Wednesday, January 6, 2010

LOOK WEST, YOUNG HAWK


I saw a piece on CNN this morning about a county in California which is overrun by squirrels. It seems the local squirrel population—both ground squirrel and tree squirrel species—is so numerous the little bushy-tailed critters are wreaking all sorts of havoc. Eating everyone's garden vegetables, landscaping flowers and bulbs. Gnawing power lines. Invading attics. Even tunneling under roadways, which causes the paving to break apart and collapse.

The local citizenry seemed to view this squirrel glut as a problem, though I admit my first thoughts were quite the opposite. Attitude is, as I'm often reminded, a matter of perspective. One fellow's disaster can be another's bonus.

Being of hillbilly heritage, and growing up with kith and kin amid a culture where the results of hunting, fishing, and all manner of wild foraging regularly ended up on the supper table, I have to tell you my initial reaction was to see this squirrel boom in terms of meal potential. I thought the best way to handle any squirrel excess would be to lay in a few extra boxes of number 6 shot for the ol' 12-gauge, and get out the family recipes for squirrel dumplin's and burgoo stew. What you had here wasn't a small-animal calamity, but an unexpected opportunity for finer dining.

Naturally, the good folks of the Golden Gate State, tofu-eating tree-huggers to the core, saw things differently. Though being a kingdom of fervent environmentalists, the plan they came up with was acceptably Green, in a bloody-red sort of way. And when you thought about it closely, not all that different from my idea, except it didn't didn't involve firearms and the need for cornbread to sop the gravy.

They way they saw it, hawks and other birds of prey were the answer to the surplus squirrel issue. And so they've built a couple dozen "raptor towers" and installed them throughout the country's rather open countryside, adjacent to the worst squirrel-infestation hotspots. These raptor towers are said to be the latest in man-made perches for a hungry hawk looking for a comfortable rest spot with a high overview, suitable for squirrel bushwhacking. If you've never seen one of these marvels of modern avian engineering, imagine a wood telephone pole with wood crossbeams atop, but no draping wires.

I guess, being part of the Land of Moviemaking and all, they're taking their cue from "Field of Dreams." You remember, that old Kevin Costner flick about an Iowa farmer who's apparently spent just a tad too much time atop the John Deere, hatless under the hot sun. While walking across his cornfield, he hears a voice whisper, "If you build it, he will come." The "it" is a baseball field. He does and "he" and they do come…eventually.

As I say, this is the California concept for squirrel control—build the raptor towers, the hawks will come, and eat, (presumably these will be gluttonous hawks) and presto! problem solved. What they'll then try and attract in to control their leftover plague of hungry hawks once the squirrel surfeit runs out, I'm not sure—pterodactyls, perhaps?

Anyway, it might actually work. Who knows? If anyone can pull off such a plan, it will be those Californians. While those raptor towers aren't exactly natural features stuck onto the landscape, they're not altogether unattractive, and they will make good lookout posts for the squirrels who get appointed to guard duty.

As it happens, too, I've been conducting my own version of raptor-assisted squirrel control. Well, actually, I haven't done anything except watch, and the raptor—a juvenile Cooper's hawk—hasn't controlled a single squirrel or titmouse or sparrow. So far. But I give the bird real credit for persistence. The hawk has stopped by the riverbank regularly over the last few days, perching in the box elder by the door, glaring in every direction in a most predatory manner. If I were a chickadee, I'd be scared witless.

Being young, it's not quite as alert as an adult Cooper's, which makes for easier photography. And the bird is fun to watch, even if it isn't quite the lethal threat it appears. Since it isn't starving, I have to figure it manages to catch at least the occasional meal. I just hope it doesn't get wind of that CNN report and decide to head west. My ratty old box elder simply can't compete with a spanking new raptor tower.

30 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

I love it when you publish a photo of a cooper's hawk, Scribe - it is obviously a common bird around your neck of the woods.
As for the squirrels - have you actually eaten squirrel - I wonder what it tastes like.
Here our most common raptor is the Sparrow Hawk. At least once a day he or she swoops through our bird feeders, hoping to catch something unawares. Somtimes it succeeds - more often it does not as we have plenty of cover close at hand - rhododendrons, fir trees, laurel bushes etc. But he has to live and I tell myself he has caught the weakling and it is natural selection. Keep warm in this cold weather.

Jenn Jilks said...

You're so creative and thoughtful! Great post.

Carolyn H said...

Griz: what a funny story about the California squirrel reduction plan! like you, I had visions of squirrel fricasse or maybe Swedish squirrel (use the Swedish meatball sauce). Likely, that California county is too heavily populated to allow much shooting.

Carolyn H.

Bernie said...

