• Drop in hare population leads winged predators to target domestic birds
By Hannah Heimbuch
Homer-area chicken owners have recently found that covering their coops in plentiful, but nearly invisible, gill net mesh has its drawbacks. Namely, that birds of prey can become horribly entangled should they take a go at the domestic birds inside.
This very scenario is cropping up more frequently this winter, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, after the predators’ usual fare — the snowshoe hare — began to decline recently.
“There’s probably an over abundance in owls compared to how much prey is out there,” said USFWS biologist Leslie Slater. “Because of that lack of natural prey, they’re going to be interested in going after domesticated animals that are available to them.”
The hares’ boom and bust population cycle, usually spanning about 10 years, is followed closely by a similar spike in predator numbers. Local owls, formerly fat and happy on a booming hare community, have begun to look for more residential meal sources. Sometimes with painful consequences.
Calls come in weekly, said USFWS Biologist Leslie Slater, reporting large owls and eagles tangled in chicken coop netting.
Local volunteer Jason Sodergren has responded to half a dozen trapped bird cases in the last few months, he said, and he knows that’s only a portion of the total incidents.
“Most of them have been owls,” he said. “Almost all great horned owls.”
With the mesh size and light weight of gill net, Sodergren said, it doesn’t take much for a bird to fix multiple body parts in a tight snare.
“The wings, the whole body, that stuff has a fairly wide mesh, so they can fit an entire limb or two through it, then they flop around a few times.”
If the bird is uninjured, he said, he might be able to let it go on site, once he’s cut it free and checked it over. Other times, birds require a trip to the Homer Veterinary Clinic or the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage for rehabilitation.
He’s been able to release several, Sodergren said, immediately after freeing it, and several after some rehabilitation.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
A few weeks ago, Slater said, a snared eagle was so badly injured it needed to be euthanized.
There are a number of ways people can try to discourage wild birds from targeting their home roosts, Slater said, which would benefit both the birds and the chicken owner. The most important things to consider is the visibility and the structure of the material owners use to cover their coops.
One way to beef up that covering, she said, may be to use wire mesh fencing as a roof, or the thicker and much more visible seine net.
Another tool would be installing a motion sensor light near the coop, which may dissuade other predators as well.
“A really cheap option might be to intertwine flagging tape through the mesh,” Slater said. “Then it would be visible to the birds. Maybe that would be a win-win deal.”
Slater also wanted to remind coop owners that it is illegal to shoot both eagles and great horned owls, and that a trapped animal should be dealt with cautiously.
“Most people seem to be inclined to take on the idea of releasing animals on their own,” Slater said. “And that’s fine. I guess the thing you have to watch out with the owls is to isolate the talons and isolate their bill.”
Sodergren almost always starts by securing and supporting the bird’s feet, he said, then taking note of any injuries that he should be careful of — like a broken wing.
“The main concern is not hurting the bird further, and not getting hurt yourself,” Sodergren said. “The great horned owl has pretty strong talons and can do some damage to you, and same of course with an eagle.”
If you’re freeing an animal without assistance, one precautionary option may be to carefully put a towel over the animal, and keep track of its body position to avoid injury.
“It’s probably best to have maybe even two people help,” Slater said. “And then if you can delicately remove the netting from the bird and then just release it, it might have a learning curve that it goes through that I would think most of them wouldn’t return.
If a person feels like they are uncomfortable doing that they can give us a call.”
Assistance from volunteers like Sodergren, and the various organizations that are able to give their time and expertise to treating wild animals, are a big help to treating these types of problems effectively, Slater said.
“We normally take injured wildlife to the Homer Vet Clinic. They are very generous with their time and expertise and they’ll do sort of an initial evaluation of an animal,” she said. “We’re in the process of trying to get a team of people who are both interested and capable of handling various species.”
For questions or concerns about wild bird populations, or to report an injured or trapped bird, call USFWS at 235-6546.
Comments are closed