Saturday, March 15, 2008

Should We "Interfere"? Helping in the Urban Jungle.

Eldest (St. John's nest, 2006) on the short roof of the chapel at the rear of the Cathedral. These roofs have accessibility to trees.

In response to yesterday's post concerning the possibility of helping fledged eyasses, who cannot gain altitude for flight the first few days, or help themselves up out of harms way, blog reader Roe who is a falconer, sent a comment concerning grounded eyasses. ---

If the hawk is going to live in the city he'll have to learn about it. I wouldn't interfere at all. Though it would be hard on me if he were killed, I am a falconer and have one of these birds myself. He's got to learn about fences and cars and people the hard way because that's nature’s way.


Cathedral eyass eating food dropped off by her parents on the landing of scaffolding. These positions helped keep the eyasses out of the parking lot with its cars just below the nest.


Without a doubt there is some relevance to that point of view and you're right the youngster will have to learn about all the challenges that cities are crammed with. In fact not interfering in nature's way is a view commonly held by many. I've noticed many who do hold the view live in the country where wildlife is often living in natural environments for which their species has evolved. Where my country uncle for instance puts it rather over bluntly, "Some animals are just too dumb to live." And there could be something to that, though perhaps put a little less bluntly.

In fact most of us would probably find that bluntness more than a little over the top, but it did get me to thinking about whether or not there was some truth to it. If an animal can't figure out a fence, or cars, or whatever urban trials might come it's way, during the first 2 or 3 days off the nest, is that a lack of cognition, is the bird just a little dummy, or is there some bad timing, or we could say, bad luck, involved if she finds herself flightless and grounded and runs in front of a car.

This eyass has managed to get up the scaffolding and side of the Cathedral to perch on the long balustrade of a wide balcony on the church.

Back when I was training in field biology, I went to a conference at the Field Museum in Chicago at which a number of scientific papers was being read. Now, we've been taught in regards to evolution, that the most fit for survival members of a species are the ones who survive to reproduce. (Technically it should be ...the ones who tend to survive to reproduce.)

At any rate, at that conference a scientist presented a paper which suggested that things weren't really quite that simple because there were any number of anomalies which could cause a group of animals to survive who might not technically be the fittest. For instance, say a virus is devastating a species of marine life. This virus is carried by certain ocean currents of a certain temperature. If a group of these marine animals happen to be in a bay in which the infected currents do not reach, then they have had the luck to survive and reproduce.

Eyass trundles over into the shade and watches the sparrows and people below from the safety of a landing in the scaffolding.

Red-tailed Eyasses have evolved to survive in certain environments, and fledging off buildings into areas without branching opportunities or anything that will allow any of them to get any elevation and out of danger, wasn't in the usual evolutionary game plan.

Mom circles with food. If the eyass is high enough, in a position the parent finds safe for her, the parent will deposit the food nearby. If it doesn't look safe to mom she will tempt the eyass from a higher position hoping to tempt the eyass into trying to find a way to get up to the food and therefore a safer position.

True, true, Red-tailed hawks are adaptable generalists and the bonded adults have adapted to living, breeding, and finding nesting sites in urban areas. These sites are hard to come by and don't often match all the possible criteria for the perfect dream nest site. And it looks to me, from looking at the various very urban sites, that just exactly where the eyasses may land on their maiden flight, and whether they'll have branching opportunities to get some height when they are grounded is way down the list of adult hawk criteria. Behind such factors as will the spot hold up a nest? Will the young and sitting bird be reasonably safe from people and predators? Does the spot have some privacy? Are there adjacent hunting grounds? The list goes on and on.

Having found a parentally placed snack this eyass now perches on a scaffold bar and looks down. He is considering killing a rock, which he will soon pounce on. The rock is some feet down on a "step" of the Cathedral wall. This impulse will cause him to go low again and he will have to be tempted to branch back up again by food.

Because eyasses come off nests without the ability to gain elevation and there are often no branching opportunities in most urban settings, yes I think we should help them to help themselves by possibly increasing branching opportunities and looking out for them the first few days. In more natural settings eyasses seldom have the bad luck to have a street with cars as their most likely first landing area.

Well, someone might say, their parents placed the nest there. It's their look out. Yes, their parents did. Their parents didn't have a whole lot of nesting site options and as I inferred, I'm not sure the parents are wired to take fledge landing into their top criteria priorities.

Okay, perhaps then the young shouldn't survive? Evolution will eventually introduce fledge landing criteria for the adult's wired criteria lists. And maybe that's true.

But in the meantime, we'll loose more eyasses than we already do despite our best efforts. Urban Red-tails do us a lot of favors by being here. The Red-tails at St. John's in previous years have killed and eaten hundreds of rats. Much nicer and natural than rat poison.

