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Fear Itself

Island Life

It was kind of like a Norman Rockwell meets Roger Tory Peterson composition for ducks in Spring. I was drawn to it at first by a slight burbling sound coming from the pond in a place where burbles are not naturally occurring through any form of gravity driven water movement. We were sitting out in the backyard for a Mother’s Day event when I looked down to the water to see a female wild mallard floating just out of reach of a mass of yellow flag iris foliage, with its bulging minarets not quite ready yet to unfurl the golden banners bundled inside. And at varying intervals, three mid-sized ducklings were testing their diving prowess and popping up in random spots around mom duck to shake the water from their duckling down and still undersized wings. Watching this scene play itself out on a warm Sunday afternoon, one could almost forgive the oval-eyed anthropomorphisms wrought upon various members of the animal kingdom by the Disney imagineers. Almost.

That is until the likes of television’s Wild Kingdom, and more recently NatGeo and Animal Planet, came along to show us all what nature is really all about. One could also mention South Park’s Christmas Critters here, but since they take cute and twisted to a whole other level, I think they deserve a category all their own. And then there is the ebb and flow of living in the forced ruralitude of this Island that might serve as a wake up call to the call of the wild.. A simple trip along the Island’s highway and byways could yield any degree of proof, in varying body counts of Bambies and Rockys, that yet another category of non-motorized tarmac transgressors finds no safety in either center line or shoulder rumble strips. And while it may be simple to turn a blind and/or distracted eye further away from roadside roadkill (unless you’re on a bike, and then you can’t avoid the stink), it is much less easy to ignore the wonders and gore of food chain Darwinism going on most everyday in the wilderness of one’s own Island backyard.

I guess that’s not quite true- you can ignore it by not paying attention. An example would be last year’s episode here with the newly discovered aquatic newts that were enjoying warm and tranquil pond-basking until death from above in the form of one heron arrived and decimated the population. If I hadn’t noticed and marveled at their surprise presence I wouldn’t have had to temper their loss with the acknowledgement that that was part of their reason for being here to begin with. And if I hadn’t come to recognize the difference between general, morning birdsong wake-up jabber and the repeated and urgent sharp chirp of distress, I never would have seen the pair of barred owls that had come to roost in the birch tree just outside our front door, and would have totally missed the frantic swooping and striking the robins were using in vain in an attempt at keeping their hatchlings from becoming unfeathered and unbattered popcorn robinettes.

For me, owls transcend the cartoon, in spite of their wide-eyed, anime stare. As far as giving them human qualities goes, that seems impossible with their mostly blank glare and robot head twisting. Until a few moments ago and a visit to wiki-land, I didn’t know that owls’ eyes were fixed in their sockets, although an owl’s ability to mock Linda Blair’s headspinning efforts with ease should have made it obvious that eye-rolling was being taken care of through other means. It was actually almost a week after the birch tree incident when I heard similar sounds of robin alarm outside and went to find one of the owls sitting in a branch over the pond. After watching it for a while there, the fact that its head tipped forward to look down at the water and then way back to observe the overhead passing of some squabbling ravens should have been at least a hint of the non eye-rolling feature, although the all-over dark of the eyes makes detection of any eye movement, even if it were to happen, mostly impossible. And it was the downward gaze that got me thinking along another track. It had been a few weeks earlier, just under the owl’s roosting branch, where I had seen a mom duck and thirteen newly hatched ducklings, working hard to stay together and to keep up. While there have been as many as three pairs of mallards around here this Spring, the thought had occurred that the Mother’s Day trio who had been bobbing for bugs might have been what was left from what had been a baker’s dozen.

This also led to thinking about what fear and panic might have spread amongst the group as the owl swept in, or if, like the robin hatchling that had been snatched and torn up and gulped down while I watched, it had happened too quickly to even register fight or flight, regardless of relative inabilities to do so. And it seemed that the robins doing the screaming around the owl were doing so mostly to intimidate the intruder in order to drive it away- even striking it as they flew by. This appeared to be fight rather than flight. There was even a hummingbird getting in on the act up at the birch tree. It got within three to four feet of the owl, and was way smaller than even the robin hatchling that was snagged and ingested.

I compared this reaction to one I had regarding some cows in a news report I happened by recently. The report concerned a cattle auction in drought-stricken Texas and showed clips of various animals being herded through an automated auction pen. Here was fear- a terror of the unknown- both where they were and where they might be going. It had me thinking of the opening scenes from Food Inc., where conveyor belts shunted barely walking chicks through a series of climbs and drops, spilling over and under each other, in a seemingly unending torrent and cascade of living beings in an unreal world. In the end, it seems that the owls are more humane and perhaps wiser than they let on behind their fixed stare.