Lesson at the Feeder
There was a time when I was content to be a fair-weather naturalist. As soon as the arctic days of winter arrived on Cape Cod, I set up a small market of bird food just outside the picture window and let nature come to me. There, in the comfort of a roaring oil furnace, I could add to my bird list while buttering toast. It seemed a contender for the best of possible worlds.
This notion was reinforced by the Titmouse Coincidence. It was the winter of 1969 and Massachusetts Audubon had announced a tufted titmouse census for a February weekend. I had just moved to Cape Cod from the Pacific Northwest the previous October, and had yet to see the titmouse. By February I had already downgraded the chickadees, juncos, and bluejays from novelty to riff-raff. I needed new blood. This possibly best of possible worlds could become a bore.
Thanks to the titmouse, it didn’t. This bird of muted color and beautiful form was apparently an avid reader of Massachusetts Audubon bulletins, because it arrived at my feeder on the morning of the first day of the two-day census. Alternatively, maybe the bird world had called for a census of feeders for that same weekend. Whichever, I took the credit on behalf of humanity, happily filled in my sighting postcard, and wallowed in the glory of my first contribution to New England science. Best of all, it had happened as I sat at the dining room table.
Like the mourning doves and bluejays, I became a bird feeder junkie. Nearby trees were festooned with mesh bags of suet and peanut butter. Thistle seed was added to the main feeder, which was nothing more (nor less) than the surface of a picnic table and the ground beneath, where seeds had fallen through the cracks in the tabletop. I also had hung from trees a few of those feeders designed for small birds only, but even the small birds fed most frequently at the tabletop, between the bluejay shifts. It was a wonderful time, those first encounters with dickcissels, redpolls, and grosbeaks. My bird list pencil was smoking.
I never found out if my second winter could have held a candle to the picture-window perfection of the first. Before that first winter ended, an event took place that shook me out of that contentment, and out of the house. I don’t remember how much time had passed since the titmouse census, but there was still snow on the ground, except under the picnic table. My habit then, when home during daylight hours, was to sit at the dining room table facing the picture window. This way my attention didn’t have to be fixed continuously on the feeders. (My bird-watching habit was not quite that obsessive nor nearly that scientific.) I relied on the movements of the birds in my visual periphery to alert me to new arrivals, thus enabling me to engage in other sedentary pursuits. It was in this setting that the life-influencing event occurred.
It was late afternoon and daylight was dimming. While sitting at the table reading a magazine, three bobwhites arrived in my periphery. They had just landed under the picnic table to feed on the seeds that lay on the bare ground. By then bobwhites had become a dime a dozen, so after giving them an obligatory two and a half cents worth, I returned to the magazine.
And then it happened. Suddenly, there on the picnic table stood a red-tailed hawk, its foreboding aura filling up the picture window. For a few endless seconds we were five frozen creatures; actually, one frozen and four poised. The three bobwhites, genetically equipped to deal with this situation, had already arranged themselves for the Russian roulette escape ritual. When alarmed, a feeding or sleeping flock of bobwhites will fly off simultaneously but separately towards roughly equally spaced degrees of the compass. The visual effect is that of a rapidly expanding circle, and has been described as a feathered bombshell. Since a predator can only catch one victim even if all the bobwhites fly off in the same direction, the full-compass take-off is probably meant to startle or confuse the would-be diner.
The hawk was looking straight ahead, its back to me. We were both facing south. The bobwhites, not designed to keep destiny waiting, burst out from beneath the table. One flew east and one flew west. Due south, about 50 feet from the table and 60 feet from me, there was an explosion. The snow, instantly littered with feathers, turned red. I sat transfixed and watched the red-tailed hawk eat its bobwhite. Several minutes passed while the hawk ate, and I experienced a reasonable feeling of culpability. I had taken “bird feeding” to an unexpected level.
Afterwards, in the dying light, I went out to inspect the carnage at a ragged crater in the snow. My mind was filled with the image of three bobwhites beneath the picnic table, of the one who flew south, of ritual and violence. As I stood there, nothing moved or made a sound. Yet nature was vibrantly alive, even in death, in the blood and feathers at my feet. I looked where I had been sitting in the cozy warm light behind the picture window. The hawk had taught me that even there I was a participant. Nature could never again be just a pastime.
