"I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." ~Wendell Berry


Monday, January 2, 2017

When Love and Despair Collide



...or maybe a better title is, "when two passions collide".  I dunno. The 2016 purple martin season was my most challenging season I've ever experienced.  It was a year where my old self and my 'new & evolved' self encountered each other and had many, many heated conversations.  Being passionate about wildlife means you have to accept many pleasant and unpleasant things dealing with life and death.
Our 23 acres, nicknamed "Gobbler's Knob" is a true wildlife sanctuary.  A sanctuary where all native wildlife, whether predator or prey, is welcome. I am blessed to have the opportunity to work from home and be able to observe the predators that frequent my back yard and even more fortunate when one hangs around long enough for me to get its photograph.
We have coyotes.

We have foxes.


We have quail (as well as many other native birds) nesting here.


We have Red Shouldered hawks.
We have an extremely fast, aggressive Sharp-shinned hawk that visits my site early every spring to help herself to the tired, migrating martins and manages to bring out the very best selection of my Navy vocabulary.

We even have our beloved national symbol visit my backyard, only 50 feet from my office window - the American Bald Eagle.


But one predator in particular - my resident Great Horned Owl - has worn out her welcome and this past purple martin season she pushed....nay - she strained the limits of my love for her.  The problems I had with her this past year drove me into deep introspection and forced me to explore my commitment to being a good steward to all things wild, possibly even shutting down my colony.
I totally understand that each and every animal is subject the predator-prey relationship.  That is the one law to which all members of nature are bound, not because they signed on to it, but just by the very virtue of their existence, they must abide by it, including me.  My reasons for not killing this owl have always extended far beyond the fact that it is illegal to do so. No, I have not killed her because of my own principles - I strongly believe we need predators to maintain the balance that Mother Nature requires.
Since 2014, this GHO has been attacking my purple martin colony.  Actually, after reviewing my records and with the benefit of hindsight to see patterns, I think it has been longer than that - maybe as early as 2012, but this past year (2016), she decided that she liked this buffet setup and upped her game.
With my monitoring setup, I knew when she first arrived at the beginning of the 2016 season.  But I was prepared - I had everything caged in and I was determined she would get even less meals here this year than she did in 2015.
"*PREVENTION is KEY* - install owl guards BEFORE you have a problem.  Radios (and cds with recorded 'home' noises, including a shot gun), flood lights, red lights on top of racks, scare crows, reflector tape, even setting off firecrackers  - all of those things may temporarily work for a week, even two or three weeks, but he/she will be back."
As she escalated her attacks every week and became more aggressive, I also escalated.  At every turn she made, I was there with a counter-measure.  Everything we tried only worked for one to three weeks, depending on the counter-measure we put in place.  I was often getting up at 3:00 A.M. to scare her off when she came for her early-morning raids; but still my principles held - I refused to kill her.  But I also have a full-time job and couldn't be out there every night to stop her and she took full advantage of my absences.
During the first week of July, she decided it was time to increase her success rate and learn how to get past the barriers that had worked very well the least few years. After returning from a business trip in mid-July, I was stunned to watch a video of her 'walking' around the exterior of the cage attached to the Trendsetter, probing the 4"x4" openings I had made in the wire, meant to make it easier for the martins to enter and exit the wire caging.
It was then that she managed to truly bring me to the edge of a cliff that I didn't want to be on as I watched the next 2 videos.  My heart broke, my chest constricted and my throat went dry.  Despite everything we had in place, she was flushing them out of the housing and grabbing them as they exited their nest boxes. Those that flushed were doomed.
In one of the videos, she dragged one of the martins through the cage hole and landed near the game camera, where I could hear his screeching until he died.  Sobbing doesn't even begin to adequately describe what I was doing when the video ended.
**WARNING - both videos below are difficult to watch, much less listen to....



