A Cautionary Tale of Hawks, Crows and Barn Swallows

I’m getting old, so there are plenty of things I’ve forgotten (and so many more I wish I could forget) but I will always remember a friend of mine, having heard about a shark being killed near our beach, saying, “I don’t care about any old shark.” I was horrified as she was normally an intelligent person, who should have understood how desperately important sharks are. We would literally be doomed without them! They are a crucial piece of the ecology and balance of our oceans.

I thought of her last week after a sad sequence of events reminded me how important every single wild animal is on our farm (except for mosquitos of course . . . I don’t care about any old mosquitoes!) Now, we have never had so many baby bunnies on our property. I was confused until I realized that this is the first year a pair of young red-tail hawks in training, children of our old friend Victoria, never showed up. And then I realized I had not seen Victoria in several months, but I had attributed that to her being busy raising babies. 

Normally by now the young hawks have arrived with their mama, screaming and calling to each other all day long, sometimes accompanied by Victoria but mostly left to their own devices. The air battles between the hawks and crows rage while they establish their territory, and the hawks always win. They perch on tree branches and fences near the barn doors, swooping down to grab any rats that appear (there aren’t many of them since our cat, Magellan, showed up several springs ago.) They also keep the bunnies in check, which is kinda heartbreaking, but this is the first year I lost all my carrots to an infestation of floppy-eared cuteness, a sure sign of imbalance. 

Last Monday I learned how tragic the lack of hawks has been for our little farm. Every year, hundreds of barn swallows are hatched out and raised in the horse barn. We love to watch the process from the arrival of the first pairs, to the shoring up of the old nests, to the hatching of the babies and then .  .  . the insanity of flight school, with dozens of fledglings zipping through the barn aisles, often just barely missing our faces as we work. We love them. They eat mosquitoes. They also eat the moths that lay eggs in my squash plants, which hatch into worms that eat the stems and keep me from having huge harvests. Now that I plant squash in the manure pile near the barn, I have the best pumpkins of my life!! The swallows, bless their little hearts, eat the damned moths, or feed them to their babies. They are not only charming, but they are also useful!

Anyways, last Monday, a pair of crows flew into the barn while I was cleaning stalls. I was shocked, as it was the first time in 22 years I’d seen that. I yelled at them to get out, and they did, but when I moved to the other end of the barn, they barreled back in and grabbed several babies out of their nests, little fledglings that were almost ready to be on their own. Bastards! I raced out the door, screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs (you may have heard me – my husband thought I was yelling at him as he heard “you bastard!” multiple times.) Dozens of mama and papa swallows circled the indoor arena, screaming and diving at the roof, where one of the crows perched, disemboweling a baby swallow. I was sick. 

The raids continued for several days until all the babies had been killed. An entire generation wiped out due to a lack of red-tailed hawks. 

I hope all of you follow the Facebook page of A Place Called Hope, a raptor rescue in Connecticut. We have called them several times when we’ve found dying hawks, poisoned by rats who have been killed with rat poison. We are seldom able to save their lives, as by the time we find them, sometimes even huddled in the barn, they are near death. We have even found them crouched over the rat that, in the end, caused their death. A Place Called Hope has posted more poisoned hawks and owls this year than ever and are constantly calling for the ban of rodent poisons as they wreak havoc on raptors, not to mention cats, dogs, foxes, coyotes . . . all the animals that keep the balance of nature. By poisoning the rodents, you are also killing their natural predators and causing an explosion of rodents in your area. And yes, those adorable bunnies, alas, are rodents, as well. 

People who use rat poison tend to be indifferent. I’ve conversed with several who became very angry that I burst their bubble of “ignorance.” It’s so much easier to poison than to have to pick dead rodents out of snap traps! But it’s very different for those of us who’ve spent a fortune saving cats who have been sickened by poisoned rats (for us, two cats, twice each, both miraculously surviving due to some serious heroics and a lot of money we didn’t need to spend.) For my neighbors whose dog died from eating a poisoned rat, it’s a living hell. For those of us who find the downed hawks, draped over their half-eaten prey, it’s a horror show. For the people of A Place Called Hope, it’s a lot of sleepless nights and buckets of tears and pleas for change. For the barn swallows of Locket’s Meadow, it’s a bloody massacre of one of the most useful and beloved birds a farm could ever wish for, not to mention cheerful, beautiful and entertaining.

The parent swallows are rebuilding and prepping their many nests to try for a second hatching. I can only hope that somewhere in the neighborhood Victoria still survives and she and her mate Victor are tending to a late pair of eggs, and their babies will arrive in time to save the next hatching from the delinquent crows. (I like crows, I really do . . . just NOT IN MY BARNS!) My heart can’t handle watching more babies get killed, nor seeing their parents mourn over empty nests. 

In all the years we’ve lived here, we have never seen so few hawks. Nor have we heard of so many cases of hawk poisoning. You may not care about any old hawk, but you should care about the lack thereof. Just like sharks, their job is crucial to the balance of nature both in the wild, and in our neighborhoods. 



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