The Red-tailed Hawk’s vision is eight times more powerful than a human’s, allowing it see a small rodent such as a mouse or vole from 100 feet away. It dove into the tall dry grass making a loud crackly rushing sound but, came up empty-mouthed. Again it flew to the top of the Pink House chimney from where, only a few moments later, it made a second dive.When diving to catch prey, their speed may exceed 120 miles per hour, and no joke, this Hawk’s speed appeared to increase as it became torpedo-like in shape.
Watching this beautiful creature hunting at day’s end, it was fascinating to see the Marsh Hawk hovering, suspended mid-air for moments at a time. With razor sharp focus it’s gaze did not swerve. He swooped down toward the tall grass and I lost sight of him after a brief, second long glance from the ground. I hope he caught his dinner!
Marsh Hawk range map, note that Cape Ann and Plum Island are in their year-round range. In Massachusetts, they breed primarily along the coast and are regularly seen in coastal marshes in the winter. The Northern Harrier has experienced population declines through much of its North American range. Due to its dependence on rare and vulnerable habitats, the Marsh Hawk is listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a species of national wildlife concern.
Northern Harriers hunt during the day. They are the most owl-like of all hawks in that they hunt by sight and by sound. Northern Harriers even look a bit like Short-eared Owls.
Northern Harriers share the same habitat with Short-eared Owls. Skirmishes over territory between the two species often occur late in the day as the Harriers are settling in for the night and the Shorties are stepping out to hunt.
Several friends have asked whether or not I was freaked out by the mouse running up my dress and out my coat sleeve. No, I wasn’t. Surprised, but not panicked, and just happy the frightened little thing did not bite me.
We live in an old house and are occasionally visited by mice, despite my husband’s best efforts at sealing any cracks that may develop in the almost one hundred and seventy five-year-old mortar of the granite foundation. Our cat, Cosmos, before he suffered severe brain damage from a coyote attack, was the best mouser ever. Now that Cosmos has retired, Tom uses Have-a-Heart traps.
I have written about this topic previously, but never in a million years would we use a rodenticide. The first reason being is that if one of our beautiful raptors (including owls, hawks, falcons, and eagles), eats a rat or mouse that has ingested rat poison, the raptor will most surely perish. For example, the majority of Snowy Owls that die in our region and are autopsied, have been killed by rat poison. Secondly, most rats, after ingesting poison, will return to their nest ie., that cozy spot behind your wall. Working in theatre for many years, I encountered more than a few rats, as well as well meaning types who decided to kill rats with rodenticide. If you have ever smelled a dead rat laying behind an inaccessible theatre wall, you would never again use rat poison (and the odor lasts for weeks!).
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed in 1918. The treaty is a seminal piece of legislation that has saved, and continues to save, the life of billions upon billions of North American birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic, Audubon, and BirdLife have created a timely alliance, joining forces this year to celebrate birds, while also raising awareness about the current dangers that they face.
I have been thinking a great deal about the Year of the Bird while out photographing and today on an early morning dune walk, a juvenile Bald Eagle flew overhead, soaring high, high up in the clouds. It was a first for me, to see a Bald Eagle, and it was simply thrilling. Bald Eagles have been helped tremendously by the stewardship allowed for under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, and the banning of DDT.
Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are one of eight species in the genus Haliaeetus, or “sea” eagles. They are the largest birds of prey in Massachusetts, with a wing span of six to seven feet. Bald Eagles were extirpated (made non-existent) from Massachusetts during the early 1900s. From 1982 to 1988, forty-one young Bald Eagles from Michigan and Canada were relocated to Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts. Eagle numbers have increased steadily since that time. In 2015 (most recent record), the highest number ever recorded, at least 51 pairs, of Bald Eagles maintained breeding territories in Massachusetts.
Why are birds so important? I can think of myriad reasons–practical, aesthetic, and personal. Practically speaking, birds are like the earth’s housekeepers. They annually eat trillions of insects and pick clean carcasses of millions of dead animals. Many species of birds are pollinators–think of hummingbirds sipping nectar from zinnias and Baltimore Orioles drinking nectar from flowering fruit trees along their northward migratory route. Birds, too, are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The presence and abundance of birds (or lack thereof) speaks to the health of our environment.
BIRDS ARE BEAUTIFUL! They connect us to the natural world that surrounds, and everyone can enjoy their beauty. We don’t all have access to daily bear watching, elephant safaris, or whaling adventures, but everyone can look out their window or go for a hike and see a beautiful bird. Evolved from dinosaurs, but bellwethers for the future, protecting birds and their habitats ensures a healthy planet for future generations.
