Predation, Intelligence and the Neighbors

An ordinary day on “The Acre” with an extraordinary event last weekend. I was in about hour four of hand-tilling and weeding the vegetable garden. It was hot (~87F) and humid with the sun beating down between the fleeting clouds, and black flies becoming annoyingly prevalent as my body exuded more CO2. As one would expect, the air was filled with the calls of songbirds and field birds, a singing Chickadee still in search of a mate, the back and forth fluttering of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the irritated calls of Baltimore Orioles who were not comfortable with my proximity to their jelly feeder. Also droning in the background were human machines – lawn mowers, roto-tillers, weed-eaters – why could they not work more quietly?

Suddenly from the back of the property near a pair of Eastern Bluebird nest boxes came a frantic shrieking, the kind one might hear from an American Kestrel or Sharp-shinned Hawk but more desperate. Within 2 or 3 seconds, the Red-winged Blackbirds swarmed the spot, both males and females, quickly followed by a few Grackles. They combined to form a chorus of alarm calls while the shrieking continued.

Given the aggressive gathering, I presumed a now panicked small raptor was in the Silky Dogwood that grows along side the nest boxes. So I got up from my tilling to see if I could spot anything in the shrubbery. “Why don’t I ever remember to bring the  binoculars when I work out here,” I grumbled. Not seeing anything through the thicket, I stepped out from the fencing that surrounds the garden and fox-walked slowly toward the site to get a better perspective. The shrieking was relentless but my cautious approach was too much for the blackbirds, who took flight. Still the desperate wails continued.

I tentatively walked further toward the back and my sight-line cleared the high grass that surrounds the narrow mowed path leading to the nest boxes. That is when I spotted something brown writhing on the low grass. I was still too far to make out exactly what it was, but suspected it might be a female Red-winged given the coloring and concerned collective that had just flown off but still called feverishly a short distance away.

This is when my paced quickened, surmising that some smaller bird of prey had wounded the Red-winged and it needed help. “What the…”, said I as a small brown Weasel spun off the pile and bolted into the high grass. Left behind was this now smaller weakly wriggling mass. The air was silent of wildlife now and quickly I went to check on who it was that remained. A young Eastern Cottontail, perhaps a month or two old, was rolling slowly in pain.

As I gently scooped it up, the shrieking started again but silenced once I covered the rabbit’s eyes. Immediately its injuries were obvious as the back of its neck was raw and bleeding from the Least Weasel’s attack. Dashing across the property and into the basement, I gingerly placed the small lagamorph into a box and closed it up. Having taken some wildlife rehabilitation classes, I knew that stress is the number one cause of death for injured wild animals and that keeping it in a dark quiet place was very important to reduce anxiety. I raced upstairs to get the list of local rehabilitators and selected one close by. Grabbing my phone, I popped back down to the rabbit so to give an accurate appraisal of the animal’s situation once the rehabber was on the line. But, alas, the little one already had expired so the call was never made.

This entire episode was completed in not more than 5 minutes. Most astounding was the incredibly fast response by the local birds. The Acre regularly hosts one or two pairs of nesting Red-winged Blackbirds each season and the surrounding property likely another 2 or 3 pairs. At least a dozen Red-wingeds were present and, as mentioned above, a few Grackles. It was if they all came out of the ether at the doomed rabbit’s first shriek. Talk about being in the moment! But more interesting is how they knew trouble was at hand.

There have been a number of studies of late reporting on communication among birds and the possibility that different species understand each others’ languages. But this event seems to clearly show that these birds understand, at least to some degree, the language of a mammal.

As humans, we have a tendency toward intellectual superiority, often attributed to the size of our brain and/or complexity of our nervous system. I’ve heard rabbits make soft, muted squeals but never a shrieking sound. I hypothesized a raptor based upon the sharpness of the call and the behavior of the birds, which I have witnessed before when hawks or crows are too close to nest sites. But instinctively I knew it was a call of distress, and so did the birds. And they were at the location so fast and reacted far more quickly than any human could do. So in this situation, my intelligence was off the mark, while my instincts were right in line with those of the birds.

As I buried the box and its tiny contents in a pile of leaf litter, it was the inability to assess the situation as quickly as the birds that bothered me the most. Had I immediately been able to discern, as they did, that the event was natural predation in process, I would have let it come to its inevitable conclusion – the inexperienced wayward rabbit would have provided a meal to a cunning weasel (and perhaps some others). But it would have been impossible to achieve the adeptness of the birds without a pair of binoculars at a minimum. They definitely have an advantage being able to achieve superior sight-lines and their reaction time cannot be matched by any human I know. We simply are too caught up with our mostly needless distractions, particularly those in our own brains, to ever attempt matching the “at one with nature” talent of wildlife, a skill we let go of generations before.


6 thoughts on “Predation, Intelligence and the Neighbors

  1. I always consider myself a nature-lover but I guess, maybe when it comes right down to it, I’m not. I only like it when everything is wonderful, no one is being eaten, everyone is happy, an idealistic world where everyone is a vegetarian…I know that’s naive and impossible but I feel sad that I can’t totally rejoice in the full beauty of nature…because much of it is ugly and tortured.

    • Candace – I understand how you feel and long ago felt similarly. The change for me has come over time by studying the science behind how the Earth and its creatures interact. This helps us separate human emotion from the realities of life. I came to realize that nothing in nature is ugly and tortured – those concepts are exclusively tied to human emotions (which is just another word for ego). Frankly, I believe it is just these emotions that interfere with our species’ understanding of not only nature but our own lives. Our emotions are often tied to the negative aspects of human life – war, murder, selfishness, etc. These behaviors are rarely about survival but about power (ego) and an inability to disconnect from unnecessary “stuff.” We rarely see such behaviors in the natural world and when we do, it is almost always to guarantee survival. Take, for example, the male Lion who, when taking over a pride, will kill the young offspring of the previous male. Science tells us this “murderous” behavior is not necessarily motivated by emotions or selfishness but serves to remove the presumed inferior genes of the weaker, defeated male from the population, making the pride (and, in turn, the future generations) stronger and better able to survive. So, take the time to learn the science behind the myriad of interactions that occur in nature and watch your objectivity grow!

      • Thank you for your response. I would much rather be objective as I often feel tortured the way I am now. I just know that every living being wants to live and I find that sad…because every living being will die at some point, probably unwillingly. I don’t like pain, suffering, and fear…I hate that everyone fights to live.

  2. Of course I’m sad when something adorable perishes in nature….but… is nature. We are nature. It is all part of the balance. Of course the weasel was going to eat the rabbit…yes….the adorable, sweet, precious little bunny. Would you rather have an over abundance of rabbits?. Of course not….keeping things in check is vital. Something must be eaten by something is the food chain…the web of life.

    When we take one thing out….something has to shift. Take away the weasels food, he dies off and then what. Ahhhhhh!!!!! The balance is knocked out of whack! So….here is a scenario of sorts ….people killing coyote populations off out of fear has diminished their numbers lets some fox are the apex predators…they eat the mice who the coyote normally wouldnt have eaten…those mice were like tick magnets….now the mice are gone and we are left with lots of ticks making lots of people sick. Nature out of balance gets crazy with trying to adapt….nature has been shifting and swaying, trying to stay balanced for billions of years.
    Nature has checks and balances and …..weasels eat bunnies.

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