Sunday, April 17, 2016

NMSU: the War with the Hawks

New Mexico State University recently removed a hawk's nest just as the hawks were getting ready to start a family.

Initially that appeared illegal. (Swainson's Hawks aren't endangered; but the Migratory Bird Treaty limits what you can do to their habitats, and when.) 

A year ago, these two hawks built a nest. No problem – until fledglings were wandering around, vulnerable, with their parents watching like, well, hawks. The parents defended their young by attacking folks who came too close. Some people got bloody heads. (Someone described a professor striking with a broom at fledglings on a roof. Wish the hawks had attacked that person!)

Last week, again a nest. NMSU employees checked and found no eggs, then pruned away the branch that held the nest. 

Professors, environmentalists, and birding enthusiasts were appalled. Kevin Bixby of SWEC said, “Apart from the fact that they broke the law, they didn't deal with the problem, because the hawks will keep nesting there. They should have seen this as a teaching opportunity. There were a lot of things they could have done to coexist. Instead of what they did, they could have made national news as an innovative institution. We have to learn to coexist with nature.”

I called NMSU Monday. Vice President for Facilities Glen Haubold expressed concern for both birds and humans, and the intention to find a way to coexist. He sounded thoughtful and prudent. He said that some of the injuries last year were serious, and that there's a particular danger when the fledglings land near the swimming pool, where human kids play. (The hawks think it all belongs to them.) He said NMSU was working to harmonize the needs of birds and people. 

Devilan Roper, local enforcement agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, said NMSU “made a mistake, but they're being really good about the next step.” He said NMSU was consulting experts and volunteers, to design and implement some system of protecting human beings without evicting or attacking the hawks. 

Tuesday I started this column. It praised NMSU. I agree with Bixby that “we need to find a way to coexist with the natural world.” I was glad to learn that Haubold agreed – or seemed to.

Man, was I naive! Thursday afternoon, I learned that the hawks had already built a second nest, and NMSU has destroyed it. A new interpretation says that's legal, and that “active” means “containing eggs,” except with eagles. (I haven't researched the law.) NMSU reportedly will cut down several trees around Regents Row and Renfrow – trees where several other bird species have nests. All that pretty talk about coexistence? Empty. 

I have two degrees from NMSU. We collaborated recently on rewriting NMSU's freedom of expression policy. I wish NMSU would behave better.

Can NMSU legally harry these hawks? Apparently. Does it have reason for concern about harm the birds could do to human staff, students, or visitors? Sure. But a university I could admire would take that as the starting point and do what NMSU spoke of doing when it feared it had to: make the effort to coexist with the natural world and include the environment as a factor in decision-making.
Instead, NMSU is going to do what's easiest and most convenient. Just as it runs sprinklers in daylight, despite our drought, because that's convenient (more staff, easier to spot errant sprinklers in daylight), it'll make war on the hawks. 

NMSU could have shown real leadership here. Nope. Doing what's right can be kind of a pain. Greatness would take effort.

[This column appeared in the the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 16 April, and will appear in a few hours on KRWG-TV's website.  I welcome comment at any or all of the three.]

[Initially I typed in "NMSU's War on the Hawks" for a title, but I immediately felt that that was unfair.  NMSU could reasonably argue that the hawks started the war.  So I made the title more neutral.  But whoever started the war, a human being in the 21st Century might kind of hope a university would be smarter and wiser than a pair of Swainson's Hawks, maybe more tolerant, even resourceful and imaginative.  But that proved too tall an order for my alma mater.]

[I've reached out to learn more.  The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Migratory Birds website had this in the FAQ's:
Q. A hawk comes to our yard regularly and sometimes kills birds at my feeders. What can I do to stop this?

A. Nothing. All species of hawks are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and it is illegal to harm, harass or kill them.
I'd sure say NMSU is harassing two hawks -- and arguably harming them.  
But a further conversation (after this column had been set) with Enforcement Agent Roper confirmed that the FWS's position is that what NMSU is doing is legal.  
It also appears that NMSU has contacted FWS about a permit to do more.  That would likely involve moving the hawks, which would be done by an expert, not by NMSU itself; and it could even allow NMSU to kill the hawks, although NMSU's Tom Dobson told me Friday afternoon that "destoying the birds is not an option that we're even pursuing."  
Some of the more ardent supporters of the hawks might wish to follow the permit process, which I'm told moves quickly.  Either send NMSU an IPRA Request, under New Mexico law, and/or direct a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FWS.  For the FOIA Request, start by clicking here! Or direct the request to or to:
Melanie Ruiz
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
ESA Litigation/FOIA Coordinator
USFWS-Ecological Services
500 Gold Ave SW
Albuquerque, NM 87102
Office: 505-248-6284 / Fax: 505-248-6788

[Incidentally, though having to revise the column left me too little space to mention this, I did also ask Mr. Haubold about the notorious bee's nest incident -- and learned (or think I learned) a couple of things that explain NMSU's conduct in that situation.   I (and many others) had been appalled by the idea that when the world (and agriculture) is suffering from a serious decline in the bee population, NMSU would destroy a bee's nest rather than call a beekeeper, as a baseball team did the same week during spring training.   (Actually, the bee-keeper was in the stands and came down to save the day.  And the bees.)  However, two facts change the equation:  Haubold says the bees weren't the ones we need, but the larger African immigrants (who deserve Trump's attention more than human immigrants do); and he added that NMSU had contacted several local beekeepers, but none had the required equipment.  So on that incident, NMSU apparently got some undeserved bad press.]

[By the way, searching the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website for relevant information did yield some interesting but irrelevant information:

What's the largest bird?
 What's the fastest bird?
Which bird has the longest migration route?

Which bird can rotate its head as much as 280 degrees? 
Who sings loudest during courtship, before dawn? 
(answers at the end of this post)]

I'll keep following the hawk situation.  I kind of hope others speak up.  I'll report anything pertinent I hear, most likely here on the blog rather than in a column.]

What's the largest North American bird?Trumpeter's Swan, which can weigh 28 lbs. and have 9 ft
What's the fastest bird?  Peregrine Falcon, with a documented 117 mph dive
. wing-span
Which bird has the longest migration route? Arctic tern, 22,000 miles, Antarctic to Arctic and back.
Which bird can rotate its head as much as 280 degrees?  Owl
Who sings loudest during courtship, before dawn?  Mockingbird]

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