It snowed here in Illinois this morning. The birds gathered around our feeder were manic for the little bits of food that remained after the last refill. I drove down to Woodman’s grocery story and brought back bags of bird seed, some suet, a woodpecker block and a mesh bag of thistle.
“There, you little bastards, eat hearty,” I told them.
So the red-winged blackbirds and the grackles spaced themselves around the base of the feeder to avoid competition. Then a few female red-wings showed up. They’ve arrived on schedule about two weeks after the males.
But they could not avoid the inch-wide snowflakes coming down from the sky. Their peeps and warning calls filled the chill air, and then everything went silent. We heard the rush of wings as birds scattered into flight. The shape of a hawk swept past the kitchen window and five seconds later a big old red tail was perched up in the cottonwoods across our lawn. For the next fifteen minutes the blackbirds hung tight in the willows where that the red-tail could not get them. Whether birds can tell the difference between a bird-hunter like a Cooper’s hawk and a rabbit slammer like the red-tail, it is hard to say. The smaller birds stayed hunched and hidden just the same.
Then a few forgot all about the hawk and flew back down to feed. Like the families who lived by the sea in the Pearl Buck story titled The Big Wave, the birds of this world live from one threat to the next. They forget their last fear in order to go about the business of eating.
Some of them get eaten as a result. The feathers of a mourning dove lay strewn around the lawn twenty feet from the feeder this morning. Doves are fast food fare for Cooper’s hawks, who come winging around the house as if it powers then with centrifugal force. The birds at the feeder don’t stand much chance against a hawk flying at that rate.
Even if a small bird makes a getaway run, those Cooper’s hawks are built for flying through the woods in fast pursuit of their prey. Birds of the accipter family such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinned and goshawks are all capable of turning their bodies and wings on an axis to slip between the columns of thin trees. They make the adventures of Tom Cruise in a Mission Impossible movie look like Amateur Hour.
Even if they miss in their initial pursuit they are not above landing on the ground and running around a bush to chase out the sparrows or other songbirds who think they’re safe in the confines of a dense hedge or juniper. But they’re wrong. The Coop will harass and trot around the bush (I’ve seen them do this) until the little birds panic and the hawk darts after them to grab one of them in mid-air.
Then the hawk pins its prey to the ground or carries them up to a tree limb where the plucking can begin. They clean away the bothersome feathers and expose the flesh. Then they eat it raw. If their prey is not dead yet, and this happens more frequently than one might imagine, the starling or woodpecker pinned under the hawks long toes strains with the agony of being eaten alive. I’ve witnessed that too.
Yes, nature is red in tooth and claw and beak. This idea that there was ever a time in history where that was not the case is absurd. I’ve read the musings of creationist websites that insist that all creatures were at one point vegetarian. That includes giant dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex, who supposedly only developed an appetite for red meat “after the fall” or “after the flood.” Granted, the bible doesn’t specifically mention animals eating each other. But it does say something about “I give you these plants for food.” So they the creationists take that to literally mean even animals with teeth designed for killing and ripping flesh for food were somehow content to gnosh on leaves and berries. And that’s why I think creationists and biblical literalists are terribly stupid people. They literally make shit up to justify their fears that their worldview has become irrelevant. Anachronism is like that. It can’t deal with the present, so it focuses upon the past as the only source of truth. And it’s a lie.
When it comes to seed and plant eaters, it seems even the birds don’t abide by the rules doled out to their kind. In fact, the opposite it often true. Creatures that we typically associate with eating seeds are not above taking meat into their diet. On many occasions I’ve seen birds called grackles gathered around a road kill. They’ll even eat their own kind.
And one time while sitting on the front steps with my son, just chatting and watching traffic go by on a spring afternoon, a grackle flew down and pounced on a house sparrow. Then it bit its head off and ate the damn thing.
But crossover meat-eating is not just limited to birds. I’ve also seen a grown deer chomp a small bird right out of a mist net and gulp it down like a chunk of beef jerky. Classically, we think of deer as relatively peaceful vegetarians. But nature doesn’t always abide by human rules or expectations.
Among wild creatures, none of this natural carnage is the result of anger or any other emotion. The predator and prey relationship is as old as the microbes that commenced the long route to multicellular life on earth. It has always been an “eat or be eaten” world. Female praying mantis breed with males and then eat them. I have met a few women in my time who would like to have dined on the flesh of a feckless male. Even Hall & Oates sang about Maneaters.
But the interesting part of that formula is that at some point, human beings evolved a conscience and a moral code about how to behave toward each other. It doesn’t say so in the bible, but we can assume from the Thou Shalt Not Kill commandment means we’re not supposed to eat each other either Granted, in emergencies even people of conscience have been forced to dine on human flesh. But even then, some people are pretty choosy about what they will or will not eat.
In some of the races in which I’ve competed over the years, I’ve been the predator tracking down the prey ahead of me on the course. There is little remorse on those occasions when we’re the dominant ones. We all seem to love it when we have the chance to vanquish our competition and eat them alive.
But I also remember races in which I was being chased down by competitors. It’s an awful feeling knowing you’re going to get passed and left behind.
Out on the open roads, there is no more helpless feeling than being a solo rider up ahead on the road when a group of riders spies you. Few cyclists can keep ahead of a group of 10-20 cyclists riding as a group. They become the amoeba waiting to suck up every last bit of your DNA. They swarm around you as they pass. Then you get spit out the back like a piece of genetic waste. Sometimes you’re lucky to survive with your soul intact.
That’s a horrible feeling. But once in a while if you play it right and spare yourself the drag of fear or the tingling feeling behind your ears, you can save energy and slip into the group and be pulled along. Then you’re a bird in a flock where the hawk of the wind can’t get to you. The whirr of tires all around you is both comforting and compelling. You find your space or position on a wheel and can concentrate on becoming part of the whole. Suddenly you’re part of the predatory pack on the hunt. You might even catch sight of another rider ahead on the road.
If you have a bit of conscience left, you secretly hope they’ll notice the pack and get swept up as well. Or perhaps you become merciless as a Cooper’s hawk on a cold March day. You glance at the rider you’ve just caught with a bit of disdain. The formerly powerless can quickly become the greatest of persecutors when given the opportunity to slaughter others at will.
There’s a moral lesson in that for all of us. People of real conscience never lose compassion toward even our competitors. As Jesus once said, “Love your enemies.” I think he meant something more than offering forgiveness. I think he show us that real strength and faith comes from a will to bring others into the fold of strength.
To share power is to share love. Everything else is just cannibalism. But beware the fellow with the gammy leg.