Silent Summer

selective photography of flying black falcon

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Hawks spoil the garden party

By Michael Leach

When I told people, “Hawks are nesting in my garden this year,” they seemed awed and a bit envious.

But if you’ve had hawks in the backyard, you know it’s lonely at the top of the food chain. With hawks around, there’s almost no fauna to go with the flora. Some furry and feathered creatures played their roles in the food chain, but countless others fled in terror to safer territories.

Gone were the usual flocks of robins hopping back and forth across the lawn doing their own food chain duty of culling the earthworm population. Until late June, their predawn songs filled the air from the relative security of the small bamboo grove. (Where they spent the day, I never knew.) Goldfinch, jays, song sparrows, wrens, chickadees and other favorites made rare public appearances. From the distant neighbor’s yard, they could be heard sometimes. A cardinal managed splendid morning songs, but otherwise stayed so well concealed, there were only occasional  glimpses of his flashy red suit. I never had the pleasure of watching the parent cardinals teaching their fledglings proper behavior.

In spite of the menace, a cheeky pair of cat birds nested near the brick-paved patio in the tall hedge where the cardinal occasionally skittered about.

An outdoorsman neighbor identified the problematic newcomers as red tail hawks, but I referred to them as squawks, for that is their primary mode of communicating. They were especially loud and squawky when talons clutched freshly caught food. That racket roughly translated into, “Come and get it while it’s still warm. Bon appetite!”

white and brown bird

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Having resident hawks had upsides. The plague of English sparrows that once roosted in the bamboo grove disappeared long before I became aware of the hawks. Instead of their screechy 20- to 30-minute gab fests, as the flock took to the air in the morning or came home to roost at night, there was only silence.

Fortunately I found far more small, furry bits than feathered ones on the lawn and in flower beds. This was a great relief for a bird-loving gardener, who holds much less affection for field mice, voles, chipmunks and their pestiferous ilk. Due to the incredible appetites of the two young hawks reared in the garden, I’m hoping there will be fewer field mice invading my small Victorian farm house this winter.

Life with hawks had other advantages.

Maintenance was easier, especially during mulberry season. When the fruits ripen, robins gorge and leave purple polka dots on lawn furniture, pavements and occasionally this gardener. Daily rinsing (flushing?) of the bird bath is de rigueur; so, too, pulling mulberry seedlings that sprout wherever one of those well-fertilized seeds lands.

Squirrel issues decreased markedly. Initially the quartet of plump, brazen squirrels seemed to coexist peacefully with the hawks. Granted the bushy-tail tree rats didn’t cavort on the lawn with their usual abandon, nor did they perform their Cirque du Soleil acrobatics from sycamore to cedar to apple and back. As August wore on, I saw only one thin, nervous squirrel each morning.

Because the advantages of hawks are few, I’ll take high-maintenance robins and a handful of miscreant squirrels any day to spring and summer days of silence punctuated by occasional squawks.

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