Rough at the Edges
I was out at the beach, looking for a “lost” colony of seaside bluebells, a subarctic plant whose southernmost outpost is on Nantucket. But it was not a good day for botany, or botanists. After two hours of combing a Cape Cod National Seashore foredune, I had found nothing but 27 tons of beachgrass and beach pea, and a Fowler’s toad. There was, however, one area I couldn’t search, a missing tooth in the combing where I am sure the bluebell hides, accidentally protected from human incursion by a squadron of terns.
As usual, I was walking with my head down, about 30 percent of my awareness devoted to not crushing clumps of beachgrass. I had completely forgotten about the terns, in spite of having been attacked by them during a futile bluebell search the previous year. My memory was quickly revived by a piercing alarm. I looked up to see a feathered missile descending toward my head with its wings and legs held outwardly from its body. At the last moment it arched over and dove for my scalp. I ducked in time, but felt the wind of its wake.
Within moments another half dozen terns had joined their companion and the battle intensified. In self defense, I flailed my hat at each dive by these small terrors. I stumbled hurriedly through the lumpy beachgrass terrain, crushing clump after clump. I had made a mistake and the foredune was paying for it. Never walk through the backyard of a tern nesting colony.
I know of no bird that displays as much physical threat to humans during nesting as the tern. The blackbirds may out-noise them, but the blackbird is only bluff (so far). The tern will back up its threat with a sharp peck to the head or by unloading an organic bomb from its aft gunnery. Anyone who experiences this attack comes away with a grudging admiration, but often at the cost of lost affection. The tern is a good example of Henry Beston’s observation that wild animals “shall not be measured by man. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are separate nations.”
One of the more difficult aspects of nature for us to accept is the differing “morality” of behavior between wild animals and ourselves. This happens because we too often judge such behavior not on what seems right or wrong for the animal, but on what seems right or wrong for us. The parental tern provides a good lesson on the inappropriateness of this attitude.
The tern chick and fledgling are preyed on by a host of two-to-six-legged creatures. These include gulls, hawks, snakes, foxes, skunks, and rats. Even ants will enter the cracked shell of a hatchling and kill it. But the predator posing the greatest threat to terns on Cape Cod is the great horned owl, who attacks at night in eerie silence. The owl is therefore a threat to the adult terns as well as to the young. Because of this, the adults abandon the nesting colony at dusk and spend the night offshore. They won’t return until dawn. The chicks and fledglings spend the night alone and unprotected.
Judged by human standards, this behavior would rate two-inch headlines in the tabloids, the parents would be in jail, and the children would be wards of the state. But in the nation of terns, the adult is paramount. The balance of behavior tilts, as it should, toward survival of the species. For an interim, you can have adults and no chicks, but you can’t have chicks and no adults. Orphaned chicks are wards of the fox. If necessary, adult terns will produce more than one brood in a season.
After my own recent scrape with the terns, I continued my search for the wayward bluebells. In another quarter mile I found myself at an area of the outer beach reserved for off-road and recreational vehicles. As I approached close to the vehicles I overheard a boy about eight say, “Dad, there’s a man walking in the beachgrass!”
“I know, son, I see him.”
“Shoot him!” the boy said.
Although I had coated myself with false innocence during the first part of this conversation, I blew my cover completely when I involuntarily laughed at the boy’s concluding statement. He was right of course – not that I be shot, but that people aren’t supposed to walk in the beachgrass. Beach users are strongly warned about this in the national seashore. My special dispensation to find the bluebells was not apparent, and in any case did not cover what I did to the beachgrass behind the tern colony.
The boy’s suggested method of righting my wrong got me to thinking about the terns again. I was glad I could take the father’s civility for granted, but were the codes of our separate nations so separate after all? The terns would have no trouble accepting such a ruthless solution. Maybe our discomfort with ruthlessness in nature is in response to our own capacity for violence.
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, High Country News, New Theory, Compose, Lowestoft Chronicle, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net.