Tooth and Claw

Dinner with dogs

We’ve spent a bunch of evenings this summer eating dinner outside near our woodshed, which has a bird house on its west-facing wall that I put up a couple years ago. Its first ever residents are a dutiful tree swallow pair who moved in this spring, and we’ve enjoyed watching them go in and out and eat some of the bugs we’d prefer go elsewhere. It might be a coincidence, but our wasp problem is not nearly as bad this year. I like to think the swallows might be responsible.

Bird house on the right, with swallow feeding chick

Just a couple nights ago we noticed the parents coming back to the house and feeding two wee chicks. They’d snatch insects in mid-air and swoop like winged ballet dancers to a sudden stop at the hole and feed their babies, whose wide mouths eagerly took the food. Just as suddenly the adult swallow would fly off on another sortie and return soon with more grub. We got to know these birds. Their concern with getting their babies in shape to leave the nest registered with us and we talked about it at other times throughout the day. Their plight has been on my mind. We rooted for them, and felt relief and satisfaction when we saw the chicks eat, and felt anxious when their yearning heads stuck out of the hole anticipating the next insect installment.

Parent and chick touching talons

Our cat Seamus, an accomplished hunter in his twilight years, knows about these birds, as does Peat. Peat barks at the parent when it perches in a nearby dead tree. Last night Seamus sat on a Ponderosa pine round several feet below the bird house. I threw a rock at him and he fled. Tonight, as we watched the birds perform their dusk routine, I thought I’d relieve them of a little stress by moving the round away from the house, and took some perverse pleasure in thinking Seamus would be disappointed at having his bird-killing perch removed.

As the light faded and we returned from a brief stroll around the yard, I noticed Seamus hunched on the ground near the bird house but couldn’t see what he was doing. I threw another rock at him and he ran off. I attended to some other matters for a moment, and then heard Peat barking and saw him facing Seamus under a lawn chair. Seamus ran off again, and Peat dived under the chair, grabbing something with his mouth. It couldn’t be. He brought it to me, still warm but expired, one of the swallow chicks. My heart sunk.

We think we understand something and allow ourselves to hope. I looked back at the house, which now appeared empty. I couldn’t see either parent flying around, and the hole was chick-less. It was as if their hearts couldn’t stay. I don’t know if they’re gone, or if there’s still one chick in the house. I hope, but don’t understand. And I’m angry with my cat for succeeding at doing what I spend all year myself thinking about doing , and a third of it actually doing.

There’s science, and then there’s the other things. I’m dashing this out tonight ipso facto, but always think of the phrase from Tennyson’s long, long poem (which I’ve never read much of but should) in memory of a dear friend of his (from Cambridge, no less – the one in England, not the one I’m in): “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” which caught the ear and imagination of Darwin’s followers despite the fact that Tennyson doesn’t really pick a side of the Creation-Evolution question. But it’s all I’ve got to console me in situations like this: shit happens, and there’s usually an explanation even if you don’t like it. I want that baby bird back. It was obviously too soon for it to fledge. I don’t even know what happened, but I wish it hadn’t.

Peat with the meadowlark

About a week ago, Peat snagged a baby meadowlark, brought it to Leslie who Googled an answer while holding the bird with her other hand, returned it to the nest, checked on it later that evening, and found it to be fine, with mom nearby. A couple days later, I found a meadowlark chick corpse in the grass, no doubt re-retrieved by Peat, just doing what he does best. Angus did the same thing to a robin a couple years ago. It’s just hard to take. And then, tomorrow, in another frame of mind, I’ll say again to Leslie for the millionth time since last December, “I can’t wait for chukar season,” when I’ll go and try to kill birds I haven’t gotten to know because I couldn’t stand it if I did.

8 Replies to “Tooth and Claw”

  1. I have been dealing with this for years. It’s the price you pay when you have predators for pets. My 3 year old Brittany, Danner brought me a baby robin the other day, he was just doing his job, I just wish my wife saw it that way.

  2. Bob,
    It’s time for you to write a book. You write lyrically, humorously and have a lot to say about chukar culture from the ethics of blood sport to dozens of stories about your two nutcase Brittanys. Do it. I know that hunting books rarely make any money. But we need you to write the book.
    Thanks,
    Mark

  3. Hi Bob, I have dealt with the same thing– now the birdhouse goes on the other side of the fence from the Britts, and the cat stays inside during the summer songbird hatch. The altricial bird fledglings often require some time on the ground while learning to fly or resting between initial flights. Like you, I am eager for the hunt, but lament the killing otherwise. AlsoI realize the dogs and cats are more hunters than I so I cannot blame them for acting on instinct.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Chris. We’re going to try being more vigilant with the pets somehow. I need to learn more about the fledging process, too. This morning, they’re back at it with the one surviving chick (at least I think there’s just one). It was a relief to see that.

  4. Love those mischevious pics of Peat. Reminds me of my brit Booger a few years ago. Just doing what he is bred to do. I cant wait for bird season either. Love reading your stories.

  5. I live on a farm and watch the ongoing story of life and death day by day. Every time I see the scattered feathers where a fox, hawk or wild house cat has taken a nesting quail I feel the sorrow. Somehow it seems different to me when I shoot a quail in the fall, but I know to the quail it makes no difference.

Chirp away