Some of you may recall last spring, when our nuthatches tried to make new nuthatches out of whatever they had lying around the house, and everything went sideways for them. One nestling might have made it, five were dead in the nest, and the seventh was snatched up for scrub-jay chow on its maiden flight. That was deeply disturbing. The scrub jays and I had had an understanding. They’d hang around and watch me weed and I’d toss them an insect larva whenever I unearthed one. I thought I was just being companionable, but evidently the jays were running a protection racket, and when I fell a little behind in the larvae, it was curtains for the nuthatches.
What I’ve learned is that manufacturing new birds is a dicey enterprise at best. Other birds want to eat baby birds. Snakes want to eat baby birds. Mammals want to eat baby birds. Mites want to picnic on their insubstantial, goobery little skins. It’s a tough go. But I didn’t appreciate how tough until this week, when two news items came to my attention.
The first was that deer are now known to eat baby birds. That wrecks their herbivore cred for sure. Lots of vegetarians are one strip of bacon away from moral free-fall and evidently it isn’t much different for deer. Deer don’t want to be restricted to plants; they just don’t have the teeth for anything else. But show them a nice gummable nuthatch chick, and they’re all nom-nom. Who knew?
Well, I had my suspicions. One time during a hike we saw a lovely doe well across the valley. She began to amble our way. She wasn’t in any hurry; but she pointed her pretty nose at Dave, and she headed right for him. It was funny at first. Then Dave turned and tried to walk away, but by then she was on the trail and closing the gap fast. He picked up the pace. So did she. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense to be wary of a small deer, either, but when animals don’t act right it makes you apprehensive. Now that we know deer will eat meat, it’s all coming into focus. What part of Dave, that can be seen from the rear, is reminiscent of a baby bird?
I don’t think there’s a bird mama in the world that would hesitate to dive-bomb an ungulate who is busy nibbling on the family legacy. But deer aren’t the only problems. Item two: slugs. Slugs in Europe eat baby birds.
It’s not going to be a good way to go, for the nestlings. Slugs have rasps for mouths. They don’t bite off and chew; they scrape away. That’s going to feel good to an itchy mite-infested nestling for about two seconds and then it’s going to be all out of skin layers. There’s just not that much to a bird at the loogey stage. All of which begs the question: how neglectful a bird parent are you if you allow a slug to sneak up on your babies? Slugs are only marginally sneaky.
Many birds’ strategy is to lay bunches of eggs. Because they’re not all going to make it. Maybe they’re philosophical about them; I hope so. They always said that in the olden days people had scads of kids to help run the farm, and mitigate the losses to childhood illness. (That’s one reason; the other is that Daddy won’t quit poking Mommy with that thing.) Maybe bird parents are like Catholics. They pump out enough to run through the standard twelve names (Patrick, John, Francis X., Joseph, Paul, Matthew, Mary Celeste, Mary Catherine, Mary Mary, Colleen, Eileen, and Baleen), and then you’ve got to count on some attrition if you’re ever going to name another one.
I still feel sorry for my nuthatch family, but maybe it’s for the best. Catholic school ain’t cheap.
When we lived in England, we religiously fed the birds in our garden (this is different to the Catholic thing, less wine and incense). Every month, those little beaks would chomp through a big sack of sunflower hearts. In a bad WInter, we could see 30 different species in a week. Then we realised that all we were doing was concentrating the protein in one place to make it easier for the Sparrowhawks. Jeez, those raptors have a mean stare.
Pretty though! Sometimes I'm afraid I'm concentrating the protein in one place for the neighbors' stupid cats. And sometimes they just bat the protein around. Grrrrr.
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Hmm, you're right, I might. I know all about Tibbles the cat already. I put him in my book about birds, still unpublished.
As I am sure you realize, deer that are interested in you have been hand fed by some idiot. In a national park near here you can stand in front of the parking lot and rattle some plastic paper in your pocket and deer will come out of the forest and head for you.
Oh, you so overestimate my ability to figure things out. Never occurred to me that that deer might have been fed. I still wonder, though. This was on Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics and there isn't that much traffic out there; kind of an icky access road. Still coulda been a rabid butt-munching deer.
Nature is amazing; nature sucks.
Your version is much more entertaining, though. Even with the sad parts.
Everybody's got to eat. I prefer my meat already sliced up in some remote place and packaged and sent to the grocery store. Because if I don't know how it was done, I remain pure of heart.
Me too. If I had to raise all my own food I'd be a vegan. Give me a nicely wrapped package from the store and I'd even eat a slug.
nope nope nope nope nope
Slugs are just snails (escargots) without a home. Personally, I'd rather eat gravel.
I once read something from a stupid tweeter who said that animals don't have to be killed for us to have meat; we should just buy it at the market!!
Oh dear. At least I know I'm an asshole.
I remember that remark, it made the newspapers here.
Thank you, Murr, for giving me a glorious image of the Church of the Immaculate Saint Baleen.
At 5am with the first cup of coffee, nothing is better.
Even an hour or so later, with only the dregs of my cup of tea left it is a wonderful image.
I am trying to visualize her, but her light is too bright. God bless Saint Baleen.
Once in North Cascades NP we ran across a deer like that. Once it managed to get to my backpack (on the ground, not on me), it commenced to licking it, and then there was no driving it away – it kept circling back all afternoon. Maybe Dave's sweat was equally appealing.
With 98% of nature having baby bird on the menu, it's surprising just how many do survive!
I don't think I'd like to be rasped to death, ugh.
I have my itchy moments when it doesn't sound so bad.
And in Texas and other points south, the red ants eat baby birds. They are part of the reasons quail are in decline. They also eat baby deer and calves.
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Sounds like the same ants that ate Leiningen in our Grade 7 English anthology …
I took a while replying to this because I don't want to visualize it. At all.
I feel cheated! My name is Mary but brought protestant…I could have used some Catholic discipline!
Mine is too, and I could still use some discipline, but not the kind you have to recover from.
Did you know that squirrels will eat meat also? I saw a squirrel perched atop a road kill deer munching away. This was near Grants Pass, so the people of the John Birch Society may have gotten to the squirrel.
Maybe it was eating undigested grain from the gut? WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THIS ANIMALS??
I've read you for a while without commenting, but you got me – zing! – with all the Catholic Marys
I'm thinking there might be even more.
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