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On Raptors, Rattlesnakes and Environmentalists

Posted by admin on March 2, 2012 in Birds, Musings |

For the last several months my wife Betty and I, along with our friend and bird watcher extraordinaire Leanne Lloyd-Fairey, have helped conduct a raptor watch for the Oregon, southwestern Idaho and southern Washington region. A lot of people are involved in this effort and we are a small cog in the machine that makes the survey work.

We have our own route, one we have surveyed in December, January, February and which we will survey in March. It’s about fifty miles in length and basically runs in the country north of Emmett, Idaho and west, bordered by the Payette River on the South and the foothills to the north.

I will probably insult someone here but just for those who don’t know, raptors are birds that hunt other living creatures. Hawks and falcons and eagles are raptors. But ravens are not and we often wonder why ravens are not since they are consummate hunters. Maybe it’s because they are more omnivorous than eagles. They eat bread and crack walnuts by dropping them on the pavement from thirty feet in the air. I doubt the things that differentiate ravens and their corvid relatives from raptors are as simple as diet. In our survey, owls are also raptors, but some of the bird books stick owls off by themselves.

Regardless, we usually get in our Honda and head north out of Boise about dawn and begin our route not long after the sun shows up. All of our route is in rural areas where they farm or raise livestock. There are some tree farms and a small taxidermist and slaughter house facility. There are some rural churches, some feedlots, a rural meeting place and dance hall, a school.

It has been a dry year in Idaho and most of what we have seen is the regulars, red tail hawks and kestrels. Each month it’s a battle between the two to see who is most populous. Red tails are large buteos that are shaped kind of like a football. They like to sit in the tops of trees and then soar and hunt from the air. Kestrels are small falcons that generally sit on telephone wires looking down for something very small to eat, an insect (but probably not in winter) or some small vertebrate. When I see kestrels sitting up there on the wire they remind me of old monks sitting on a stage looking down on their congregation, judging each. Kestrels are beautiful things, russet and blue with masks that are in some form, common on many falcons. Though visually attractive, these small birds are ferocious hunters.

This last go around, in February we saw a number of red tail hawks on or near the nest and even spotted a pair of dark morphs nest-building in a cottonwood tree in a marshy draw loaded with pheasants and quail. It was news to me, but evidently, to see two dark morphs on a single nest is unusual.

We also saw our first eagles of the survey, a golden eagle flying west over the foothills and a bald eagle flying west down river. We also saw a lot of northern harriers. Some people call them marsh hawks, and they do hunt over marshes but they also like to kite and sail and flit low over farm ground and pasture. The males were all out doing a harrier aerial dance, I suppose to impress the females. Not unlike most of the rest of us males in that regard.

I have always had an affinity for raptors and was trying to figure them out long before I got interested in watching birds of a different feather, to steal an overworked metaphor. Other than raptors the only birds I was interested in were the kind I could shoot. Wild turkeys, pheasants, quail, chukkar, dove, wild pigeons.

Although Betty and I began trying to identify individual bird species many years back, I usually pigeon-holed bird watchers in with environmentalists. For years environmentalists were my enemy mostly because I toiled in some aspect of the ag economy and we were often engaged in combat—intellectual, ethical and political—with the early environmental movement. I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist now, but I do wonder why we need to wipe out large numbers of species so that we aren’t obliged to alter our consumption behavior.

When I reckon on my past, I believe it was early on when I was still submerged in the high times of cattle and sheep that I might have begun to fathom that killing for fun and profit might not always be the best thing for the planet and inevitably for humans.

I was out hunting with my friends and colleagues, Robert and Ed Moser. We had just finished killing our limits of Gambel’s quail out south of Arizona City, Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. The country is flat there, with wide sweeps running up to jagged peaks that erupt out of the plains. There was a lot of mesquite and grease wood and Indian wheat and fillaree and the year had been wet and there had been three hatches of young quail and the hunting was fantastic.

We shared a six-pack of Coors and smoked cigarettes and, flushed with the thrill of the kill, admired the winter sun as it shone its low light across the flats, beaming over the northern shoulder of the Silver Reef Mountains on the Papago Indian Reservation to our west.

As we loaded up our weapons and cleaned up our mess, we spotted a small diamondback rattlesnake lying not far from where we had been killing our quail and killing our Coors. We went over to bother it with a stick. It tried to escape but looked like it had been run over by our, or someone’s, truck tire. For some reason, we did not kill that snake. We let it live. I don’t know if our relenting was caused by some sort of pity because it was damaged. I was always raised that if you saw a rattlesnake, you killed it. So I doubt it was pity. I suspect it was something more akin to an early recognition that everything has a right to live. And it just wasn’t me, it was my hunting buddies who seemed to feel the same way.

Since then, over the years, and there have been thirty-three of them, I have slowly come to understand that varieties of life convey value to our existence. I am not averse to hunting (like raptors and rattlesnakes, we are predators), to ranching, to farming, to energy exploitation, I just think it needs to be done with an eye to something besides money.

As for that maimed snake I didn’t kill. I suspect a blue darter or Harris hawk or some other raptor finished it off and consumed it, so that predator bird could continue on doing what it does.

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