A Woefully Inefficient Predator

It’s not only turkey poults that are prey animals. Adult turkeys are too. A hawk, an owl, a coyote, a fisher—some predator had a turkey dinner here. Photo by Steve Sorensen

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

A couple of weeks ago I was on I-80 in Pennsylvania and saw a hawk dive-bomb something just a few feet from me. Last Sunday I was returning from a trip to North Carolina and saw another hawk wing his way across traffic and grab an animal in the median strip. Predators are truly effective. And abundant.

When you ride along any interstate highway, you’ll see plenty of hawks along the roadway if you look for them. (Don’t do this if you’re the driver, of course). They’ll be perched in trees, on power line poles, sometimes on road signs.

Don’t think those hawks are just relaxing and watching the flow of traffic to pass the time. They’re oblivious to the cars. They’re focused on prey, and they’re ready to swoop down and grab it. If you could see every hawk, you could probably count at least one for every mile you drive. Think of the miles and miles of field edges scattered across the landscape—endless places for airborne killing machines with their hawk-eyes to be on the lookout for lunch.

We don’t often notice them, but hawks are prolific predators, as are countless ravenous crows. So are all the perpetually hungry foxes, coyotes, bobcats and other four-footed predators. Innumerable prey animals end up passing through the digestive tracts of these efficient killers.

Many people tend to view all animals with fur as sweet and cuddly, an idea that misunderstands the predator-prey relationship and how it works. A coyote and a bunny are vastly different.

Predators reproduce at a slow rate compared to the animals they prey on. Red-tailed hawks lay one to four eggs each year, but a turkey lays a dozen. A coyote gives birth to about six pups in the early spring, but a rabbit might have two or three litters annually.

Years ago I watched a crow harass a rabbit’s nest in my back yard. The mother rabbit tried valiantly to protect her little ones, but she was no match for the crow. It devoured her young.

Natural predation brings high mortality rates to all prey animals, so similar attacks are happening all the time where nobody watches. For example, turkey poults are now hatching out and heading for fields where they catch grasshoppers and spiders. On average, more than half of those turkey poults die before they’re two weeks old, victims of indiscriminate predators from air and ground ready to capitalize on an easy meal.

Humans are predators too, but the impact of human hunters is almost nothing by comparison. We human predators regulate ourselves with short seasons, while other predators hunt 365 days a year. Humans have self-imposed bag limits, while animal predators are high-volume killers. Humans spend only a fraction of their time hunting, mostly during daylight hours, while animal predators spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the hunt. Humans kill occasionally, while animal predators kill daily. Human hunters show mercy when they find an injured prey animal. Animal predators never show mercy.

Although some people argue that human hunters cause unnecessary suffering, these facts show the weakness of their argument. Given the sheer number of animal predators that rely on fresh kills every day, far more suffering occurs out of our sight. So it’s also out of our minds.

The way the predator-prey relationship works, and has always worked, is that predators (both man and animal) take the surplus from the plentiful reproduction of prey animals. Human hunters, just one predator in the scheme, kill quickly with bullets and arrows. The full-time animal predators deliver a slower, more painful death with teeth, claws and beaks.

Two things I think about when I see a majestic hawk perched in a tree or on a pole along the highway. (1.) I’m looking at an impressive and deadly predator, poised to kill. (2.) Compared to him, I’m a woefully inefficient predator.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, writing about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. Contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com, and read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.