Hunting (survival) vs. Killing (ego)

Homo sapiens love to claim a superiority over other species on the planet. We even have a loosely defined categorization method that generally places plants at the bottom followed closely by the “crawly” things (insects, spiders, snakes, etc.). High on the ladder just below our species we place the other primates. But it is not so simplistic since even within genetic families we differentiate (domestic dogs vs. wild canines, for example). And from what I can tell, this hierarchy is pretty much based upon our own species’ ego, likes and dislikes as individuals and societies, and/or religious convictions.

Coyote as bait

Trapped coyote being used as bait for the dogs of an employee of USDA’s Wildlife Services.

What this unilaterally defined hierarchy demonstrates to this writer, however, is a lack of intelligence on the part of H. sapiens because our knowledge and understanding of the roles individual species play within the complex network of Earth’s systems is quite limited. Consider there are thousands of species we’ve not even identified, much less perceive the significance of their niches. There are a few more open-minded scientists who have challenged the lower levels of this pecking order, such as John Marzluff and his research on Corvidae, which flies in the face (pun intended) of previous  “primates are the most intelligent animals” presumptions, but much more work along such lines should be done.

This self-named species’ superiority is the entire problem behind the current mass extinction event the Earth currently is facing. The causes are clearly understood (human over-population, habitat destruction, over-consumption, lack of education, profiteering, etc.) – these all speak of a species nearly entirely self-centered and, thus, woefully misguided.

The taking of a species’ life for a trophy is the epitome of self-centered egotism (one that is either too big, very fragile or potentially both). What other species causes such worthless death? What is wrong with H. sapiens? Is it a genetic mutation? Is our brain malfunctioning because it is more difficult for blood to reach it due to our “uprightedness?” Why do we as a species feel superior to all others? How has our existence improved the complex entity solely responsible for our survival – planet Earth? We seemingly have no beneficial niche unlike the other species with whom we share this blue marble.

Pursuing another species in a fair “sporting” manner for food or because one is under deadly attack can be called hunting. Taking an animal’s life in order to hang its head on the wall, put a rug on the floor, pin its remains in a book, etc. is killing – and ALL such intentional killing, regardless of species, should be illegal.

A few last notes in this highly controlled rant:

  • To recommend or inflict harm on those who collect animal trophies makes one no better than the trophy seeker. Pursue the higher ground and move for legislative and educational changes in our society.
  • For those in the U.S., if you are concerned about the wanton death of wildlife, then focus some of your abhorrence on your federal elected officials and mandate they dissolve Wildlife Services – an arm of the USDA responsible for the deaths of millions of wild animals every year and funded by YOUR tax dollars (see for the gruesome facts, as well as the graphic below).
  • If you fear any wild animal or plant, educate yourself about the species. Learn what role it plays in the environment and understand how it benefits our own species. Knowledge can overcome fear and promotes tolerance.

Each semester, I provide my Environmental Science and Field Ecology students with numerous definitions. The most important one is as follows:

Homo sapiens (hoh-moh sey-pee-uh nz): n. – the only species on planet Earth knowingly engineering its own extinction.

May peace guide the planet…


An Oakmoss Summer

Our program line-up for the Summer of 2015 includes two field outings and a hands-on workshop in East Aurora, NY as we continue our mission to share the lessons of Nature to benefit the planet and all its inhabitants. Details and registration information available on our website. Please join us!

Twilight Trek
Saturday, July 11 – 7:00 to 9:00pm at West Falls Park. Enjoy an interpretive stroll through the woods and along the creek at dusk, one of the most active times of day as diurnal creatures wind down and nocturnal critters begin to rouse.

Field Flutterers
Saturday, July 25 – 9:00am to 11:30am at Knox Farm State Park. We’ll be seeking out the flighted creatures of the open field, be they insect or avian. From butterflies to birds, there are many species that fill the morning with activity.

Introduction to Herbal Concoctions
Saturday, August 1 – 1:00pm to 3:30pm at the Roycroft Campus Power House. A hands-on workshop in which students will become acquainted with incorporating common herbs into simple preparations for body care and overall general health.

Wildlife Dads

In honor of Father’s Day, let’s not forget the wild fathers who are also remarkable parents. Below are just a few examples.

Red Fox dan and Kit (Photo by Sandy Sisti)

Red Fox dad and kit
(Photo by Sandy Sisti)

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes):

Making a monogamous pair for the season, the male stays with the female from the time they mate until the kits become independent in the Autumn. The first few days after birth, the male brings his mate food and then continues to provide for the pups (and the vixen) as they grow. As parents, they also assist in preparing their offspring for independence by caching food so that the pups learn to seek out sustenance.

