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Henningsen: Birds, Bears And Democracy

Recently, a northern goshawk attacked me for straying close to the nest. When I posted this to the local birding list-serv, experienced birders told me I shouldn’t be specific about location and behavior. Visitors might cause it to abandon the nest, exposing eggs or the young to predators. Worse, unscrupulous falconers troll bird reports for clues about nests to raid. Horrified, I managed to delete my post.

Meanwhile, neighbors encountered bears emerging early from their dens and finding food supplies scarce. One stood out. Five years old, 150 pounds, traveling with two yearling cubs, “Clarkie” roamed town raiding chicken coops. The game warden chased her away from one place, but she returned; later he shot her with rubber bullets, to no effect. Before she was shot and killed while devouring more poultry, Clarkie’d accounted for over 40 chickens during a several week spree.

In the same way birders responded to my goshawk report, townspeople lit up the local ListServ with comments, advice, and exhortation about dealing with bears in general and Clarkie in particular. It was an impressive, if at times messy discussion. Along with solid information about bear behavior, about circumstances that led them to look for food in non-traditional places, and about how to protect those chickens, there were also the usual problems of on-line communication: people misinterpreting each other’s motives and actions; and posting well-meaning but inaccurate information. For the record, there’s no Vermont law mandating that bird feeders be taken down between April and November, though Fish and Wildlife advises learning about where bears live and travel and avoiding feeders there.

In the end, out of a welter of chatter emerged a kind of clarity. Don’t be specific about goshawk postings. If you live in bear country learn bear behavior and act accordingly. Use common sense; understand there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. If we’re informed, exercising local option usually works. And remember: though opinions about methods may differ, we share mutual goals, be they bird protection, wayward bear behavior, or the safety of children and livestock. These conversations, messy and contentious though they can be, are what democracy is all about. As we work through confusion, we develop knowledge and purpose.

If only we could do this on a national scale!

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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