Well it may work and it may be a good idea but yours isn't that bad either. Think of all the meals that could be served to the homeless or given to the food banks. I have never ate squirrel, not sure I could but I'm sure the hungry wouldn't mind it at all.
Loved your photo Grizz.....:-) Hugs

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

Weaver…

This Cooper's hawk, in juvenile plumage, actually gave me a moment's pause re. identity as it is so different than that of the adult. But it is a really magnificent bird and wonderfully marked.

Yes, indeed, I have eaten squirrel many, many times. The meat is dark, tasty, delicious. We often had fried squirrel with biscuits and gravy; squirrel as part of a Brunswick stew; squirrel dumplin's; and of course, squirrel is the key ingredient in a burgoo stew. Growing up, I don't think I knew anyone who didn't dine on squirrel from time time—and these weren't backwoods rubes, but everyone, including professors, ministers, doctors, judges—professional people of all stripe and education level. Squirrel, rabbit, pheasant, quail, grouse, etc. was simply part of the menu. No different than chicken, beef, pork, mutton.

Hunting and fishing, wild foraging, has been an integral part of my life, all my life. I still love to hunt squirrels. It immerses and involves you in the landscape; you become a participant, a part, rather than merely an observer. Plus it keeps me honest. I have to confront and acknowledge that life sustains life. I don't ever want to get to the point where I pick up a shrink-wrapped steak in the grocery and not connect it with a formerly living, breathing creature—an animal, now dead, that I intend to eat. This is important to me because it makes me think and care about animals, and the places in which they live, far more, and doubtless differently, than if I placed that steak only in the fantasy abstract of "food," as if it were nothing more than a hardened red glop of pre-packaged chemicals and fillers.

I want my experience of nature to be as honest for me as it is for that hawk in the tree.

Richard said...

I was thinking about my total lack of little Red (Pine) Squirrels, Doves, and Chipmunks that I had an over abundance of for the last couple of winters. Then I remembered that I had the five Cooper's Hawks last summer. Funny they didn't bother the bigger Gray Squirrel (must have left them for the owls). Once they cleaned out the easy pickings, they moved on and now I only occasionally sew a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

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

Jenn…

Thank you. I was just having a bit of fun with that news report…and I got lucky with the hawk shot.

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

Carolyn…

I think squirrels would be difficult to fashion into meatballs; but that meatball sauce might be great for dipping.

In the CNN piece I saw, there were squirrels running every which way. Do you suppose those California folks honestly believe a few extra hawks can account for such a bumper-crop of squirrels? Personally, I don't think every hawk, coyote, and feral housecat in the state would be sufficient!

And actually, although I was being factious in the post…the country appeared rather wide and open, quite rural looking. You probably could hunt it safely with scatterguns, though of course THAT is never going to happen.

What is more likely is some sort of disease will sweep through the squirrel population—or maybe they'll do what they've historically done in Ohio according to many old accounts…migrate. I can see it now, the Million Squirrel March on Hollywood! Now there's a news story!

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

Richard…

I can't see much of a difference in any population hereabouts. In fact, I'm sure I have more gray squirrels than ever. Doves seem about the same. The fox squirrels over on the island haven't changed, numberwise. I still have one or two red squirrels that show up in a feeder occasionally.

Birds I have seen the Cooper's hawks catch are mostly cardinals, titmice, and sparrows (no starlings, doggone it!) and I can't tell any decrease in their ranks.

I can't be sure how many different Cooper's hawks I have around, but I think several. Have never seen a sharp-shinned here, though I do get the occasional red-tailed. And, of course, owls, great horned, barred, etc.

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

Bernie…

I guess time will tell whether those California hawks can literally eat the squirrel population down to more acceptable numbers or not. My guess is not.

Personally, if we had plenty of squirrel to give away, I'd be quite willing to trade it for chicken or steaks, in case any of the hungry homeless had a problem eating squirrel. I think it is one of my favorite meats.

Gail said...

Hi Grizz-

Well, we part ways on eating squirrel!! No can do. Nope. :-) I couldn't even eat rabbit as a kid - went hunting with my Dad and Uncle and I could not/would not eat the rabbit they killed. Nope.

Great story though and great picture.

Love you
Gail
peace......

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

Gail…

Hey, that's okay. There are plenty of things I'd never eat. I wasn't trying to make converts.

Hope things are improving all around with you and your sister. Glad you liked the hawk pix and post.

Debbie said...