Beaver (Castor canadensis):

A monogamous mate, the male is an active participant in maintenance, training and defense of its offspring. Beaver live in family colonies composed of two parents and generally two generations of offspring. They have a lifespan of approximately 12 to 15 years. Even if mom is lost, Beaver dads have been documented taking care of kits, as was recorded in this video from 2010 of a Castor widower.


Tree Swallow father feeds its young. (Photo by Steve Byland)

Tree Swallow dad serves up dinner for the brood.
(Photo by Steve Byland)

Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor):

A fearless defender of the nest, male Tree Swallows use their incredible flight skills to “dive-bomb” perceived threats (females defend, also, if not incubating or brooding). Generally monogamous during breeding season, both parents find food (insects) and feed their offspring, even up to 3 days after the chicks have fledged.

Cruelty is Cruelty

It’s not the first time I’ve pondered and written on this subject. However, recent events here in the Buffalo area have resurrected the conversation on animal cruelty. Two separate cases of cruelty to domesticated pets (one puppy and one kitten) and the subsequent movement to pass more stringent punishments for such offenders have been all over local media (see story links below). Interviews with law enforcement officials and animal welfare experts express the contention that the purposeful injury of an animal indicates mental health issues that can lead to criminal behavior extending to humans. No argument here.

But WHY are these same considerations not extended to wild animals? We legally allow painful and cruel trapping every single day. Where is the scientific evidence that wild animals feel any less pain or psychological trauma than domesticated animals?

And WHY are animals raised for food (although protected better than wild animals) subject to treatment not allowed to pets? People get arrested for housing too many dogs and cats. Why can we crowd domestic farm animals in horribly small and filthy spaces? What scientific evidence exists that animals raised for food feel less discomfort than a dog or a cat?

Yes, I am ranting because the capacity for humans to disregard groups of beings and categorize them as requiring less respect is an obscenely ignorant behavior.

What the puppy Phoenix experienced was horrible and the death of the kicked kitten, appalling.  Yet the treatment that is associated with the photos and video below of wild and farm animals is LEGAL (and in some states a constitutional right). WHY, WHY, WHY?

Shouldn’t the mental health concerns associated with the purposeful injury of a companion animal extend to all animals? If not, cite the scientific evidence that the psychological demeanor of a person who painfully traps a fox, clubs a seal or electrically shocks a pig is different than an individual who would be arrested for applying the same treatment to a pet. I’ll wait…

PLEASE NOTE – these stories and images may be disturbing to sensitive individuals.

Sentencing for Dog Burning

Sentencing for Kicking/Killing Kitten

Treatment of Battery Caged Chickens:


Trapped Coyote


These chickens are considered “free-range”

Crows just want to have fun

American Crow

American Crow

Much has been reported of late on the unexpected depth of intelligence that characterizes Crow species worldwide. Several studies have documented the incredible acumen of these avian inhabitants, including their aptitude at making and using tools (;  This research is so compelling that even the PBS series “Nature” produced an episode on the subject (

Among Corvidae, I have encountered only two, the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the Common Raven (C. corax). The Raven is rather rare in my neighborhood, although to my delight one did pay a visit to “The Acre” a few years back taking a rest stop and performing a calling sequence in the Sugar Maple out front.  And a quick trip north to Ontario or south to Pennsylvania provides more frequent encounters with this magnificent bird. The Crow, however, is really the “common” member among corvids in Erie County and its behaviors have fascinated me for years.

Crows are different in many ways than most other feathered folk. In fact, they sometimes remind me more of mammals than birds. Their flocking behaviors provide a good example. They are highly social and live together in small related flocks during Summer. Throughout the day, however, these flocks tend to disperse and individuals “fly solo” or with one or two others as they make their way through the day, much like humans. In Winter several of these “family” flocks will congregate into much larger groups with unrelated populations coming together primarily for evening roosting. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) behave similarly but it is quite common also to see huge congregations of them mid-day, something that happens far more rarely among Crows, even during the Winter “large flock” season.

