Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Yesterday morning we woke up to find the yard covered with a light dusting of snow, our first real snow of this season. And it was very cold too, giving us our first taste of the bitterness that often comes with a Michigan winter. I was recovering from a 24-hour migraine so we were taking it easy, curled up in blankets, drinking tea and watching a documentary about JFK. As usual, I glanced out the window occasionally to watch the birds in the yard. My favorite birds, the Cedar Waxwings, had just arrived to partake of some red berries on a tree just outside the window. They come in small flocks a couple times every fall until they finish off all the fruit. Here are a couple pictures I’d taken of them a few days earlier (through the window, so not the greatest quality photos):

Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard

Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard

Cedar Waxwing with red berry in open mouth - a bit blurry (800x574) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - good one (800x641) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - head on view (640x511)

Owl and titmouse (640x582)

See the Tufted Titmouse behind him?

I had a wonderful time watching them feast that day. But things were different yesterday. I’d gone back to watching tv after pointing out to Eric that the waxwings were here again. A few minutes later I realized that I was distracted by a lot of chattering in the trees. I saw some chickadees and titmice flitting around and shouting alarm calls. We muted the tv to listen to them, and suddenly Eric said, “Look, there’s an owl!” And indeed, there was an Eastern Screech-owl sitting on a branch about 8 feet outside our window, looking right at us in broad daylight.

It’s not often we get to see owls in daytime, so we were both very excited. But as I crept closer to the window I noticed something hanging below the owl. I knew it had to be a bird, but I assumed it was one of the chickadees or titmice. But no, it was a Cedar Waxwing, still fluttering its wings as it died in the clutches of the owl’s talons.

screech-owl with cedar waxwing prey (571x800) w sig

I’m squeamish about seeing animals die–even when I know it’s the way of nature–so I looked away for a half minute until the waxwing stopped moving. Then I was able to be awed at the beauty of the owl, and amazed that he’d caught a bird as large as this one. He sat there for about ten minutes and then flew off into the woods with his catch. I imagine that will keep him satisfied for a good long while.

I’ve been told that the chickadee early warning system is a good way to find an owl, and now I’ve seen it for myself. Often if the little birds spot an owl roosting in a tree they’ll raise a ruckus, either in an attempt to chase it away or just to warn everyone. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You’d think a little bird would just want to take off and get far away from a predator like that, but these little guys were getting in his face and really giving him a hard time.

It’s always preferable to see owls in the wild if possible, but at two recent Audubon events I’ve had a chance to see some captive owls up close, and they are amazing and beautiful birds. All of these owls have some sort of injury or other problem that makes it impossible for them to survive in the wild, so they are permanent residents at nature centers where they’re used for educational programs (like coming to Audubon meetings). Here’s Circe, a Great Horned Owl that lives at the Howell Nature Center:

Circie the Great Horned Owl from Howell Nature Center (4) (800x762) w sig
Circe is more than twenty years old, can you believe that? And here’s a Short-eared Owl whose name I’ve forgotten, also from the Howell Nature Center:

Short-eared Owl (9) (800x642) w sig

A Barred Owl from the Leslie Nature Center:

Barred Owl from Leslie Nature Center - Copy (640x480)

Talons on a Barred Owl

The business end of a Barred Owl — talons to be respected

You may have seen Barred Owls in the news lately in connection with the plight of the threatened Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. Environmentalists have waged a controversial fight to save the Spotted Owl’s territory from loggers for many years, only to have it now face a threat from the larger and more aggressive Barred Owls, which have expanded into the same territories. The government now plans to kill thousands of Barred Owls to save the Spotted Owls. Hmm, when do we decide it’s “worth it” to kill one species to save another? Some people believe we should make every effort to prevent every single species from going extinct, while others think we should let nature take its course. I find myself always coming down on the side of saving a species, especially if human activities are the cause of its troubles. But in a case like this when it’s not entirely clear yet how and why the two owl species are interacting, I have more trouble siding with those who want to start shooting Barred Owls. But clearly these are ethical muddy waters.

All I know is that the idea of any species being eradicated from the Earth because of human activity makes me deeply sad in a way that’s hard to express. Sure, most of us will never see a Northern Spotted Owl or a Barred Owl anyway, but does that mean it’s ok for either of them to disappear forever? I hope not.

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3 Responses to Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

  1. You got some great photos! Cedar Waxwings do the same thing here – fly in for a day or two, strip the berries off the mountain ash tress, then disappear until the next year. I learned something about chickadees (possibly my very favourite bird). I didn’t know they had an alarm system to warn other birds of owls in the vicinity. My son and his wife that live on Vancouver Island often see Barred Owls. I’m going over this weekend and am hoping I can spot one too. Don’t hold your breath for any great pictures though!

  2. Littlesundog says:

    Oh, Kim! I love the Cedar Waxwings too… and we have Barred Owls here in our woodlands. I adore them. Your photos are excellent, even through a window. I have rarely spotted owls of any sort in the wild… your sighting so close is amazing. Like you, I do not like to see loss of life in the wild, but it is the way of nature. I still haven’t forgotten Daisy’s battle with the bobcat, nor the loss of little Rowdy’s life. It is difficult, and nature isn’t always pretty.

    Have you read the book, “Wesley the Owl”? It’s one of my favorites.

    • Kim says:

      I hadn’t ever heard of “Wesley the Owl,” but it looks good and I’ve put it on my list of books to read. Thanks for the recommendation!

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