Cute and cruel – nature can be both

During the summer we get a lot of orphaned baby birds at Bird TLC. Some have fallen out of nests, some had an unlucky encounter with a cat or window, some are the result of a motorist going too fast and killing their mom as she tries to cross the road.

We do our best for these little ones. Songbirds are fostered out to people who have taken a course in the care of baby birds. This program is the best sex education any parent could give to their teenager. Baby bird parents take a clutch home and care for them until they can be released. There is nothing like caring for little, hungry, naked critters whose heads come up every fifteen or thirty minutes – all night long! – demanding to be fed to present a teen with the reality of parenthood.

We care for the baby mallards, gulls and general shore birds at the center. We try to keep the same species together so that they learn to socialize with each other and not imprint on humans. And when the occasional single bird arrives that is not like any of the others, we work hard to see if one of the groups will accept it so it is not alone.

Therein lies the tale of the Northern Shoveler. He came in as a single orphan. After he had a few days to grow stronger, we tried placing him in with mallard babies. For a few hours we went back and forth to the pen where they were all together to make sure the Shoveler was ok. All seemed well. He was nestled in the middle of the pile, seemingly liking the company and warmth.  Unfortunately, when we came in the next day, he’d clearly been badly abused by his cage mates and had most of his feathers around his wing areas forcibly ripped out. He was a sad and painfully red little bird. We brought him in, cleaned his wounds, put him under a heat lamp and, thankfully, within days his feathers were growing back and he got his very own swimming pool and pen.

The point of this story is that nature can look adorable while being very cruel. Or, as a letter to the editor from Bill Martin of Eagle River recently put it in reference to black bear cubs that had been shot because they were orphaned, “What we see is the cute face of the cubs, not the cruel face of nature.”

I don’t think it can be said much better. Little bears are cute. That doesn’t stop male adults from killing them. Little ducks are darling. Yet they will viciously attack another in their midst just because he’s a little different. That’s nature. It’s not nice. A hawk survives by killing those pretty birds that come to your feeders. A bear survives by killing the moose that grazed in your yard this winter. Species depend on each other for survival and survival is often not pretty.

You’d think that this would be something we Alaskans would understand given that nature is literally right outside our front doors. There was a time when most of us lived much closer to the land and more clearly understood both its magnificence and its cruelty. But now we buy the majority of our food at a grocery store. Salmon fishing is as close as most of us get to actually acquiring our food from its natural source. So we forget that nature is not a Disney movie. If anything, it’s a Quentin Tarantino production.

In many parts of the lower 48, cute species thrive while their natural prey is eliminated. The end result of that kind of misguided action is evident in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Both states are overwhelmed by deer that are literally starving to death because their natural predators have been eliminated and they have overpopulated their habitat. Yet if a hunt is suggested to cull the population, screams and cries of horror are heard up and down the eastern seaboard.

I hope that here in Alaska we maintain a more sensible attitude towards nature, remembering that even the cutest faces can be extremely cruel when survival is involved. It’s a lesson we mustn’t forget if we want to continue to have nature living in our backyards.