Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hunters like us

I decided to scrap the essay I promised. It went all stupid on me. That happens. So instead I'm going to tell you about the drama in the woods this morning. I was in an area where I often see owls, and I was just thinking about how scarce they've been this spring when I heard a commotion up ahead. It was a red-bellied woodpecker in full freak-out, squawking madly. I couldn't see what the trouble was at first, but then I realized there was a great horned owl, a big female, behind the woodpecker. She spread her wings and took off through the trees. I think she was taking the woodpecker's mate with her. I couldn't see for sure but it's likely that she was, since woodpecker couples like to feed together in the early morning, and it would explain the red-bellied's distress. He carried on for quite a while after the owl was gone.

Between keeping feeders and doing a fair amount of birdwatching, I see a lot of bird-on-bird predation. Usually it doesn't bother me. It's a little gruesome, I guess, but the process of killing, plucking and eating is fascinating to watch. Seeing the attack on the woodpeckers made me sad, though. Stupidly, irrationally sad. It's not as if woodpeckers are endangered, or there's anything abnormal about an owl making breakfast out of one. This is how the world works, after all--and who should understand that better than me, a member of a predator species and citizen of a predator nation? But there's something about the woodpeckers that arouses my sympathy. Maybe it's their feisty attitude, or their weirdly engineered bodies, or their sweet attentiveness to their fledglings. Whatever it is, it destroys my natural admiration for the power and beauty of my sister, the killer.

La Nuit, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1883.


Perfumeshrine said...

I get the same feeling seeing cats (which I adore) killing grasshopers or small mice or sparrows...sad, but it's the way of the world. Funny how we admire the killer, but have sympathy (empathy?) for the killed one. Is it the humanity in us?

Bozo said...

What's different about cats is the way they often play with their prey before killing it. Just yesterday one of ours was lying outside with a vole trapped in front of it. Every time the vole would try to run away, the cat would reach out and bat it back. The vole was screeching all the while. I finally broke my rule about interfering in natural processes and freed the vole and put him back in the garden. At that point, the cat seemed to lose interest and wandered away. Why the torture, I don't know, but it happens all the time.

BitterGrace said...

I think we like to have it both ways, E--empathy whores that we are!

Re the cats, Bozo, I think an animal behaviorist would say that the vole torture is a kind of lingering infantile behavior. A mama cat will encourage her babies to toy with prey before she finishes it off, as a way of encouraging their hunting instinct. Adult feral cats don't often waste their energy that way--at least, I don't see them do it. It's only pet cats that seem to retain that pointless sadism.

chayaruchama said...

To quote Hannibal Lecter:

"Ask yourself,of a thing, what is its nature? "-
Or something very like.

Good questions to ponder.

BitterGrace said...

True, Chaya--I seem to do little else. I hope that's my nature, and not just incorrigible laziness.