American Crow harassing a Red-tailed Hawk

American Crow harassing a Red-tailed Hawk (copyright Jim Herd)

The other characteristic that I’ve observed in Crows that is unlike any other birds in my experience is an apparent sense of humor. Crows play – it’s been documented on film (see below) and I’ve seen it firsthand. Now it’s well known that Crows regularly challenge birds of prey when protecting nests and roosts (as do many bird species during nesting season) and will also challenge raptors for food. I once watched a pair mercilessly harass a Red-tailed Hawk on a sub-zero Winter day in the middle of the city of Buffalo. For 30 minutes I witnessed the Hawk being poked, prodded and side-swiped as it tried to make a meal of a Gray Squirrel. It stood its ground for the most part, which made me think the raptor must have been pretty hungry finding it more important to get some nutrition before taking real defensive action. It was not going to let that Squirrel go for any reason. But I’ve also seen on several occasions Crows conducting “dog fights” with Hawks during non-nesting season (late Autumn/ early Winter) and in the absence of a potential scavenged meal. Perhaps these episodes are practice runs, but the Crows just seem to love picking on the big guy for no other reason than it’s a blast to do. And too numerous to count are the times I’ve watch a Crow play aerial acrobatics along the Lake Erie waterfront during extremely windy mid-winter storms. These birds fly directly toward the lake and into the wind which results (either by accident or, I suspect, deliberately) in a loop-the-loop maneuver that sends the Crow back inland only to begin again with yet another run at it.

This apparent sense of humor likely speaks volumes more about the depth of intelligence within the Crow. Given its proclivity at withstanding millennia of persecution, hunting, poisoning, etc., the American Crow has not only survived, it has thrived. More than likely, its brain power will allow it to outlive humans (we can only hope).

Crow Skiing Down a Roof:

Crow Rolling Down a Windshield:

The Skunk has Arisen

The first tracks spotted upon arrival home.

The first tracks spotted upon arrival home.

The space beneath the enclosed porch on the front of the house has served as long-term and temporary shelter for any number of critters over the years, particularly in Winter. On the coldest and snowiest of nights, a local domestic feline seems to use this space as a respite judging by the tracks left on the stoop. This cat, who has never actually been spotted, leaves its sign more often than any other animal. And over the years, Eastern Cottontail have also been known to take shelter beneath the porch now and again.

One memorable evening, bumping and thumping sounds were traced to this spot. Interested in who was making the ruckus, my daughter and I carefully approached the opening at one end and no sooner did the beam from the flashlight penetrate the gloom under the porch than the most ungodly snarling and growling emanated from the dark. In a flash the two of us high-tailed it back into the safety of the house having never seen even a trace of the “banshee of the porch.”  (It was presumably a Raccoon not happy with our nosing into its private affairs.)  The Acre is a regular stomping grounds for Coons and, a few Summers back, one family jolted me awake on numerous occasions with their squabbles on the roof directly above my bed. If you’ve ever heard Raccoons arguing, you know what an eerie and ghastly noise they can make.

But the tenant who’s made the most profound mark, both actually and figuratively, is the Striped Skunk. Every two or three years, Mephitis mephitis makes my home its home finding the porch space prime real estate. And because this spot is in an apparent demand neighborhood, there have been the rare but quite memorable encounters with other squatters vying in vain for a piece of this popular spot.

Striped Skunk tracks?

Striped Skunk tracks

During Winter, Raccoons and Skunks are deep sleepers, laying low in seasonal dens with only an occasional short jaunt outside during mild spells. It’s quite common to get a whiff of Skunk on the air at these times. And although the last several days have been quite cold and snowy here in Western New York, a Striped Skunk must have sensed the forecasted mellowing of weather due to arrive.

Upon my arrival home tonight, I noted fresh tracks in the newly fallen dusting of snow on the porch stoop.  “Ah, Kitty, you’re back for another visit,” I muttered automatically since the mysterious feral has left sign of having taken refuge under the porch numerous times this Winter. But as I drew closer to the door, I noted the tracks were not that of a cat. First clue was the presence of claw marks, which is not a characteristic of a pad featuring retractable claws. Then, of course the track itself did not have the same toe arrangement as a cat nor did it show the more hand-like attributes of the Raccoon. “Ah, the Skunk has awaken and is checking out potential quarters for the coming active season,” I next surmised.  No tell-tale scent was discernible so it appears the Skunk has yet to take up residence, but there is a good chance he or she will be back once Winter has released its grip.

This portends the potential for some fairly smelly days ahead but this naturalist accepts that a resident Skunk is a good sign because it means The Acre provides suitable habitat for wildlife beyond just a convenient place to escape from weather, predation or grab a day’s rest. This is why the Skunks, Coons, Rabbits and even the Cat are regular residents. And as any knowledgeable  gardener will attest, a Skunk is a most welcome ally in the battle against moles, slugs and snails. So welcome back, Mephitis mephitis. I’m sure we both are looking forward to an encounter-free warm season ahead.