You are so funny. Yes, Californians are certainly optimists. We seem to have an abundance of hawks and kestrels in my neighborhood. Eagles are plentiful too, but stay closer to the Illinois river for the fish. Unfortunately, having 3 busy bird feeders is an attraction raptors cannot pass up. I have seen them eat many birds; the hawks preferring the larger doves, starlings and pigeons. I've never seen them get a squirrel nor do the squirrels seem to fear them. I don't know why the raptors don't eat more squirrels, we have many.
I hope the California raptors have more of a taste for squirrel that Illinois raptors.
Debbie

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

Debbie…

I have two big wire mesh seed feeders, three suet feeders, and about a half-dozen stumps and rocks where I scatter cracked corn around and on for the ground feeders…so I have a pretty tasty smorgasbord of birds and squirrels to interest any hungry hawk. And they do come swooping in—but more often than not, leave unfed.

My squirrels blast off in every direction at the appearance of any hawk. I don't think there'll be a problem with those California raptors eating squirrel—just a problem with how many squirrels one hawk can eat.

And my hawks, unlike yours, seem to prefer medium-sized birds; I've never seen one take a dove (or, drat it, a starling—though I don't have many starlings around) preferring titmice, cardinals, nuthatches, woodpeckers. I expect, though, this is just that I've not seen them catch most of their meals or found the right little pile of aftermath feathers in the yard. A hungry hawk, of whatever size, would likely eat whatever it could catch and kill.

I envy you your eagles.

Wanda said...

I have numerous squirrels I don't eat and hawks whose ways I now accept. Weeks before my mother died she commented on a young finch that semed too weak to fly, trying to get to the feeder. It seemed to be fluttering like a butterfly and going no where fast.
The morning she died,within that hour, I was sitting on my porch, where she usually sat. I noticed what might have been that same weak fluttering little bird. Within moments a hawk flew in and snatched it away, peacefully and gracefully actually. My mother had died the same way.
I learned to accept the hawks and their purpose!

Debbie said...

I have to admit that no matter how many eagles I see, it always makes me giddy. I start pointing and telling whoever is near to look.We will be going out early mornings to the river to try and photograph some while they fish. I notice they keep to certain areas at certain times of day. If I get a good shot, you'll see it. Or you may see a picture of some lunatic hopping up and down and pointing! That would be me:D
Debbie

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

Wanda…

I hope I didn't give you, or anyone else, the wrong impression—I wouldn't eat one of my yard squirrels, either. I'd protect them tooth and nail, in fact. As much as I not only like to fish, and absolutely love to eat fish, I almost never keep anything I catch from the cottage stretch of the river—and for that matter, I seldom keep stream fish, other than trout. My table fish come from lakes and ponds. I don't know why I make these distinctions because fish certainly aren't warm-and-fuzzy critters like squirrels.

I think that story of the finch, the hawk, and your mother is really lovely and quite wonderful. I do believe with all my heart—I know!—that life has purpose. There is beauty and mystery and wisdom in nature that we can learn and find value for in our own life. That hawk and finch taught you something, showed you a part of the plan—gave you something to hold and take a certain comfort in by understanding the power of peace and love and grace.

Thank you so much for sharing this.

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

Debbie…

I hope you do manage an eagle shot. That would be so neat. My wife, who spent several years living on an island in Alaska, had eagles around all the time. She said it was often annoying to walk on the rock beach near her home and have eagles keep swooping close, half scaring her. I really envy that experience. I've not seen nearly enough eagles to satisfy my eagle lust…so take those photos. :-)

Robin said...

Beautiful photo! And you couldn't PAY me to touch Burgoo (again).

(Kentucky girl... they love to 'hawk' it on Derby Day.)

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

Robin…

A burgoo done right is a thing of singular, toothsome beauty…but an inedible train wreck when you hurry or mess it up.

Are you saying the sell it during Derby Days? Didn't know that. Huh.

Wanda said...

I wasn't defending these pesty squirrels, just mentioning I don't eat them, we loyal followers know you. When I was a child, my dad and uncles often hunted squirrels and ate them at our table. I can't believe that I "once" helped my dad skin one, trying to impress him...I held it's lower legs...and that was one time too many. They raised chickens and a hog once too...butchering them was not something I appreciated to see either!
Squirrels just seem more like pets or visitors to me now..just like the wrens.

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

Wanda…

I understood, and didn't think you had a problem.

All during my childhood and growing up, and right up to the last day of his life, Dad fed squirrels the way other people feed birds. (Dad's is who also started taking me squirrel hunting when I was about 3-4 years old.)

In the fall, we'd go out and gather walnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts, sometimes beech nuts. Bushels of 'em. Dad would store 12-15 bushels in the basement, sometimes more in a shed. He also gleaned field corn on the cob. Bushels.

He had a feeding tray or two in a big haw tree right by the back porch. He would crack the walnuts and hickory nuts—just enough to make pieces, say 4 to a walnut—to make eating easier on the squirrels. He had nails in the tree to which he stuck the corn.

Every squirrel in the neighborhood came and ate, and Dad would stand by the window at at the door and watch, chuckling.

