KILLINGWORTH — Christine Cummings, president and co-founder of A Place Called Hope wildlife rehabilitation services, sees death far too often in her profession.
Still, she mourns every time she and her volunteers can’t save the lives of magnificent raptors grievously injured by a vehicle collision, secondarily poisoned by ingesting rodents exposed to rodenticides, or lost to other incidents.
An active poster on Killingworth-based A Place Called Hope’s Facebook page, Cummings composed a tender, impromptu eulogy for a male red-tailed hawk she tried to save May 17 after a being alerted of the situation at his nest in Ansonia.
“Farewell sweet soul ... you tried despite your fear of humans, and rightfully so, as humans caused your suffering and ultimately took your life after all. Despite the nest and female you were tending to as your mates eggs have hatched and your offspring thriving. Someone’s need to put out rodenticide poisoning meant more than the environment in which we all share,” Cummings wrote.
Her comments, which included a photograph, garnered hundreds of sympathetic comments and shares.
The situation for this avian family is even more grave, as the area where the birds are has some “high-maintenance yards,” where homeowners commonly use pesticides, chemicals and rat poison to achieve a lush, verdant lawn, Cumming said.
The male hawk was found disorientated underneath the nest, where the female was sitting, warming and caring for their young. Rodenticides are actually blood thinners, which cause whatever ingests the medication to bleed to death internally — in slow, painful fashion.
He “expired” the next day, said Cummings, using a euphemism common in the field.
“It’s more gentle than ‘he died.’ We deal with a lot of death, and unfortunately, it’s a daily occurrence when you’re working with these kinds of situations.”
The woman who alerted Cummings about the situation had been monitoring the nest to see whether the mother was able to leave her young unprotected to find food, without them succumbing to prey.
She’s been on vacation, so Cummings is hoping to hear good news soon about the mom and chicks, but that’s a longshot, she admitted.
“We’re not feeling very confident the family will survive the incident. It’s really sad. Not only is mom unable to sit there to protect her young, they’re at an age when predation is very common: A crow can come in and grab a baby or a raven or another hawk.”
While mother hawks are nesting their offspring, the father is out hunting food for all of them. If he returns with a mouse or rat that has ingested rodenticides, the whole family will get sick — and often die.
With the father gone, now the mother has to leave the babies untended.
“It’s not as easy as people think. They don’t just fly down and grab something. They have (to) find something. They have to stalk something. They have to hunt, and without two hawks doing so for babies, it’s a real compromised situation,” Cumming said.
The poisons, which come in flavors such as peanut butter and apple, have a cumulative effect on larger creatures such as birds of prey, dogs and cats.
This time of year, secondary poisoning is very common because it’s nesting season. “People want to get rid of voles and moles and shrews, and if you’ve got a rat or mouse problem, it’s a real quick fix to put out a bait box,” Cummings said.
Some groups are spreading the word about the danger.
The nationwide organization, Raptors are the Solution, or RATS, for instance, was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2011 after Cooper’s hawks began falling dead on the streets from eating poisoned rats, according to the agency.
The group’s mission is to educate people about the dangers of anticoagulants and other rodenticides to raptors, mammals, domestic pets and children, according to its website.
“It’s a presumed real quick fix to put out a bait box. But in the long (and short) run, it will make the situation far worse as it results in rodents (prolific breeders) building up immunity with concurrent decimation of our apex predators (one clutch of two per year),” Gary Menin, director of MASS-RATS, the Massachusetts state chapter of Berkeley-based Raptors Are The Solution, said by email.
“Please find an alternative to poison. Do exclusion work, use a live trap and relocate, or a Snap Trap or RatZapper, owl nesting boxes, or many others,” Menin said, adding that glue traps can also kill other species.
“For a state like Connecticut, where Lyme Disease is beyond rampant, remember that mice are its main vector of transmission, and these same mice are a staple for our diminishing hawks and owls,” he said.
Cummings highly recommends people use the website as a resource.
“If you have the power to take those lives away, then it is on you to do so humanely and responsibly. Find an alternative to poison. Do exclusion work, use a live trap and relocate, or a Snap Trap or RatZapper,” owl nesting boxes, or electrocution traps, more humane than glue traps, she urges people.
Rodenticides aren’t classified as poisons, Cummings said, which is how it can be sold at garden centers and home improvement stores. They are actually anticoagulants, prescribed to treat blood clots and prevent strokes.
That’s why education is key.
“Nobody wants rats in their home,” Cummings acknowledged. “They can introduce disease and destroy stored food, they’re filthy, and the list goes on.”
The problem is people are squeamish about touching dead mice so they prefer the bait box, instead of “immediate kill” traps, because the rodents leave and die elsewhere.
But A Place Called Hope has enjoyed successes, too.
On April 24, Cummings was able to release a liberty red-tailed hawk, another secondary poisoning case, this time successfully treated.
On April 29, the agency saved a young Cooper’s hawk whose “stomping grounds” is the New Haven Green, after it was poisoned by rodenticides in the eight bait boxes Trinity Church on the Green staff placed to eradicate pests.
No one knew about the dangers these pose to wildlife, especially raptors, said church sexton Donna Szarmach.
For the past two years, a pair of hawks had nested on the property. Szarmach was aware the bait boxes contained the blood thinner, but didn’t know it was fatal to birds as well.
“I just didn’t know how bad it was,” she said. “You don’t realize that whatever eats the mice is going to be poisoned. I didn’t connect the two.
“The church decided to give the hawks a chance to do what they’re meant to do, and actually get rid of the problem,” Szarmach said.