Raptors Caught on Barbed-Wire Fences: Why We Look

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

In the Northern Great Plains, the sight of a raptor hopelessly ensnared in the barbs of a fence is an inescapable feature of the road.

Wings akimbo, their once-proud beaks buried in their downy breast feathers, they recall the Biblical allegory of Absalom, entangled by his lustrous hair in a great oak in the Wood of Ephraim — and David’s mourning for his son. 

Their corpses form a constellation of cruel unions — casualties of the human effort to impose geometry on the land. 

“What happens is that the birds are flying after prey,” says Lori Arent, Clinic Manager at The Raptor Center of the University of Minnesota. “They’re going after small rodents, rabbits, sometimes even grouse, and those animals can get through the fences but the hawks can’t. And they’re so focused on the goal, that they do not see the fences.”

Research has been done into the numbers of mammals that get caught in barbed wired fences and some landowners have even begun to keep wildlife in mind when installing fence. The number of birds that die caught in fences is unknown. 

Arent says that three or four birds rescued from fences are brought to the Raptor Center every year, but it’s usually too late. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the injuries are too severe and the birds have to be euthanized. They get caught and then they struggle, and they tear their tissues beyond repair.” 

Nowadays public discussions of “empathy” are often exercises in reinforcing a self-serving, binary narrative that goes something like this: there are those of us who have it and those who don’t, and therefore don’t deserve any. 

The raptor crucified on the barbs of modernity is more often witnessed alone, away from the rote reiterations of cable news and social media. The empathy they invoke, if any, is spontaneous and true, and perhaps a little primal. 

As flesh-and-bone diorama — created indirectly by human intervention in the land — they echo the moral crisis that catalyzed our oldest known art. Paleolithic hunter-artists, forced to kill their animal relatives to survive, left evidence of their struggle with the mandates of survival on rock walls across the continents. Human hunters don't have the single-minded focus on their prey that raptors need to survive (though it can blind them to danger.) But our sensitive brains make us vulnerable to metaphysical tangles.

In Fields of Blood, her study of religion and its relationship with human violence, Karen Armstrong explores cave art as an effort by our ancestors to palliate the restive coexistence of three brains — an “‘old brain’ that we inherited from the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime 500 million years ago, the limbic system that mammals developed later, which allowed us to care enough for others to form familial and other alliances, and finally the neocortex, “home of the reasoning powers and self-awareness that enable us to stand back from the instinctive, primitive passions.”

Of the cave paintings found in northern Spain and southwestern France, “among the earliest extant documents of our species,” and their respectful depictions of the animals the artists were compelled to kill, she writes that: 

“These decorated caves almost certainly had a liturgical function, so from the very beginning art and ritual were inseparable. Our neocortex makes us intensely aware of the tragedy and perplexity of our existence, and in art, as in some forms of religious expression, we find a means of letting go and encouraging the softer, limbic emotions to predominate.”  

In the Cave Hills and elsewhere in South Dakota, rock art by ancient indigenous hunters, some as much as 8,000 years old, contains reverent depictions of buffalo, elk and deer.

Our connection to the solitary suffering of a sharp-shinned hawk splayed on the wire is less direct than that of a hunter to his kill. Our collective — rather than individual — culpability might make it easier to ignore. The enormity of its suffering, the purposelessness of its death, and the nobility of the animal in repose can also conspire to awaken in us a kind of limbic communion not only with the bird but with the inner struggles of our hunter-artist ancestors, if only for a second. 

subscribe to sdpb email updates food blog link image learning blog link image living blog link news and information blog link science and technology blog link sports blog link image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

Cheech Marin On Art, Comedy, And American Identity

In The Moment ... November 13, 2017 Show 218 Hour 1 Cheech Marin is known as an actor, director, author, and...

In The Moment ... Artists Respond To The Reformation

In The Moment ... October 31, 2017 Show 210 Hour 1 What does it mean to drastically change in order to improve...

In The Moment ... The Art Of J. Steven Manolis

In The Moment ... October 5, 2017 Show 192 Hour 2 The "Painting Vermillion Red" art exhibit features the work of USD...

In The Moment ... The Hob Menace With Angela Swedberg

In The Moment ... September 18, 2017 Show 179 Hour 2 When you visit a museum you expect authenticity from the exhibitions, art, and artifacts. Angela Swedberg is a...

Books

Love, Language, And Belonging With Lauren Collins

In The Moment ... November 16, 2017 Show 222 Hour 1 What does it mean to love someone in a language that’s not your...

In The Moment ...Poetry With Sun Yung Shin

신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin is the editor of the best-selling anthology "A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota" and...

In The Moment ... Author Larry Campbell Rolls Through Vermillion

In The Moment ... October 17, 2017 Show 200 Hour 1 He followed the Missouri River for more than 2,000 miles. He...

In The Moment ... Victoria Sweet’s “Slow Medicine: The Way To Healing”

In The Moment ... October 17, 2017 Show 200 Hour 2 Protocols ignore patients, doctors provide healthcare rather than...

Music

Brendan Gayken And The Band Lemmons

In The Moment ... November 9, 2017 Show 217 Hour 2 Musician Brendan Gayken joins SDPB's Steve Zwemke to talk about...

In The Moment ... Moment In Sound With Luis Viquez

In The Moment ... October 31, 2017 Show 210 Hour 2 Friday night you can stop by the National Music Museum in...

In The Moment ... Music Of The Reformation

In The Moment ... October 31, 2017 Show 210 Hour 1 This hour we explore the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant...

In The Moment ... October Postcard From The Prairie With Eliza Blue

In The Moment ... October 27, 2017 Show 208 Hour 1 Eliza Blue is a singer, a writer, a musician, a mother, and a...

Theater

In The Moment ... Alex Meyer's Scenic Design

In The Moment ... May 10, 2017 Show 090 Hour 2 Alex Meyer. He's a junior art and theater major at Augustana College...

In The Moment ... Remembering Vietnam On Horseback

In The Moment ... May 9, 2017 Show 089 Hour 2 Colt Romberger’s father served in Vietnam, and it changed his life...

Dakota Midday: S.F. Washington's "Wizard Of Oz"

South Dakota high schools produce a variety of plays each year. This week the Washington High School drama...

Dakota Midday: Lisa McNulty On Female Artists

The Off-Broadway Women's Project Theater is the oldest and largest theater company that promotes women artists in...