He also fixed a pin on the end of a bamboo stick about 4 feet long, and kept a coffee can of walnut meats which he'd picked out. He'd stick a piece of nut on the pin, and hold the treat out to a squirrel, talking gently, waiting patiently until the nervous squirrel got up the nerve to take the proffered nutmeat. Gradually, Dad would shorten his grip on the bamboo stick, making the squirrel come closer and closer for its treat. In this way, the squirrels learned to be hand fed and quite tame—toward Dad.

We didn't have a big enough place to keep any sort of livestock, though I did raise banta chickens for a couple of years. Folks who did raise chickens (full size, old-fashioned breeds) sometimes brought a few by and we'd wring their necks or chop their heads off. I didn't like that much. I don't think I'd ever be able to raise a pig or calf and kill and butcher it. I could butcher someone else's pig or beef (not kill it) as that's not much different than butchering a deer or elk or moose. And I've bought side of beef and done my own butchering. But it would take some effort on my part to raise my own steaks.

[Hey, it's pouring the snow here. Maybe an inch down already. Looks like real winter out today.. Lovely!]

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Well, old venerable grizzled one, NOT ALL CALIFORNIANS are optimists. Have you seen our state's fiscal crisis numbers??? Yikes.

Yes, we're using the posts and nesting boxes to attract predators of ESPECIALLY the ground squirrels. Lots of horses and cattle fall into their holes and weakened soil and break legs (as do humans). But really, when you get down to it, it is just that they don't neatly fit into what we WANT them to do or be. So it sounds like our problem.

I love red and gray squirrels and am willing to share things with them and have actually set up some great ways to keep them from attacking newly planted bulbs etc. Scientists feel that squirrels can smell freshly turned soil, which often means freshly supplied goodies for them.

Many of our local wineries, especially the organic growers, now have owl boxes to handle other rodent issues. At night the owls patrol the vineyards and catch mice and rats.

Keep on writing and I think I'll pass on eating squirrel.

Sharon Lovejoy Writes From Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

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

Sharon…

Hey, anyone who lives in a state which might, a moment from now, break off and fall into the sea, is definitely an optimist! :-D (And for the record, it was Debbie who called you folks optimists.)

I hope you know I was just poking some good-natured fun at the whole notion of attracting sufficient numbers of raptors to control the squirrel boom. From the photos I saw, you do have a squirrel problem.

That's one of the problems when we pave, subdivide, fence, mow, log, mono-culture, or some other way alter the land, which thus alters the entire system of animals and all their intricate tiers of predator/prey relationships. It's good that at least some responsible parties are now trying to correct, or at least minimize, such impacts. Your wineries are to be commended. They're in such beautiful, rolling, open country, it appears, and there's no reason why owls and hawks and a host of other creatures can't live there in balance—and the outcome be good for everything all around.

BTW, that attraction for squirrels to fresh-turned ground also stems from their burial-storage habits for nuts and seeds. When they find a patch of dug-up ground, they likey think: A) Ahh-ha, so this was where I hid those walnuts! or B) Ahhh-ha, so this is where old Arnie hid his nuts!

Enjoyed hearing from you. And I'm going to optimistically hope you visit and comment again.

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Yes, Grizzled One, you can be optimistic about me visiting again, I do so about once a week.

From crazy California I send a big THANK YOU!

Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

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

Sharon…

One a week is fine; visiting is what counts!

Whitemist said...

I also food have thought of a food source first, but also will use "common ecological solutions" to many problems. wasps for my garden (attracted by anise flowers), sparrow hawk boxes to protect chickens (sparrow hawks are extremely territorial and will chase away larger hawks easily), etc...

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

Whitemist…

I think you're exactly right about using natural controls/solutions to problems whenever possible. More technology, chemistry, or meddling seldom works well in the majority of situations…not to mention that it is often cost prohibitive.

Of course the real solution would be to not get ourselves into these messes to begin with. If we thought beyond the more-is-better scenario, did not put profit first at any cost, and remembered that what we leave in our wake is the next generation's future, and we had just a smidgen of respect for the world in which we live, that would go a long way to avoiding so many problems.

BTW, don't know whether this is your first visit to Riverdaze or just your first comment, but please know that it is good to have you and that you are always welcome.

Anna said...

Glad that I don't have squirrel problems yet, but I think I will once my chestnut three will start producing chestnuts, lol. Happy New Year 2010. Anna :) BTW I love the image.

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

Anna…

Sorry be slow in getting back to you—I've been out running errands since dawn.

Hey, I'm glad I don't have squirrel problems either—not like the folks in California, anyway. They appeared to have squirrels coming out of their ears! Of course you may be in the same boat once that chestnut tree matures. Let me know; I'll ship you a hawk.