As I watched from the depths of my despair, my anger flashed beyond boiling.  I thought, "I am done- I have failed them....I no longer know what to do." Even though it was daylight, I was ready to hunt her down and kill her.  My brain was on fire, while my heart simultaneously ached.  It was obvious the caging on the house was too close to the porches, but with the wind load here in Missouri and the fact it had worked for the last 2 years, I hadn't been concerned about it. I stormed through the house, swearing that was the last martin she was going to eat.  She had gone too far.
I went outside to vent my sorrow to the wind and the trees. As I stood in the yard near my gourd racks,  the activity in my colony that day belied the horrors of the night before, making me feel even more devastated.  These resilient birds who had to have heard the dying cries of their brothers, were busily flying to and fro in the hot, bright sunshine, feeding the remaining nestlings.  It was almost surreal. 
My most immediate concern was for the welfare of the remaining nestlings in the house, so, hoping that she wouldn't want to get her wings tangled up with some light-weight twine, I used some mostly-empty bottles to weigh down some twine around the remaining nests.  It worked to save the remaining adults and nestlings.
As the heat intensified that day, I watched the videos above again & again, torturing myself I suppose for losing this battle with the owl.  I deserved the torture. It took a long time to sort my feelings out - months even, but eventually, I realized I was actually more angry at myself than at her. She was doing what any owl or other predator for that matter, would do if they found an easy meal and her mind was only focused on two things - her own survival and that of her owlets which she was likely feeding at the time.
After all the anger, sorrow, despair, crying a river of tears, I received a few emails from a few friends that made me decide I need to pick up my pieces and move forward.  So how do I go forward now?  I have decided that I need to remove the Trendsetter and replace it with another gourd rack, specifically, a Super System gourd rack with a 3" pole, which will allow me to mount a larger cage that will extend further from the openings of the nests and withstand the Missouri winds better.  My Trendsetter has a lot of sentimental value for me, but even extending the cage on it at this point still allows her to flush the martins out at night and this house is obviously now her favorite target.
I have learned so much about owls in the last 2 years and if a new martin landlord asked me about owls today I would tell them, "*PREVENTION is KEY* - install owl guards BEFORE you have a problem."  Once an owl discovers that there is 'food' in those gourds / nestboxes, there will be no stopping him/her - he/ she will be relentless.  Radios (and cds with recorded 'home' noises, including a shot gun), flood lights, red lights on top of racks, scare crows, reflector tape, even setting off firecrackers  - all of those things may temporarily work for a week, even two or three weeks, but he/she will be back and nothing will stop the attacks.  The most absolute best guard against an owl is to setup owl guards as preventative / proactive measures, instead of having to always *react* and be on defense.
The first step to healing is to forgive yourself.  As Dana Ripper from MRBO emailed me, "hopefully you still produced a gazillion babies though"!  It made me smile.  It was the first positive thought I'd had on this topic in a long time.  My friend Greta Webb emailed me and said, "We can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes."  Thank you Dana and Greta...you set me back on my path.
My New Year's resolution was to forgive myself for my mistakes.  With that, I'm moving forward to the 2017 Purple Martin Season, with a look back at the 2016 - which doesn't look like it was so bleak after all. 
Enjoy the video.



4 comments:

  1. I loved your 2016 video, and the song you picked was perfect. A time to die, a time to kill! I wonder if this experience with the Great Horned Owl, however bitter, may not in the end make your purple martin colony even more robust. After all, predators serve a purpose to make prey healthier and stronger, swifter and wiser. Just like the wolves and their prey in Yellowstone, right? I totally envy you for your fox, by the way. Just once I would like to see a fox on my land.

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    1. Thank you, Aya! That is a very real possibility - that she may make the survivors much more wiser - I hadn't thought of that until you mentioned it. Yes, exactly like the wolves in YS!
      I love my little fox. We've just setup the game cameras on the trails again this past weekend to capture some winter pictures. Hoping to see him / her again!

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  2. A great expression of your frustration around your GHO encounters. Your feelings expressed the same nightmare that hundreds of landlords go through each year. Purple Martin landlords go to the extremes in raising their birds every year, providing the best and safest housing that they can afford, flicking crickets in freezing conditions, cooking eggs several times a day for days on end to keep their martins alive, and then by cleaning out wet and bug infested nesting material to provide better conditions to keep higher numbers of young to reach fledging age. We have all felt what seems to be failure when we suffer losses to our martins, but we fledge so many more than what would fledge naturally when there is no human interaction. I know it is difficult to do, but as dedicated landlords we can try the best that we can, but must try and accept these losses, whether by avian, four legged or crawling predators without faulting the species or ourselves, since Purple Martin landlords do so much for this special bird!

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    1. Thank you Bill - for the perspective. ;)

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