Wednesday, May 16, 2012


My Friend Wendy Paulson learned a painful lesson by loving birds. Of course, love opens us up to such lessons. And birds, despite their beauty, lead lives of fear and impending brutality. Most die by violence.

We generally don’t think of that, when we watch them. But she indeed wrestled with it through the pleasure of finding birds nests. She was curious. The architecture of many nests is amazing. Eggs of many species are beautiful.

She’d check back from time to time to see how the downy families were doing. Her first horror was that most of the nests were soon ravaged by predators. Broken, slurped-out eggs or the remaining bones and feet of babies were the repeated gruesome “end of story.”

The second horror was the realization that the predators (foxes, raccoons, etc.) were probably following her scent and footsteps. That’s one thing about predators – they’re curious. Belatedly she realized that she was the cause of the carnage, and she stopped seeking out nests.

At Somme recently I’d been casing the preserve for invasives when a mallard exploded out of the grass two or three feet in front of me. That always means a nest. Sure enough, with eleven eggs, seen below.

I resolved to stay away from it. One pass by a person who was going back and forth across the preserve wouldn’t draw attention, I hoped.

The next day I had the pleasure of doing a “thinking tour” around the preserve with Sunny and Eliezer, two wise and fun volunteers who had a lot of questions and ideas. As a treat, I said, let’s take a peek at a mallard sitting on her nest about a dozen feet from the main trail. “Stay on the trail. Don’t speak loudly. Don’t make quick movements. We don’t want to flush her.”

But when we got to the spot, we couldn’t see her, even though the nest area was in plain view. What to do? Could the nest have been vandalized already? Sitting hens are camouflaged. We looked and looked. Finally I said, “Okay, if you want, Sunny, just tiptoe over and look to the left of that stump, and tell us what you see.”

Soon she said with disappointed tone, “Oh, they’ve hatched.”

“Are there broken egg shells,” I asked.

When she said no, I explained that the ducklings couldn’t have hatched then. When they hatch, the duck leaves the nest and eggshells behind, and the whole brood of tiny legs starts hiking toward water.

I stood on the trail wondering what to do. If the eggs were gone, no harm, I suppose, to go over to see and interpret.

When I did, I saw nothing. No eggs, no nest, right exactly where it had been the day before. 

I had a hunch. I picked up a dead stick (so my scent wouldn’t end up where I touched) and pried up a bit of the plain-looking ground where the nest had been. Sure enough, there was a surprise inside. Under a layer of dry leaves and moss was a layer of feathery down. Under the down were eleven beautiful eggs. The air was warm, mid day. The duck needed something to eat, and she kept those eggs warm with a down comforter. She kept them invisible with a layer of typical looking duff. I used my stick to carefully replace both.

Yet, all three of us had made footstep trails to the nest. I had meant to be more careful. 

We continued our adventure of preserve discoveries. Our loop around the main trail took more than two hours. We saw and discussed much. At the very end, our trail took us past the nest once again.

“Surely she’s back by now,” I said. “Watch for her head to move a bit.” But once again, no duck on the nest. This time there was no invisibility. Indeed, we saw carnage and crime scene.  

In just two hours, after we three walked to the nest. The predator had struck.

“Could a coyote have been simply watching you, and pounced as soon as you left?” one steward asked. But our scent probably told the story well enough. Should I feel dismal? Somber? Is this destruction just one more assault on nature at the hand of man – in fact me? Or is it just nature, and I should relax?

The mallard is a common bird. I'd feel definitely worse if this were the nest of a woodcock or a black-billed cuckoo. I resolve to be more careful. (I've resolved before.)


Rob Liva said...

I think that you show some vulnerability in this post. You knew better than to revisit the nest, yet your curiosity got the best of you. How novel, I think, to realize that mammalian predators are observing and taking cues from you.

You allude to a hierachy of value for different species in our ecosystem. Aren't all species important and worthy of life? The mallard is a common bird, fortunately the eggs did not belong to a nesting woodcock. I too subscribe to this perspective. It is one that can be difficult to explain...

I have been spending a lot of time with an artist. She sees beauty in everything and marvels at the weeds in her garden. Her pontifications are noteworthy and raise the hairs on my neck. Sometimes I feel regret. I have lost a sense of wonder and beauty for much of the Chicago region's greenscapes. Invasive species are a blight. As a child the honeysuckle grove and buckthorn thicket inspired as much wonder and awe in my little body as any place else. Today these places make me feel rigid with discomfort. A utilitarian perspective on the ecological roles of native plants has perhaps been the strongest element to shape my perspective of beauty in the natural world. Unadulterated beauty, for me, therefore comes most readily by an ignorance to the native and invasive character of species. I may find any place in South America beautiful, so long as the flora there are unknown to me.