The History and Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
The law has already saved billions of birds’ lives. Here’s how it’s accomplished so much in its 100-year history.
Passed a century ago, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the harming of just about all native birds, along with their nests and eggs. To this day it remains the primary tool for protecting non-endangered species. As threats to birds continue to evolve, so does the law itself.
Here’s a look back at some of the key moments in the law’s evolution to date.
1800s: With essentially zero regulations in place, market hunters decimate U.S. bird populations, in part so that well-to-do women can wear hats adorned with ornamental feathers. By the end of the century, Labrador Ducks and Great Auks are extinct, soon to be joined by Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Heath Hens. Numerous other species stand on the brink. Outrage over these alarming trends leads to the formation of the first Audubon societies, as well as other conservation groups.
1900: Congress passes the Lacey Act, the first federal law to protect wildlife. It takes aim at market hunters by prohibiting them from selling poached game across state lines.
1913: Congress passes the Weeks-McLean Migratory Bird Act, which, in another broadside against market hunters, bans the spring shooting of migratory game and insectivorous birds and declares them to be under the “custody and protection” of the federal government. However, two district courts soon rule the act unconstitutional.
1916: The United States signs a treaty with Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada, then part of the British Empire), in which the two countries agree to stop all hunting of insectivorous birds and to establish specific hunting seasons for game birds. The stated goal is to preserve those species considered beneficial or harmless to man.
1918: To implement the new treaty, Congress passes the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which officially makes it a crime to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill,” or “sell” a migratory bird or any of its parts, including nests, eggs, and feathers. The newly passed act eliminates “the necessity of watching the legislation of every state and of combating the numberless attempts to legalize the destruction of birds for private gain,” according to famed ornithologist Frank M. Chapman (also the founder of Audubon magazine).
1920: The U.S. Supreme Court shoots down a challenge to the constitutionality of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, ruling that it does not violate states’ rights.
1936: Following up on its treaty with Great Britain, the United States signs a similar treaty with Mexico (it would go on to sign additional treaties with Japan and the Soviet Union in the 1970s). As a result, more birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and habitat conservation and pollution abatement is encouraged.
1940: Congress passes the Bald Eagle Protection Act, the first federal legislation to ban hunting or otherwise disturbing America’s national emblem (it would later be amended to include Golden Eagles). Modeled after the MBTA, it nonetheless fails to stem the Bald Eagle’s decline at the hands of DDT poisoning.
1970s: For the first time, U.S. prosecutors begin charging not just hunters who violate the MBTA, but also oil and gas, timber, mining, chemical, and electricity companies. Though not directly targeting wildlife, these industries incidentally cause millions of bird deaths each year that could have been avoided with simple infrastructure modifications, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In publicly available documents, the DOJ states that it will first notify companies of a violation and work with them to correct it. But if they “ignore, deny, or refuse to comply” with best management practices, then the “matter may be referred for prosecution.”
1972: An amendment to the MBTA protects an additional 32 families of birds, including eagles, hawks, owls, and corvids (crows, jays, and magpies). Even more species have been added since, bringing the total number to 1,026—almost every native species in the United States. With such additions, the word “‘migratory” in the act’s title becomes largely symbolic—many birds that do not embark on actual migrations are still protected.
2000: A federal appeals court holds that private citizens (such as conservation groups) may sue the government over alleged violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Nonetheless, they remain unable to sue out-of-compliance private companies, which differs in that regard from the Endangered Species Act and many other environmental laws.
2001: Just before leaving office, President Bill Clinton orders all relevant federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and the U.S. Forest Service, to take migratory bird conservation into account as part of their regular decision making.
2002: A federal district court rules that the U.S. Navy violated the MBTA during live-fire exercises in the northern Marianas Islands. Congress responds by exempting the incidental taking of birds during “military readiness activities.”
2013: In a first, the Department of Justice enforces the MBTA against a wind farm operator, imposing $1 million in penalties for the killing of Golden Eagles and other protected birds at two sites in Wyoming. It follows this up a year later with $2.5 million in penalties against a second Wyoming wind farm operator. Actual enforcement of the MBTA against these problems tends to be sporadic.
2015: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces that it will rethink the MBTA’s implemention to hold industries more accountable for the harm they do to birds. Specifically, the changes will address bird deaths due to open oil pits, power lines, gas flares, cell phone towers, and wind turbines—which combined kill millions of birds each year.
