Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Feathers and Eggs

Yesterday at afternoon feeding of the horses, I was throwing hay into the stall for Sunset, when I noticed that the nest that had been built last year on the ledge over her door, had faint noises coming from it. The noises were from the plaint plaintive peeps of baby birds, begging for food from a parent. As I backed away, I saw a wren with something in its mouth around the corner of the barn waiting for me to leave so it could deliver. It flew to the nest, the noises got more frantic, then they subsided, and the parent flew away to find more. In the knowing of the repetition of how things work around here, I held little hope that the sounds would be there the next day. They weren’t.

Last year when the little wrens made the nest in this very same, super safe spot inside the barn on that ledge, high away from dogs, cats, raccoons, and other predators the little birds did not take into account that snakes can climb, and like to eat little wren babies. Sure enough, last year, and the year before, and the others before that, the wrens make a nest in a place they think is safe, like on this ledge. Sometimes they have nested in a riding helmet left lying around, or in flower pot hanging on the front porch,  or under the hood of the tractor in tidy small nests of grasses, horse tail hairs, and an occasional sparkly trinket for decoration, and they nearly all end the same way. It surprises me that they are not extinct. Every time, just when the eggs hatch and the young fuzzy babies begin the beg with that screech that begins the servitude of the parent to find that endless source of bugs and grubs, snakes find them.

Last year the snake, that had eaten the wren chicks from that nest, remained draped around the rafters for a day, digesting. It was a fat, heavy, yellow rat snake with faint markings, blending in well with the treated lumber we used to frame the stalls with. It lay there oblivious to the comings and goings of the horses passing under neath it, and I went around where it lay incase it decided to drop at an opportune time and land on my head. 

This year there have been no Purple Martins to listen to either. Their nests last season were raided by both avian predators who took their eggs, and lastly by a very large rat snake who killed the babies, just before they were set to fledge and fly away. The parents abandoned the colony and I have only seen one lone scout earlier this spring. He didn’t even light on the pole that holds all of the gourd shaped plastic houses, but flew on. I do miss hearing them. Their  happy clucks and chirps have made my mornings for years as I walked to the barn for early feeding. In a sad way, this year, I am  actually a bit relieved that they are not back. It was too painful to not be more effective in protecting them, in a space I provided for them in the first place. The pole was complete with a snake guard so they could be safe and successful, but obviously not.

And then there are the dogs. The pair of Canadian Geese that had been hanging around all spring had finally apparently nested somewhere down by the beaver condo at the narrow end of the pond. I had not seen the nest but the dogs did. The other morning at feeding time the pair of geese were in one of the paddocks plucking the seed heads off the tall grasses when I heard them start their warning honks. It wasn’t until I got back to the house that I learned what they were honking about. Following behind me came the two big dogs, each slowly trotting with a swing to their hips, with heads low and mouths in a funny, not closed, holding something precious way that only a dog who knows what it’s up to, can do.

Layla, the black lab was happy to show off her prize and gladly placed it between her front legs when she laid down on the front yard grass. She did her Lab smile and licked the egg and looked at me for my approval, then licked the egg again, and again. Hyphy, the other large dog, of unidentifiable genetic origin, obviously knew what the egg was about and forgot the licking part and went straight to trying to get her teeth in a place where they could do some damage to the shell. I convinced her that I only wanted to look at the egg for a moment and she let me pick it up, watching me carefully incase I might want dibs on it. The white egg was quite heavy and I gave it back to her. In very short order she cracked it, licked the contents until the shell was empty and then ate the shell.  She had either done this before, or somewhere in her genetic coding the instructions for sucking eggs was there and gave her guidance. Layla eventually bored with her prize since I was not up for playing fetch with it, and I saw the egg laying alone unguarded. A glance back later showed that egg to be gone too. The geese continued their plaintive honks for a while, and the wren this morning held food in its mouth flitting around the barn looking for the mouths to feed, that were there no more.

My real grudge with the snakes eating baby birds thing though, is, that I have a prejudice for wrens and martins that does not extend to the darn starlings who have nested in the martin houses this year. Their babies stick their ugly heads out the door and screech relentlessly for food and yet, no snake comes to quiet them. This is a total mystery to me and it simply not fair for the snakes to target the birds I like and ignore the ones who are a nuisance, but they did not ask me what I thought.

In earlier days, when I had not spent decades watching the animals that we share this land with, I had a rather childish attitude that the animals all lived in harmony and that rabbits played with baby deer while butterflies danced over head. It was most disturbing when our Lab of a few years back brought me the forequarters of a fawn it had killed or found. The dog was so happy and wanted me to know of its skills and prowess as a hunter. I was sick, but it was not my place to make a judgement call over whether the dog was evil or not. The dog was only doing what its instincts told it to do to survive. It would live to eat another day whether I poured some processed dog chow in its bowl for dinner or not. 

With all of this on going carnage and lethal establishment of the pecking orders, I still am in ways deeply saddened by these deaths. I am though, now more accepting of one fact that is, I am simply not in control of everything that lives and dies out here. I am not Mother Nature, and there is little that I can do to control the rules that guide the existence of the animals around me. My only choice is the acceptance of the fact that this really is a “snake eat baby bird/dog eat egg and or anything” world, and get over it, whether I want to or not, and do my best to stay higher up the food chain.

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