The Hawk and the Herbicide
Here’s a little story of a glimpse into the life of a hawk field biologist and the lives of the ferruginous hawks themselves:
Recently Mara and I went to change the batteries at one of our camera nests, which is beside a fallow field (like much of the area, it had been too wet to plant.) We were upset to see that the nest had partially fallen and only one nestling remained, perched on a branch over the former nest. Several of the nests we monitor have fallen or partially fallen, generally after high winds or rainstorms.
I briefly searched the tall grass below the nest, but there was no sign of the other nestling. Our attention turned to the batteries, when the noise of approaching machinery caused us to look up and a massive sprayer drove out into the field. The farmer stopped and we chatted with him a while, as he was the one who owns the land and gave us permission to monitor the nest. We let him know that one of the nestlings was missing. Afterwards he moved a little farther off as not to spray us, and then started spraying.
I didn’t particularly want to be anywhere near there while herbicide was being applied, but something was wrong with the recording equipment so I ran back to the truck to get a replacement. While returning I noticed a brown lump out in the weeds. Mara checked with binoculars and confirmed my guess– there was the second nestling, now a fledgling. I didn’t think it was the best idea for an endangered bird not quite able to fly to be out in a field getting poisons applied to it so I ran out to get him. I tried to toss my hat over his head to hood him, so he wouldn’t know where to strike with his feet. Instead he grabbed the hat, which kept his talons safety occupied while I carried him back. I was completely focussed on him and while I heard his mum screaming at me, I didn’t even noticed his dad taking a dive at me, as Mara later reported.
I put him in the grass under the nest and told him it was a good idea to stay in the shade.
However, he is at the age where he thought he knew what was best, and if not quite ready to be out in the open skies, he wanted to be out in the open fields. So as we tried to quickly finish up with the recording equipment, he marched out into the field again.
There are so many dangers out there for young birds to face. Later in the day I checked on a nest bush that I had found fallen over previously, with one nestling remaining balanced on part of the nest. This time that last nestling was gone and I found the remains of wing feathers about 15 m away from the nest and coyote scat a little farther off. It is always very saddening to find a nest failed.
Hopefully this guy is as street-smart as he thinks he is and he and his sibling make it.