This is Part III of Relocated. Don't miss: Part I. Intro: Off-Planet Part II. Toppled Tower
Part III. Duck Hawks and Beach Chickens
Most of us have at least a few peculiar gaps in our knowledge resulting from our unique blends of background, interest, and education. For example, I managed to walk around our planet for nearly four decades before I learned that there were birds who eat other birds.
I had never considered that this would even be a thing until the day I watched a herring gull steal someone’s bucket of fried chicken. “Don’t do it!” I screamed at the gull. “That’s just wrong!” I found the whole scene particularly taboo since I lovingly refer to herring gulls as beach chickens all the time.
Then one overcast but crowded, early August afternoon along the Jersey Shore, I was sitting lazily in my beach chair when a small, dark shadow whizzed right by me.
My interest in coastal birds was growing at this time, so I knew something unusual was happening and quickly grabbed my camera. As I struggled to keep her in focus, I marveled at how alternatingly graceful and chaotic this bird was, gliding as if she was forged of steel and precision, then flapping and screaming with huge, awkward, talon-tipped legs dangling below as she hovered frantically over the jetty in the low tide.
“That’s the strangest looking Osprey I’ve ever seen,” I thought. “She is never going to catch a fish like that.”
Running straight home to my trusted Frommer’s Guide To Birds of The Coast and discovering that I just saw a peregrine falcon would launch me on a journey which has led straight to this moment and this story you are reading right now. (So welcome. I’m glad our paths are crossing here.)
I actually learned two things that day.
I learned that there are birds who eat other birds. And I learned that sometimes peregrine falcon target my favorite shorebirds; even on crowded beaches when everyone is watching.
I had no idea at the time that this might be controversial.
A few years later, I had been spending most of my free time with both piping plovers and peregrine falcon for far too long for it to suddenly, first occur to me that I might theoretically see one eat the other some day. I immediately panicked. I never considered the possibility, even though I spend most of my best spring and summer days racing back and forth between peregrine nests and piping plover nests, doing what I can to help with their recoveries. These were two of my favorite animals in the whole world. So I was conflicted. I had no idea how I should feel, how to respond, or who I should root for in such an unfortunate situation.
I fired off an urgent email to the two best authorities I could think of on the matter: Kathy Clark who manages peregrine for the state of New Jersey, and Todd Pover, the state’s director of beach nesting birds. I asked them simply and directly:
“What happens when one of Kathy’s birds eats one of Todd’s birds?”
The response was prompt, cordial, measured, and low-key dismissive. Something along the lines of, “Awww, well, that doesn’t really happen too often,” to paraphrase. But that seemed too easy. I was suspicious. I wondered if this was just the cordiality of politics.
Peregrine aren’t fussy. They’ve been known to eat over two hundred different species of birds, and have been caught eating everything from tiny humming birds to enormous sandhill cranes.
But a few key facts about the peregrine actually do work in the favor of endangered beach nesters and many other types of migrating shorebirds.
First, peregrine hunt relative to abundance. There are a lot more landbirds and waterfowl than shorebirds for them to focus on, so that’s what they do. Even at the coastal towers sitting right in the middle of the salt marsh, you are mostly trying not to step on the severed heads of northern flicker as you approach, and then picking the blue jay and pigeon feathers out of your sweater as you leave. In many of these coastal nests, finding an actual endangered, threatened, or rarer migrant shorebird carcass is a gruesome oddity and a memorably sad moment.
Next, all of the peregrine’s unique advantages in this world involve their unbelievable flight speeds and laser precision eyesight. These advantages are best employed on the wing, and their speeds give them the power to stun prey significantly larger than you might think, often sucker punching them straight out of the sky.
Peregrine own the familiar moniker duck hawk for good reason. Female peregrine are capable of taking them regularly, packing the maximum calories for the optimized effort. Pigeons and doves are ideal.
Even watching migratory peregrine work the beach, while you will see them sloppily and chaotically spook up flocks of dunlin and other small shorebirds (which can be problematic for other reasons), when you actually watch what they are eating you’ll see mostly flicker, dove, duck, abundant shorebird species like willet, and larger wading birds.
Indeed, my overarching impression after years of watching coastal nesting and migratory peregrine eat is “where the heck are they finding all of these flicker at the beach?”
Watching both how much they eat, and how energetically they hunt, it is very clear that many varieties shorebirds aren’t really worth the effort to the powerful peregrine. It would be like grocery shopping for one meal at a time.
And as I learned that very first time I ever saw a peregrine falcon, they are really, really terrible at it. It’s like watching a body builder dance classical ballet.
Kathy and Todd’s response to me all those years ago sounded like a cop out, and it still does; every time, everywhere, anyone asks a raptor biologist what they think about problems caused by nesting peregrine along the coast and they get the response, “nah, they don’t really eat too many shorebirds.” But that doesn’t make it less true, on average, nor does it relieve raptor biologists from working overtime to monitor the impact of peregrine falcon on shorebirds and coastal ecology, including how many shorebirds they are taking.
The fact that shorebirds are technically on the peregrine’s enormous menu wasn’t a gap in the knowledge in the scores of smart, experienced people who dreamed up, designed, supported, permitted, and otherwise encouraged and enabled the recovery of the eastern peregrine falcon. On the contrary, the decision to erect recovery hacking towers in salt mashes, barrier islands, and other coastal regions was partly because of the abundant amount of prey these early falcons would have access to in these places, which includes shorebirds. A small, incidental take of shorebirds was clearly a reasonable and expected compromise to restore a species we accidentally destroyed and were capable of restoring.
When the historic BRIG tower was finally torn down in 2018, the main reason given was that the impoundments there are managed for lots of migrating waterbirds and that having resident peregrines there, with a home right on the dike, might be limiting the migrants’ use. It wasn’t because the peregrine were eating too many shorebirds. It was that they are scary, regardless of what they are eating and, in some ways, that is actually worse.
Thanks to the recovery of peregrine falcon by humans, I have great hope that if an extraterrestrial civilization ever arrives here and drives us to extinction, accidentally or otherwise, that they might have the compassion and the wherewithal to restore us. What makes me nervous now though is if, somewhere in the midst of our recovery, they begin to grow impatient; that as their compassion wanes, they will stop looking at the full, complex truths and subtle, intricate realities of our lives, as well as the true nature of their compromises with us, so will start generalizing instead, slowly, steadily demonizing us, until they have distilled their grievance down to nuggets small enough to fit into a tweet or a feed where they will spread like a virus.
They are eating our shorebirds. They don’t belong here.
Vague enough to be true and untrue, all at the same time. Undeniably unhelpful, surely dangerous; to both peregrine and plover, to animals, to us, and to extraterrestrials, everywhere.
There is no such thing as eating too many shorebirds. There is only data.
The next time you hear someone say such things casually and without merit, ask them politely and without judgement for the data. If they can’t provide it sufficiently (spoiler: they can’t because there is not enough to act confidently and responsibly), ask them how we can help to fix that. If they come up short of ideas, suggest they make a donation to The Little Egg Foundation and get a free 2021 Coastal Wildlife Calendar featuring 12 masterpieces from Readings From The Northside! It supports the NestStory data system which is actively helping biologists work on this problem, coast wide.
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