Nature Wars

I write often about the things I see in this park that disturb me; but this time I’m writing about a book that disturbed me, – Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, – and getting jostled out of complacency is a good thing.

Book cover of  Nature Wars by Jim Sterba
Sterba is a noted journalist and Maine resident, who grew up on a farm and sees animals as food, animals as commercial goods, and animals (wild or domestic) that affect human health, or human enterprise as pests, –as such the intelligent thing to do is to kill them. While I certainly do not agree, with him there, Sterba has produced an engaging read that provides a basis for understanding the increase in conflicts between people and wild things. We need to be concerned about rising rates of Lyme Disease, animal- vehicle collisions, and panicked calls from homeowners about bears, raccoons, skunks and other critters in their yards, garages, cellars and attics.

Sterba provides an excellent history of the landscape in the Eastern United States, its many alterations by humans, before and after the arrival of Europeans, and subsequent changes in land use for economic and industrial purposes. He makes valid points about the current and younger generations’ general ignorance of, and isolation from the natural world, – and the impact that entertainment media, from the movie, Bambi, to award-winning nature documentaries have had in promoting unrealistic depictions of unspoiled beauty and harmony. He also opened my eyes to an ad campaign of half-truths run by animal protection organizations in the 1990s motivated well intentioned folks, like me, to outlaw “cruel” Conibear traps, that are less cruel than the live traps now used. It is horrifying realize I may have unknowingly added to the suffering of the trappers’ victims.

I rankle and take strong exception to Sterba’s dismissive attitude toward “kinder and gentler” folks, toward religions and philosophies that hold all life sacred, and with his blanket criticism of people who feed birds to experience a connection to nature. Also, science is well on the way toward proving Sterba wrong for castigating those who imbue animals with human attributes of thought and feeling.

A growing body of research has demonstrated many animals think to solve problems, that animals form deep emotional relationships, and that some animals in groups feed injured individuals that would be unable to survive alone. When we add DNA to the mix, – given the tiny percentage of genetic differences between human and animal species, – it could be argued that it is likely that we inherited our ‘human attributes’ from the animals.

Now that’s out of the way, here are the points on which I agree: (1) Most people are  clueless about the natural world and that’s a bad thing. (2) Conflicts with wildlife demand humane solutions and thoughtful stewardship, –  right now.

There are chapters in Nature Wars I haven’t touched on here, which are also important considerations for this complex, life-and-death topic. While you may not feel good after you read this book, you will feel smarter.


1st Red-winged Blackbird

Perfect. The first day of March and a Red-winged Blackbird visited my feeders and suet cage. Since I keep records, I checked to see last year (2012) the first male showed up on Feb 26, and in 2010, it was March 13. So, all in all, right on time. Spring is at the doorstep.

Snowstorm Imminent

Gray and quiet early walk with the ground still bare. Only the occasional lump of flakes drifted downward. In spite of the dire predictions, crows were hanging around a favored spot and “the littles,” chickadee, titmouse, downy woodpecker, and brown creeper announced themselves as usual.

I left my peanut offerings to the squirrels, hoping they will add them to their larders. The foot or two of snow expected will make foraging near impossible.

During the last month, there has been snow from time to time. My daughter and I enjoyed seeing track-ways made by birds, squirrels, humans with dogs, and the occasional cat.

I was less sure of the identity of a small clawed critter, who was also impressive wanderer. The close-together line of tracks crossed the (often lethal) Armory Street to the park. They veered into the leaves here and there, but invariably came back to the asphalt. They extended fairly deeply into the park, and we found evidence for more than one individual.

Then, this morning, in full light and full public view, a skunk, of considerable size, waddled into the park’s south gate. I’m worried because it was in no rush to disappear, and, I’m sad to say, humans are not universally wise or kind.

The snow has begun, and the birds at backyard feeders (mostly pigeons) are becoming more frenzied. Next post after shoveling out what I hope will be 12, not 24 inches of white stuff.

Northern Mockingbird & Hawk Again

Hawk high in maple tree.

Hawk sits high in maple tree.

The first unusual visitor I saw was a Northern Mockingbird, quite puffed up against the 10-degree cold at 7:30 this morning. Then my eye caught the large, rounded object on a branch in a maple tree.

The hawk sat watching for 90 minutes.

The hawk sat watching for 90 minutes.

I believe this is the same hawk I’ve seen here before. I was astonished the raptor tolerated me pulling the blinds up the entire window…then propping the door open to aim my camera at it…even letting the cat out.

The backyard denizens did not vanish in terror, which made me nervous. Squirrels skittered up and down tree trunks. A dozen and more pigeons settled down to peck around the feeders. Blue jays grabbed peanuts from the deck. When a couple of crows landed near, I expected them to complain, but they left, as though bored.

I had the coffee pot in my grip when I heard that distinct cry. I rushed to the window…but the hawk had flown. It was just after 9:00 AM.

Biggest skunk EVER

Last evening, I stepped out onto the deck to grab an empty cat food dish and became aware of an animal presence in the snow beneath the bird feeders. I instinctively assumed it was a cat, but not my cat…maybe, the neighborhood’s black-and-white tom… With a few seconds more my eyes adjusted to the dimness. I discerned LONG fur, broadly white down the back, and freaked out a little.

I have seen many, many skunks and this was the biggest mother I’ve ever laid eyes on, from nose to tail tip, it was 3 feet (36 inches) (I gauged this knowing my two feeder poles are 2 feet apart).

Coming back inside the house, I called my daughter to witness. We both watched transfixed as the skunk, finished looking for sunflower seed, “swam” through the snow, making circles around the two big maple trees and coming around again until it disappeared at the yard’s far corner, where there is a space between fences.

Another 8 inches…

Digging out has trumped getting out to the park. The 3 foot-high base of a ceramic bird bath stands only inches above the snow in the backyard. Keeping the feeders filled and clean water accessible to the birds, squirrels and nighttime foragers requires diligence.

As I write this, the afternoon sun is muted by haze. A half dozen juncos flit between the ground and young trees along the fence. A chickadee, nuthatch and downy woodpecker vie for chances at the suet cage. A single mourning dove grazes fallen sunflower seed beneath the feeders.

Tomorrow I’ll be paying closer attention and recording counts for the FeederWatch program.

Snow and cold

Spent the better part of the last two weeks digging the house, sidewalks and driveway out of snow. Not enough time and energy to make it to the park.

The storm before yesterday’s brought sleet and freezing temperatures that left a hard crust on the snow. This means birds, like the Carolina Wren,  (in my yard two days) can starve to death. Don’t want that to happen, so I’ve been keeping the feeders filled and water accessible.

Twice in as many weeks, a skunk; sprayed outside. The first night made TV watching a bit unpleasant. The last episode was so gaggingly pungent, the critter might as well have been inside the house. The next morning, with smell lingering, I went into the basement to peer out the window under the front porch. The perimeter was completely snowed in, but in the drift near the front stairs were tracks. These could also be from an opossum (a frequent visitor), but I’m pretty sure I found the smoking butt. The exposed leaf litter by the foundation may have attracted the digging forager…and something must have spooked it.

A hawk was hanging out in the trees one day, but I couldn’t get a positive ID. Past visitors include the Red Tailed Hawk and Coopers Hawk. The most common entree here is pigeon. On this day, the feeders were deserted.