Intemperate and Savage, the Hawk Remembers

May 15, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- "Apredator's behavior isn't based on hunger,'' said the wildlife professional, a man who has spent a large part of his life in the woods and marshes and knows what he's talking about. ''It's based on instinct, and the behavior of the prey.''

A weasel in a cage full of ducklings, for example, will be intoxicated with the terror he generates, and slash and crunch in a bloodthirsty frenzy that has little to do with whether his belly is full. Do we blame the weasel? It's irrelevant. We just do what we can to keep him out of the duckings in the future.

We'd been discussing predator control. This is a subject that comes up regularly these days in wildlife circles, mostly because there are more predators. It's also related to other events in the news, but let's put that aside for a while.

There are more bird and animal predators in our part of the world because there is more prey, and because humans no longer kill (( them off whenever they have a chance. Cold-eyed science now appreciates predators for the part they play in the functioning of the natural world, and misty-eyed art appreciates them because they're vivid symbols of wildness.

It was not always so. Today if we were to see a wolf (and didn't confuse it with someone's doggie), we'd gasp and reach for our binoculars. Our great-grandparents would have reached for a rifle. Predators were considered vermin, which Man the Civilizer had a god-given duty to exterminate. Nowadays they're tolerated, and even encouraged.

But with wildlife as with other activities, once you start to manage, it's pretty hard to stop. It may be comforting to readers of National Wildlife to know that thanks to human efforts &L mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, foxes and birds of prey are flourishing. But locally, any of these critters can create problems, and wildlife managers get called in to deal with these.

Coyotes, to take one obvious example, sometimes kill sheep. (They also, as melon-growers are likely to find out to their annoyance in a few years as coyotes migrate farther down the Eastern Shore, have vegetarian tastes and will sometimes sample every cantaloupe in a good-sized patch.) Great horned owls kill almost anything they can handle, including other predators. They're a major danger to young peregrine falcons. This is one reason the peregrines are currently doing well in cities. The big owls aren't well-established there -- yet.

Red and gray foxes, even if they do snarf up a free-ranging chicken from time to time, cause few problems for humans. But foxes can spread rabies, and sometimes do serious damage to bird species that nest on the ground.

When these and other predators run afoul of human objectives, they tend to get ''controlled.'' That's the wildlife manager's euphemism for shot, trapped or poisoned. It's not a pretty business, but sometimes it has to get done. Usually, nowadays, it's done skillfully and precisely, with the well-being of the entire system, including the predator species, in mind.

John Thanos, predator, sits in a cell now, waiting for death. I'll think of him often these last days, as no doubt will everyone who reads the local papers or looks at the television. He has achieved a kind of fame, a kind of recognition. Perhaps that comforts him as his final appointment nears.

Like the weasel in with the ducklings, Thanos seems to have instincts that are triggered by the flutterings of those around him. He said he murdered his young victims partly because of their fear. They whined, he said. They begged. So the predator impulse took over, and he killed.

Now he just waits, like the fox in the trap as it watches the figure of the trapper plod inexorably toward it across the fields. Are they afraid, fox and murderer? I think not. The faint-hearted would like to have them spared, but neither will grovel and ask for mercy.

I think of a Robinson Jeffers poem about a hawk, its wing shattered, waiting with that same predator's stoicism for death. ''The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those/ That ask for mercy, not often to the arrogant./ You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;/ Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;/ Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.''

We've learned, in our expanding awareness of the complexities of the natural world, that there is a place for predators. We often go to great lengths to help them occupy it.

In that odd corner of the natural world we call human society, we don't seem to think much of our predators, but we must be doing something right because there are so many more of them than there used to be. There are so many, in fact, that they threaten our well-being. But as the wildlife biologists have found, there's an answer to that too. It's called predator control.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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