2017: The Trump Administration does away with the USFWS’s potential rulemaking updates. Also in 2017, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) introduced an amendment to the SECURE American Energy Act that would change liability under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to no longer cover incidental takes. This would prevent any enforcement of industrial impacts, end accountability from oil spills, and removed incentives to protect birds, all of which Audubon opposes.
“Rep. Cheney is giving oil and gas companies and other industries a free pass to kill birds with impunity,” said David Yarnold, Audubon’s President and CEO, in an official statement.
On the lookout for Snowy Owls, I instead encountered this scene of a Peregrine Falcon eating a freshly killed bird. At one point I caught a quick glimpse of what I think was a webbed duck foot, but could possibly also have been a cormorant. Despite all the gore, the Falcon was exquisite to observe. Especially beautiful were the hues of its slate blue wings in the early morning light.
Peregrine Falcons eat mostly birds. Over 450 species of bird prey have been documented in North America alone. From the tinniest Ruby-throated Hummingbird to the enormous Sand Hill Crane, few birds are safe from the talons of the Peregrine Falcon.
The Falcon methodically eviscerated its prey, all the while watching gulls, crows, me, and any other potential thief.
Did you know that the Peregrine Falcon is the world’s fastest bird? A bird’s airspeed velocity is variable. During a hunting dive the Peregrine Falcon will average about 200 miles per hour; 242 miles per hour is the maximum speed recorded. The Golden Eagle is the second fastest bird, with an average diving speed of 150 miles per hour and a maximum speed of 200 mph.
Excerpted from The Nature Conservancy
Peregrines are fast, aggressive creatures and are on top of their food chain. While young Peregrines are preyed upon by Golden Eagle and Great Horned Owls there are few threats towards the adults other than man.
By the mid 1960’s, there were NO Peregrines in the eastern United States and the decline spread westwards so that by the mid-70’s western populations had declined by up to 90 percent. It was estimated that 3,875 nesting pairs were found
in North America prior to the 40’s; by 1975, only 324 pair existed in the US. Loss of habitat, shootings, egg collecting and other human disturbances had weakened North American populations for decades but drastic declines didn’t occur until after the widespread use of a popular insecticide – DDT. Like the canary in the coalmine, the Peregrine Falcon provided humans a warning as how chemical pollution can disrupt the environment and the life around it.
The use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, began during World War II as an extremely effective pesticide. Its use continued after the war as a way to control agricultural pests and in killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Unfortunately it would be years later before it was understood that DDT would have adverse effects on a variety of ecologically important insects, birds, and the environment. Bats, Fireflies and Peregrine Falcons were just a few species that were greatly affected. Editor’s note: In the United States, DDT was manufactured by some 15 companies, including Monsanto, Ciba, Montrose Chemical Company, Pennwalt, and Velsicol Chemical Corporation.
For the Peregrine Falcon, DDT poisoning was due to its being on top of the food chain. After consuming other birds that fed on seeds, insects and fish contaminated with DDT, the poison eventually accumulated in its system. High concentrations of a DDT metabolite called DDE prevented normal calcium production causing thin, frail eggshells that would break under the weight of the parent during incubation. Because of the toxic contaminant, many eggs did not hatch and the populations precipitously dropped until a mere 12% of normal peregrine falcon populations remained in the United States.
In 1970, the American Peregrine Falcon was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 (and then again in 1973 when the Endangered Species Act passed). Encouraged by the EPA’s banning of DDT in 1972, recovery projects began to take shape. Beginning in 1974, The Peregrine Fund, along with various national and state agencies in both the United States and Canada, embarked on a reintroduction program for the peregrine falcon.
Thanks to the scientists and researchers at Cornell University, adult birds were successfully bred in captivity. After the eggs hatched, they were raised in the labs until three weeks old. They were then placed in hack sites (artificial nesting sites) where they were fed and cared for by unseen benefactors until flight and hunting skills were developed enough for them to become independent. More than 6,000 American Peregrine Falcons have been released in North America since 1974 due to the cooperative efforts among federal and state Fish & Wildlife Services, The Peregrine Fund, Midwestern Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project and the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group.
The success of these recovery programs allowed the declassification of the Peregrine Falcon as a federally endangered species in 1999. Although the bird of prey remains federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and will be monitored until 2015, the survival of the Peregrine Falcon marked the most dramatic success of the Endangered Species Act.