Urban Red-tails introduce many many urban people and their children to the wonder and beauty of nature. There are some people in cities who can't believe that there are actually large birds, such as raptors who aren't owned by anyone. That they actually do take care of themselves is a new idea for some people.

When someone unfamiliar with wildlife looks though a birding scope at an urban hawk's nest, their face often transforms. For some, that look not only transforms their faces it transforms their lives. Therefore a little help on our end for a few days for the fledglings, seems a fair trade as we've created an environment in which a few necessary pieces for ready survival of young can sometimes be missing.

Eldest and Youngest, after they've increased their strength enough to gain elevation in flight, perched on the Cathedral School.

By the time the eyasses are able to gain elevation in flight, there are still myriad challenges that will test their fitness and their capacity for survival.

Those young that do not learn their lessons about cars, poisoned rats, fences, and how to hunt-- to name a few, will not survive. Or, as this isn't a natural environment where a damaged animal just "disappears", there could be the chaos that ensued last season when Charlotte and Jr.'s eyass found herself grounded. Lots of city personnel spent time on the issue. Time and money were spent by wildlife rehabilitator Bobby Horvath in tending the eyass for some weeks before permission could be gotten from the city to release the eyass. In the meantime her parents were at their wits end looking for her. And what if the eyass for want of branching opportunities, was hit by a car, not killed outright and then after pain and suffering had to be euthanized as there are no wolves or fox to quickly end the youngster's suffering?

We have skewered nature in urban areas and perhaps we owe a helping hand now and again. It won't always work, but in the meantime we can experiment with options and we will learn to give the right helping hands, come the time when perhaps there aren't so many Red-tails left on the Earth anymore as has happened in the past with our Peregrines and Bald Eagles.

Besides look at that face!
That is a face that those following the nest's story will have watched start as an egg, hatch into a white fluff ball, and eventually gain flight feathers. People will have gasped at their danger when the Falcons attack, worried they're getting enough to eat, had heart palpitations when they flap and hop on the edge of the nest, and then held their breath with a surge of adrenalin when they finally make their first flight.

For some it is not science. Particularly for those who have never been allowed contact with any animals at all. For those who have never watched another species, another nation with it's own families going about their daily business, it is a revelation. For many it does become personal and that can be a good thing for the world's future. And for themselves, they will remember the experience with joy for the rest of their lives.

Donegal Browne.

P.S. Not only do many adults follow the stories of our nesting urban Red-tails and therefore would be sad if they ended up hit by a car, but there are any number of small children who follow the birds adventures daily. The empathy for wildlife learned at this age will last a lifetime. These children will be the hope for a future with an environmental conscience They will learn soon enough that some young animals will not make it to adulthood. Best first to hope they have the joy to see some that do live, thrive, and fly free, so they will continue to watch, not turn away in tears and not look back.


Roe said...

I used to live in Phoenix and there were peregrines nesting on a building downtown. Sadly the young died every year due to heat, and lack of places to fledge. Due to the fact that Peregrines were recently an endangered species I did advocate interfering to protect these birds, but honestly they shouldn't be nesting downtown. They'd have much better chances nesting elsewhere.

Truthfully though I guess I feel that while being adaptable is one of the greatest features of the red tail, I don't think it is serving lola or pale male well. They are the "dumb" red tails in my opinion. They are failing to procreate every year because of their chosen nest site, when they could fly to the mainland and have a much better chance.

I agree that there are a lot of contributing factors about why animals survive in nature. Honestly though the fact that hawks are surviving in downtown Manhattan is more of a novelty than anything else. Like you, I would enjoy seeing these birds every day however I think you should remember that unlike peregrines, burrowing owls and other species that are or were once threatened there are "Millions" of red tails. This is really the only reason I don't totally advocate interfering with the branches of pale male and lola.

Roe said...

Also I guess I should add, that I would always interfere to keep a hawk getting hit by a car, but I wouldn't step in to help it learn about people or fences. There shouldn't be too much of a problem with people hurting this bird as it's either a serious misdemeanor or a felony.

Where the fences are concerned they need to figure it out for themselves, it's a learning experience.

Karen Anne said...

I'l speak up for Lola and Pale Male. They successfully raised young at the nest for a number of years. It is probably hard for them to understand that there is now a problem with the nest site.

I'm not sure what roe means by the mainland, since I am not a New Yorker, but if I were a redtailed hawk, I would be loathe to leave what appears to be a prime prey territory and safety at Central Park. Also, John Blackman has said other areas seem to be taken in terms of territory.

Here's hoping for successful young this year.