I was born in a house next to my grandfather’s chicken farm in Mattituck, across the bay. White leghorn chickens may have been the first bird species I opened my eyes to, the first bird species I came to know intimately. Before someone coined the term “free-range chickens” in the late 1900s, that’s what they were, free-range. They ran freely over the expanse of old fields and gardens surrounding my boyhood area, feeding and carrying on as chickens left to their own devices do. At night they either roosted on tree branches or in chicken coops on rails.
During the day, my grandfather kept a loaded single barrel shotgun beside him. He always kept an eye out for hawks. Whether it was a red-tail, a Cooper’s, a sharp-shinned, or a falcon, to him — and to me as I grew up and began working on the farm beside him — every hawk was a “chicken hawk,” a potential stealer of chickens. He rarely had to use it — hawks were scarce in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s — but every hawk that flew into town was unwelcome and would be shot at.
Growing up with BB guns, later on I inherited my grandfather’s shotgun and did what every other male Tucker did in his spare time — shot at ducks, squirrels, rabbits, and, yes, hawks. In those days, first you became a hunter, second, for some, a birdwatcher. It wasn’t until the ’60s came along that I stopped shooting at hawks. Fortunately, I was a bad shot and hawks were so few in variety and numbers that I never bagged one.
When I went back to Cornell in the early ’60s after serving Uncle Sam in Japan, New York State’s whole attitude toward hawks had changed. Before I enlisted in the Army, there was no season on hawks. All but ospreys were considered vermin. Then New York did a 180-degree U-turn and began to protect hawks and owls. By the 1990s, for the first time in the history of the United States, there were as many birdwatchers and bird lovers as there were hunters.
Hawks, owls, and eagles began to make a comeback. Ospreys were decimated by a different kind of act of man, the use of DDT to control mosquitoes. Suffolk County was among the first counties in the United States to ban the DDT. On annual bird counts we began to count hawks, mostly harriers, Cooper’s, and kestrels. Then red-tails moved back in, followed by sharp-shinned hawks, merlins, peregrines, and a few other species. Ospreys began their comeback. Great horned owls began to hoot shortly after dusk and just before sunrise.
By the turn of the new millennium, several species of hawks had begun to nest on Long Island again: red-tails and broad-wings through the pine barrens and pitch pine-hardwood forests, peregrines on the roofs of urban skyscrapers, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks in parks and treed open spaces. Osprey platforms put up in the last decades of the 20th century became occupied shortly after. The place was alive with raptors.
Although a bald or golden eagle was seen now and then around these parts prior to 2000, the former, along with turkey vultures — the new kids on the block — began to nest here, and the turkey vultures, perhaps for the first time ever, were seen in Montauk. In the summer of 2016 there were no fewer than four bald eagle pairs nesting in eastern Suffolk County. They had been gone as nesters on Long Island since the Great Depression.
So here we sit, waiting for the first ospreys to return from the south to occupy their designated nesting platforms. A few eagles are around, immatures from past nestings and their fathers and mothers, ready to nest here again. There is no gunning season for hawks or owls. In New York State and the rest of the U.S. they are all protected.
Shoot an eagle and you’ll end up in jail. Turkey vultures and the occasional black vulture contend with crows for roadkills.
On Sunday morning, Jean Held had three vultures sail over her house in Sag Harbor. On Monday Terry Sullivan saw and photographed a mature bald eagle. On Monday morning while driving from North Haven into Sag Harbor I looked up and there, a quarter mile above me, was a single vulture wending its way easterly without the flap of a wing. My chipmunk has been bush-feeding below my bird feeder all week long. Get ready folks, it’s becoming a jungle out there.
Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.