That being said, restoration is an incredible experience for this very reason. To actively engage in the cultivation of an aesthetic is unspeakably fulfilling.

Sunny Balsam said...

Yeah, that was sad--even though they were "only" mallard eggs. And it was disturbing, giving me the sense that I walk around heedlessly in this world, wreaking more havoc than I can possibly imagine. But it also made me think about how I'm connected with the non-human world in more ways than I imagine. I would have never considered my connection to that coyote (or whatever it was), if I hadn't had the opportunity to see what swift and effective use it made of my scent.

I’ve read that, back when humans were more aware of such connections, wild crows would use their aerial-perspective-advantage to help Native Americans find game—leading the earth-bound humans to animals they could hunt. What the crows got out of it were the leftovers. I think about what it must have been like, the first time that arrangement worked out. I wouldn’t presume to speculate about which species offered the deal, and which accepted it, but the Native Americans must have already felt connected enough to crow-consciousness that they could at least have imagined that a partnership was possible. We certainly weren’t (knowingly) interested in a partnership with the mallard eggs predator, but because we weren’t sufficiently tuned in to its consciousness, we ended up making it an offer it was happy to accept.

Eliezer and I live near Northwestern and walk on the landfill there, most days. It’s a pretty blighted landscape, native species-wise, but it’s on the lake, and it’s what we’ve got. The engineer-constructed ponds there are crowded with mallards and Canada geese. We often see them pairing up and engaging in courtship displays but, until last year, we never saw any of their young. I always wondered where they did nest, and whenever I saw a mallard pair in an ephemeral pond at the Somme Prairie Grove, I’d think, “This must be the kind of place they like to nest—secluded, and (relatively) removed from human traffic.”

Then, last year, we saw our first goslings on the landfill, and this year we saw even more goslings, and several brood-fuls of ducklings. I was surprised because, in addition to the coyotes and foxes that are there (like everywhere), the landfill is so frequently swarming with people, it has always seemed to me that it would be an especially difficult area for ducks or geese to find suitable nesting spots. Now, however, in the wake of the Somme Massacre, I’m thinking that the landfill has at least one advantage: The scent of humans is everywhere in that place, so no idiotically curious nature enthusiast is likely to lead a predator to a clutch of eggs.

Stephen Packard said...

Golly. Such compelling comments from both Robert and Sunny.
Robert, I very much identify with your ambivalence about exalting "the natural" over "the beautiful weeds."
I wish we could foster a sense of wonder for both. The natural areas and endangered species need our help and are priorities. But helping appreciate the beauty and nature of weeds (and whatever nature most people see day to day) seems important too. Perhaps your artist friend (who sees beauty in everything) can help with that.
Sunny, I loved the "crow consciousness" story. We modern increasingly-native people need to develop our own versions of such consciousnesses.

Rob Liva said...

@Sunny, I too enjoyed your crow-consciousness story and agree with Steve that we ought to cultivate such relations in contemporary times. I wonder if the relationship you describe between crow and human is the result of deep time and intentional observation. Do crows change their behavior when amidst any co-predator and potential carrion item? With deep time and deep intention perhaps we too can forge such awareness.

@Steve I hope to re-learn an unbiased eye for beauty, but am afraid that the effects of practicing restoration are irreversible. Time will tell.

Daniel Suarez said...

Most people tend to think of themselves as separate from the natural processes that occur around them. I think this post really highlights the fact that we indeed have a direct ecological role within natural communities that we do restoration work on. Surely, we all know the impact of cutting buckthorn, collecting seed, herbiciding, burning, etc. But, as you point out Stephen, how often do we think about the smaller, more nuanced interactions we have with flora and fauna?

I believe most people think that humans either have a positive or negative impact on their environment. No gray area, just black or white. However, how does one weigh the benefit of one act against the potential benefits of another? For instance, when anyone collects a substantial amount of seed, there is a clear impact: a bird community that feeds on a particular seed or fruit may find that suddenly their food sources have dried up. However, when weighed against the benefit of using the seeds to create more suitable habitat for said bird community, it is clear that like any other animal, human's actions have an essential ecological role. Sadly, high quality natural areas would not survive without our intervention. While humans have acted as invasive species themselves, unconsciously (but usually consciously) wreaking havoc on natural places, we have the ability to change our habits and turn things around. I don't think it's far-fetched to think that in the future, the work of restorationists will have to be viewed as having a distinct ecological role within natural communities, separate from the rest of the human population. As we reorient and reintegrate ourselves into the natural processes of the places we are trying to save, we undoubtedly will have to learn that with every unintended tragedy we may cause, like giving away the location of some eggs to a predator, it is ultimately good, because we realize ourselves to be a part of something bigger. And isn't that the reason we all wake up early on weekends to go cut buckthorn?