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Predators: Cruel or simply part of nature?

2020 12 05 squirrels

By David Hawke — If you have observed wildlife for any length of time, you may have realized that life for these critters can appear to be cruel and unfair; very few, if any, wild animals die of old age.

The perils of life and living often take a heavy toll, with disease, injury, violent competition, harsh weather, famine and predators combining to make day-to-day survival a skill-testing event.

          The animals near the upper end of the food chain are often cast as the villains: cunning wolves, sly coyotes, large snakes, fierce hawks and opportunistic man, to name a few. These are the meat eaters, the ones that prey upon other life to ensure their own survival.

          However, predators have every right to survive and instead of scorning these creatures it may help to have a closer look at their role in Nature. In the intricate world of nature, something must die for something else to live — it's that simple. It’s called energy transfer.

          Most predators take the young, the weak, the aged, the sick and the stupid from within their prey's population. Prey species tend to be very prolific, with examples being mice and rabbits, and the local population can withstand a good thinning out by a coyote family. Therefore, the mice and rabbits who survive are smart, healthy, alert and strong (and have a certain amount of good luck coming their way).

          Another aspect to this story is that not all predators are big, cruel and nasty (in fact, none is, if the species is studied for a while). Sometimes death comes from a creature not usually associated with the role of predator.

           A few years ago, (okay, decades ago) when I worked at the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre, one of my duties was to sit at the front desk and greet visitors. The entrance to the centre consists of large, plate glass windows, perfect for reflecting an image of the surrounding shrubbery. At least once a week a sharp thud would be heard as a small warbler, swallow or sparrow tried to enter this false forest.

          From the vantage point of the front desk, I could see the little drama that unfolded with each unfortunate thwack on the window. As the bird flopped to the concrete walkway below, it would hardly come to rest before it was snatched away.

          Living within the small patch of shrubbery was a chipmunk, and this chipmunk supplemented its diet with these fresh-killed or stunned birds. Nature wastes nothing. But, a chipmunk?

          Another scene unfolded one evening as I was leaving the centre. Just as I turned the door lock, a terrible commotion arose from the phoebe's nest, which was under the eaves at the other end of the building. Both adults were hovering and darting about the nest, making agitated snapping and popping sounds.

          As I came closer, the birds departed to a nearby tree, either miffed that I had interfered or hoping that I would assist them. When I looked under the eaves, I quickly saw the cause of their consternation. In fact, the cause almost jumped on my head, as it was just as surprised to see me.

          With beady eyes gleaming and bloody nose twitching, a red squirrel was caught in the act of raiding the bird's nest. I instinctively shouted at it to "git outta there", but it was so surprised that it must have forgotten any English it had learned, for it didn't move. Only a gesture of my arm sent it on its way.

          Of the three young I knew were in the nest, two were missing and the third mortally wounded; no wonder the parent birds were so upset. When I returned next morning an inspection of the nest revealed that it had been cleaned out by the squirrel.

          Chipmunks and red squirrels are, indeed, quite willing to eat meat, if they can find it. By way of another example, a ruffed grouse hit a large window and died instantly. Over the next few days, a red squirrel ate the body, bit by bit, eventually leaving only a few feathers.

          Another predator that is often overlooked is the blue jay. Pretty, indeed handsome, jays are often regarded as friendly winter birds. But each spring and summer they are a major player in the demise of some woodland bird species.

          Jays are closely related to crows and share the trait of being a part-time predator as well as scavenger. Whenever a blue jay has the chance to dine on fresh eggs, it will. Several woodland bird species, such as veery, rose-breasted grosbeak, and wood thrush are in jeopardy, partially due to habitat loss on both the wintering and breeding grounds. Nesting when they can in our locally diminishing woodlands, these birds hide their nests in the thick foliage, but as gypsy moths or tent caterpillars strip away the protective canopy, predators like blue jays have a great old time carting off eggs and young songbirds for snacks.

          Yep, it's cruel out there. Except if you happen to like chipmunks, red squirrels and blue jays, then it's just "part of nature."

Dave’s notebook: I have noticed that the gloomier the weather, the more active the bird feeder. So far today, a cardinal, red-bellied woodpecker and grey squirrel have arrived to brighten the day.

© 2020 David J. Hawke

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