time to fly away—a sort of on-site sanctuary. I’ve regularly watched birds dive into this handy refuge to escape a marauding Cooper’s hawk. Usually the hawk sees them, too—not that it does any good. When placed on their side, Christmas trees pack into a dense mass, limbs tucking inward, long needles closing and covering like a blanket. Add a bit of snow on top and it’s almost a castle keep. The only way you can see inside this solid shelter is by looking up (or what would be “up” if the tree were still vertical) the trunk. The hawk will land beside the horizontal tree and begin circling, craning it neck, trying to peer into the dark, tangled depths of limbs and greenery. Sometimes these aggressive hunters will attempt to wade and wiggle their way into the Christmas tree’s “innards,” figuring to catch whatever they’ve cornered. Which seldom proves manageable for the large hawk. Or the hawk will hop atop the downed mass and try to flush their quarry from its effective shelter. Nothing ever works. The hawk finally gets frustrated, flummoxed at capturing what seemed like an easy meal, and flies off. Though the Christmas tree shelter often holds a dozen or more refugees—ground feeders, usually sparrows and a wren or two, maybe a dove—I’ve never seen a hiding bird get caught. The best part is watching the hidden birds come back out—cautious, just a quick peek; then a better look from a stance outside the dense evergreen mass; finally, the coast clear, either a resumption of feeding or a take-off to elsewhere, more time at a safer distance until the nerves are settled. The wrens like to celebrate their victory with a snatch or two of song, usually performed from atop the horizontal tree. To my way of thinking, this is recycling at its best…turning refuse into refuge.

14 comments:

giggles said...

Bravo, good man!!!

I shall have my better half read this post to convince him not to take the tree to the compost collection too soon!!

(A PAIR of carolina wrens found their way into the garage yesterday.... Opened doors to let them out, but didn't chase them out.... Assuming they were gone, closed doors up for the day...and night.... This am, lo and behold! The pair were still there! I chased them out today...making my son and I late for his basketball game, but I can only imagine that we had two hungry birds that needed to find some good eats!! (Now, I must go refill the feeders!)

bobbie said...

What a great idea. I love to watch the hawks - but do not enjoy seeing them catch their prey, necessary as that may be.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

How beautiful and kind!

I too would be glued to the window watching all the escapees emerge from the tree. With tears in my eyes, no doubt ...

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

I'm not surprised about your wrens. I have a lot of wrens around, mostly Carolinas plus a few winter wrens. I'm looking at two right now, as a matter of fact. Both (Carolinas) are just outside my study window—one on the feeder ignoring me, another on the window ledge pecking and peering in. The feeder wren is no more than three feet away; the ledge fellow is perhaps 20 inches.

I can't begin t tell you how many wrens I've had in the house over the years. I posted a blog re. one such visit back in early December. Since that inident I've either had a wren fly in two additional times or three (can't remember if one of those visits happened before or after the blog). I swear the one on the ledge comes every day and would come on in if I could get this old window opened.

Wrens are just one of my two or three all-time favorite birds.

Hey, recycle that old Christmas tree next year. I'm sure neighbors and visitors think my side-yard tree is just trash I was too lazy to put in its proper place. Not that the yard is otherwise devoid of clutter, though I like to think of my piles of cut limestone and to-be-split-and-stacked firewood, the hillock of topsoil, the mound of wood-chip mulch, and even the heap of pine boards which will eventually be fashioned into bird and bat houses, squirrel boxes, and Lord knows what else, as simply temporary landscaping elements.

Nor will I too loudly deny a propensity (possibly congenital) for procrastination, and a work ethic at the mercy of occasional fits and starts and subject to influence by the vagaries of weather and the fishing season.

But my feeder birds appreciate the hideout, and I get to watch the cat-and-mouse (well, hawk-and-sparrow) games and see my temporary shelter become partial atonement for my sins.

I'll remove it when the leaves come .

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bobbie…

Hey, birds gotta fly, hawks gotta eat. But I have to admit I'm always rooting for the songbirds.

I was, however, rendered momentarily apoplectic one morning last winter when a Cooper's came zooming in, scattered the flock, and locked his sights on one of "my" redbirds.

That cardinal did everything he could to escape…circled around two or three trees along the riverbank, went up and down and back around and through the big box elder, beneath which, only a second or two before, he'd been breakfasting on cracked corn.

But the hawk was fast and a superb fly, and was locked onto his tail like a heat-seeking missile. When the male cardinal made a desperate dash across the open expanse of river, it proved a fatal mistake. The pursuing hawk closed and caught it midways, snatching the bright redbird from the air like an outfielder grabs a passing fly ball.

The hawk had already carried the cardinal to a feeding perch across the river when the last of two or three dislodged scarlet feathers settled softly onto the water's surface to float downstream on the current.

Yet there was also a savage beauty to the single-minded efficiency of that swift hawk. I had to admire the prowess.

