Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Bird in the Hand

This week I am staying in Prince Edward County--the birder's paradise to the south of thomasburg--the almost island in Lake Ontario. And it hasn't disappointed. The first day I was here I saw a red-bellied woodpecker, a first for me!

The red-bellied woodpecker is another in that gang of birds that are expanding north. Sibley's range map shows them to occur in a very narrow band on the north shore of Lake Ontario--and I'd been hearing a lot about them in the last couple of years, so it was a pleasure to finally see one. The first time I saw it, it was feeding high in the little bit of hardwood forest that borders the yard here. I am staying in a friend's empty house. It was empty for a couple of weeks before I arrived, so the feeders were empty. I filled the seed feeder and put out a suet cake as soon as I arrived (and was almost knocked down by a chickadee as I was hanging the seed feeder back up!) A couple of days later I saw the red-bellied woodpecker again, this time on the suet feeder, of which there is a terrific view from the livingroom. I ran for my camera--batteries too low. Find the knapsack with the other set of batteries, put them in, all the while glancing over to see if the bird was still there. It was! But then it caught the movement of my coming up to the glass doors and fled before I could raise the camera.

Meantime, back in Thomasburg, I hear, there has been a mature bald eagle hanging around for a couple of days in one spot--easily seen by anyone who can get there. But of course I could not--over an hour away, and I heard too late....I've seen bald eagles fly over a couple of times in Thomasburg (have had much better sightings of them down here in the County), but never sitting in a tree. Oh well, traded one good bird for another--not a bad thing.

Later I heard an explanation of why the eagle was hanging out near the hamlet. The rumour is that neighbours were baiting coyotes with meat in order to shoot them, and the eagle was there to share the free meal. As far as I can tell this is a legal, though not traditional, hunting method. And if you have a small game license you can take coyotes anytime of the year in my area (there are some restrictions on the season in Northern Ontario, and there is a ban on the hunting of coyotes around Algonquin Park to protect the very similar Eastern Wolf there). I am frankly ambivalent about this activity. I like to hear coyotes in the night (where I'm staying now I hear them constantly and close by), and I like the occasional sighting too. But I was a little concerned when I saw a couple on the streets of the hamlet last winter (see Signs of the Apocalypse), at about 10:00 one night. Too close, too bold. (Up until last year there was a large and always loose dog in the hamlet--he caused no trouble, and was not one to seek confrontation, but he barked at anything that needed to be barked at, and probably discouraged the coyotes from coming around the houses.) The ideal situation would be that we share the space--protect livestock better and tolerate some losses, and behave sensibly: no feeding, discourage close contact.

But hunting is a quick way to teach a smart animal to keep a respectful distance from human beings. Just before I came down here I was thinking about the apparently predatory attack on and killing of a young man at Wollaston Lake in northern Saskatchewan by wolves. I was reminded by this post at The House and Other Arctic Musings. The Saskatchewan wolves were "habituated" wolves--they had been eating garbage and being fed by human beings around human habitation, and this was the cause of the problem. Clare's story at The House was about arctic wolves around his home, in the course of it he mentioned that the wolves were hunted in his area, and so were shy of human beings.

Learning to live with larger predators such as coyotes, wolves, cougars, bears is crucial to our being able to restore and/or maintain healthy, diverse habitats. Too many deer and other browsers, for example, are a threat to ecosytems all over North America. (Here's just one of many stories: Deer Eliminate Bears, from Bootstrap Analysis) There has already been some recovery of habitat in Yellowstone as a result of the reintroduction of wolves there in/around 1995, because they've been eating up some of the excess elk. But it's been difficult everywhere to overcome human beings' sense of entitlement not to have their property (i.e., sheep, etc.) threatened, and not to have their sense of security impinged in any way by other species.


Anonymous said...

It is such a touchy topic, Pamela, isn't it? Although I have to say that in all my years of living in Northern Ontario not once did I ever feel threatened by any wildlife. I have had random bullets land in my garden shed and found casings on my property and have encountered trespassing hunters with loaded shotguns, though. And bait put out by neighbours has lured many animals into traps not intended for them. We hunt partridge and moose ourselves, but careless, lazy hunters are the biggest threat, and those who wish to exterminate just for the sake turning everything into one big safe suburb.

Anonymous said...

I never really thought much about baiting as a style of hunting. It just doesn't sit with my sensibilities, and I don't think it is a good thing to lure wild predators to a house. Well wild mammalian predators, I loved to have shrikes at my feeder coming to the redpolls I put out for them. :-)

I must admit I did enjoy calling as a method of hunting (both with rifle/bow and with camera). All manner of game animals can be called in and I highly recommend it for someone who wishes to lure fox and coyote in for a closer look, although sometimes it can be uncomfortably close.

Anonymous said...

The topic of hunting is a tricky one. Where I live, hunting is not a necessity, but a choice, an inconvenient one at that. I'm strongly against killing things for the hell of it. On the other hand, I feel that people might make more sustainable dietary decisions if they had to hunt for their steaks.

Anyway, my purpose in your comments section isn't to add my two cents about an issue I have little personal experience with. I just wanted to say how enjoyable it is to hear your excitement over a bird I take for granted. Red-bellies are extremely common here in New York, the product of their long march northward. I often drool over the boreal/arctic birds you and the Canadian clan (Clare and Trix, take a bow) see, so it's nice to see the shoe on the other foot!