By David Cronenwett
I came home one day recently to find a mess of mud and straw-like material on the front steps. Looking up, a partially constructed nest was taking shape in the eaves over the front door. A robin had decided to use the location to shelter and rear her young. Since the nest was only partially constructed, a tough decision had to be made as to allow her to finish it, or to remove the bundle. We decided to let the bird use the spot, but whether she’d tolerate all of the coming and going through the front door was another matter.
A few days later, the nest was a solid fortress tucked beneath the awning. Despite being continually scared off, even with great care taken to quietly use the entrance, this robin was determined to stay. She became more accustomed to our presence and was a comforting fixture on that nest by the doorway. One day however, we returned to a disturbing sight; mangled grass loosely hung from the eaves and blue egg fragments littered the stoop. I stepped back and tried to look at the scene objectively. It was obvious that something violent had occurred. The robin was gone and her nest and eggs destroyed. Given the spot where the nest had been situated and the fact that our yard is well-fenced, house cats were an unlikely culprit. Robins average 3-5 eggs per brood and we’d only seen evidence of a single one. The picture was now clear; this was an avian assault and magpies were probably responsible.
At this juncture, it would be easy to condemn the magpies and other nest predators. These raids are frequently seen as a “cruel” or mean-spirited act by those who assign human standards of morality to the behavior of other creatures. However when we actually see nature for what it is, we find that predation of all kinds is everywhere. Our tendency, especially among birders and some wildlife enthusiasts, is to seek out what we want to see in the natural world, which generally means only the harmless or aesthetically pleasing.
The other evening while walking through downtown Helena, I noticed an unusually large number of pigeon feathers along several streets. Then, on the sidewalk near a local eatery I spotted a larger pile of feathers and a bloody, ping pong ball-sized heart. I was surprised to see it since organs are generally consumed by pigeon-predators, in this case, likely a merlin. As we continued, my son found a single pigeon talon and a set of mostly intact wings attached to a spinal column a few streets away. Whenever I find mortal carnage like this, whether in an urban or wild setting, I experience what might be called a “startling fascination.” While it can certainly be gross to come across a dismembered carcass in your travels, for me, any aversion is offset by the chance interpret the predatory encounter as well as learn more about animal behavior, ecology and anatomy. And our birds, it should be remembered, are predators all.
The gentle birds at the feeder, even those who specialize in consumption of plant seeds or nectar, are insectivorous and most are not beneath a scavenging opportunity should one present itself. Many specialize in hunting small mammals, fish or other birds. So-called generalist scavengers can and will eat insects, and occasionally kill rodents and nestlings of other species where they find them. Focusing on the beauty of birds and nature’s beauty in general gives tremendous meaning and solace to our lives…but that beauty is but one part of a highly complex system. The evolutionary pressure imposed by predation over time is largely what created and continues to shape much of the wildlife we love. What humans appreciate about ungulate species like elk—their vigilance, fleet-footedness, phenomenal endurance and other qualities—arose from a long and bloody relationship with predators such as wolves.
Often, our initial response to an act of predation is to put ourselves in the place of the prey and to view the predator as uncompassionate. While predatory events can be brutal and seem cruel, it is worth remembering the need for wolves, golden eagles, grizzly bears and others to care for themselves and their young and to recognize their critical ecological roles. There are those whom, for whatever reason, view nature as either “good” or “bad” and tend to look for events and circumstances to reinforce their argument. Some of my Buddhist friends for example, are keen to point out this “realm of suffering” of which all life is a part. While there is truth in many perspectives, I find nature’s unvarnished reality to be far more interesting, as a complex mosaic of suffering, joy, brutality and beauty, qualities that can be found across the landscape at any given time. One creature’s agony is often another’s salvation, as when a starving coyote comes across a wounded hare at just the right moment.
The robin’s nest is gone now, but the magpies are as social and squawky as ever. We will always gravitate toward and celebrate nature’s beauty, which is entirely appropriate. However, it is also important to reflect on and accept the greater reality of the natural world with all of its profound contradictions and harshness.