Are hawks causing decline of hare and muskrat?

A chat with friend Chuck Turk a couple years ago swung around to one of his outdoor passions - trapping.

It’s always enjoyable talking with Chuck Turk. The man has his eyes focused on things in the outdoors as keenly today as when he served as a veteran DNR conservation officer.

Chuck has always had a love for the outdoors and his interest in trapping, something that began when he was a youngster and continues now that retirement from the DNR allows him more time to run his lines in the swamps, creeks, and wetland niches of the area.

When someone mentioned that they still hadn’t found anyone locally in the Lake, Newaygo and Mecosta area that had found much sign of a snowshoe hare comeback, Chuck just smiled and said, “Hawks!”

Chuck explained that there has been a big increase in many hawks, especially red-tailed hawks, in the area. Once thought to be in trouble like eagles and other raptors from DDT and PCB’s which got onto the environment and waters of the state, most hawks and other raptors have been thriving in the region in recent years – thanks to earlier bans on such chemical pollutants. They are thriving, he says, “Because they are eating well.

“Hawks can be as serious a threat to a hare as bobcats, coyote or other land predators, and even more deadly when they spot a hare or other prey,” Turk said.

He thought that the decline we have seen in many small animals that are trapped, especially muskrat, also is owing to the increase of hawks.

“You recall how often you would see rats swimming in the creeks when you were fishing, often swimming along the banks as you watched? They were common then – but not these days. I just don’t see as many rats as I did a few years ago, and I am pretty sure it is the increase in hawks that is causing the decline,” he’d said.

His assessment is shared by Bob Davidson, a fur buyer and trapper in Baldwin.

“Trappers have reported they are losing ‘rats to hawks. In Sippi Flats ditches a lot of trapping was done there for muskrat; but you’d be hard-pressed to find one today. But you only have to look around to see hawks perched on trees and utility poles or flying around – numbers of them,” Davidson said.

“The manager of the hunting preserve in the Sippi Flats area told me that hawks had cleaned out the chukar, quail and pheasant that were planted there for hunters. It just didn’t pay to plant anymore.”

Davidson talks to many trappers who sell their pelts through his fur trade business, and he gets the same story from many of them – hawks are close to cleaning out muskrats in many local areas.

To be certain, the sight of a red-tailed hawk perched on a tree, utility pole or other high perch location is an increasingly common thing. And not just red-tailed hawks, either. Cooper Hawks and Sharp-shins seem to be doing well, as are other incepitors as well as other buteos like red-tailed hawks.

Eagles are at the point where they are close to being de-listed down from endangered to threatened in most of the Great Lakes region

“Sounds as if the snowshoe hare is the one that needs to be listed as endangered – at least in our backyard hunting areas,” Chuck Turk had said.

He was probably right – he usually is. For whatever reason you don’t see many hare in our local area anymore – “but you sure don’t have to look far to spot a hawk out hunting a meal.”