It isn't really any different than me catching a trout, killing it, and frying it up for breakfast. Or someone else going to the grocery and buying a chicken for lunch which someone else has killed for them. The quick and the dead, survival of the fittest, and plain old luck—good or—bad is a fact of life.

Which doesn't mean, of course, that we have to enjoy watching this "life in the raw."

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Raph…

I wish it were simply and fully an act of pure kindness rather than one motivated by guilt at having created the situation in the first place. But I know both are present.

I worry sometimes that the pleasure I derive from feeding birds comes too much at the expense of altering their habits; that I'm being more selfish than beneficial.

I hope not…

The Weaver of Grass said...

What a splendid idea. Our bird table is close to a large rhododendron shrub and several evergreen trees, so that at the first sign of danger the little birds can dash in there - but the sparrow hawk gets his fair share of blue tits and small birds. But your idea of using the Christmas tree is so good I would like to pass the idea on to our Bird Society - I would of course use your name - would you mind?
I do so enjoy your post every day.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

Good Lord, no! Pass along to whomever you please, credited or otherwise. I'm surely not the first or only feeder of birds with a leftover Christmas tree who put it to this good use—and it is, indeed, good use.

Not an hour ago, long after I'd posted the blog piece, a big female Cooper's hawk hove into the yard, sending the feeder birds a'scatter, several of which dove into the old Christmas tree. After the usual round and round standoff, the hawk flew off and the tree-sheltered birds reappeared.

And thank you for your always kind words. Reading your blog is my pleasure.

KGMom said...

Great idea--what do you do when spring comes, and the needles begin to fall?

We have feeders placed right next to arbor vitae bushes, so the birds duck in there. We have some hawks patrolling but also a peregrine.

The nearby city to us--PA's capital--has a nesting pair of peregrines that live on a ledge of the Dpt. of Environmental Resources building--aptly named the Rachel Carson building.

Since the peregrines took up residence about a decade ago, we have had them zooming through the neighborhood at times.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

When spring arrives and the trees and bushes along the river begin to leaf out, and I begin the annual task of sprucing up the yard prior to actual plantings, I drag/carry the tree about a hundred feet to a sort of evergreens-in-a-sinkhole place along the side yard fence.

Here grows a mix of cedar, ground pine, and similar evergreen plants which someone set out decades ago, let go thereafter, and then built the yard up around them until the plants are kind of down in a hole that's maybe 3-4 feet deep.

You wouldn't know this to look at the place from a half-dozen feet away. And the plants themselves do fine. But what I have is a sort of concealed pit, which is where the squirrels dash when something chases them, where Moon the dog sneaks off to when she wants to hide and worry me…and where I tuck my twice-used Christmas tree—out of sight, out of mind—and allow it to R.I.P.

(In case you're wondering, it's damp enough in there that the old cut tree is never a fire hazard; in fact, last year's tree is still astonishingly green.)

Jenn Jilks said...

I agree that the Disney Moment is overrated. From what I heave read much of it is staged...

There are reasons for the raptors. You have to respect them! Unlike our species that lacks a certain amount of 'survival of the fittest'!

I found some turkey vultures sitting waiting to play baseball. They, too, have a place in the circle!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jenn…

Raptors do, indeed, have their place and should have equal rights and respect. That they don't is because they're predators, and folks have always had problems with predators—hawks, owls, eagles, wolves, coyotes; the list is long. This shows some pretty shallow thinking, for after all, isn't a robin yanking a worm from the front yard just as much a predator as a Cooper's hawk snatching a cardinal from the same front yard?

On another note, I wouldn't want to be overly defensive on Disney's behalf…but I knew, respected, and often talked with a man who was once one of Disney's chief photographers. He worked on films such a "The Living Desert" and "The Vanishing Prairie," plus a number of later pictures which were set in the out-of-doors or involved wildlife. Later on, he became one of the finest nature photographers and filmmakers around.

Disney's early nature films were pretty much absolutely straight-forward documentaries; no staging other than camera angles, creative lighting (reflectors, that sort of thing), blinds, darkroom editing, and lots of patience.

Now a scene where, say, Davy Crockett got chased by a bear, well, that sort of stuff was always staged. Can't have the bear win and eat the star on some of the takes, you know.

Later on, after Walt's death. the animal stuff really got silly—though these were mostly entertainment films.

As to your turkey vultures…when I moved into this riverside cottage, I had no idea one of its extras was a buzzard roost just across the river on one of the long, narrow, wooded islands. You can bet I'll be blogging about them when they return from their winter vacation.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Grizzled, your recipe and discourse with Solitary Walker about Soda Bread has inspired me to cook, ( a relativly rare phenomenon!) I've put my Knollshire Cauliwobblies recipe and link to your blogs on mine.

Thanks for the inspiration!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Raph…

I will check out your recipe forthwith!

I'm astonished Solitary and I could inspire anyone other than ourselves…but if we have somehow managed, then you're certainly welcome (I think—you were happy about us prompting you to cook, right?).

And thank you for the link. I've added your link to my list.