Stanley Tate

Bad birds

Maybe you have reservations about crows — an awful lot of people do — or Sharp-shinned Hawks, but crows get more hate mail than any other bird. Crows, it seems, are taking over the countryside and killing everything in their way. They are proof this world has gone irretrievably wrong.

“Oh, there used to be lots of birds here,” people say, “Now we only have crows. The crows are to blame for killing all the nice songbirds. They are sneaky and cowardly and altogether loathsome and they eat eggs and baby birds.”

Many people are filled with this anti-crow prejudice and think something should be done. Many think crows are wicked; they are bad birds and need to be punished.

This is bad logic for two reasons. First, the notion that some birds can be good and some can be evil is false. Birds are not human and no moral code guides them. Certain standards of behavior are expected between members of a bird species and without them the species wouldn’t be able to get along. Birds must understand each other, mate, raise their young, however, there is no moral code.

The second reason is you can’t impose human morals onto non-humans. You can teach a dog not to lie on the sofa, but he won’t see that as a moral prohibition. Being a dog and smart, he will work out pretty quickly that it is a bad idea to get caught on the sofa, that sofas lead to discipline. He will learn either to avoid sofas or get off them whenever he hears someone coming. It’s a practical rather than a moral problem for a dog. The same applies to birds.

Crows scavenge. They are clever opportunists. They are not squeamish in any human understanding of the term. I have seen crows peck open garbage bags in a hunt for food. Our stomach-turning leavings are Fodor’s five stars for a crow. They feed on road kill, eating the eyes first, as a special treat. Crows will even rummage through cow pies for undigested edible bits.

Yuck! But they are not trying to be humans; they are succeeding at being crows. They will take eggs and chicks. They are omnivores. They take what they can get when they can get it. And yes, I abandon this detachment when I see a crow going for a robin’s nest. And when the robins turn on the crow in parental fury, I hear myself shouting “Get him.” But then, I am human.

The thing we humans find hard to believe is nature is not there to please us. We are not lords of nature, we are just a part of nature — one species out of many. Much of nature is glorious and profoundly pleasing to people. But plenty of it is, or would be, if we are talking about human morality — pretty horrible.

But nature is not horrible. Nature is not wonderful. Nature is not cruel. Nature is not beautiful. Nature only is. And it is not our job to change it.

I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk the other day. It came out of the woods flying fast and hard at zero feet, turned a hard right to the bird-feeder, made all the birds fly, missed everything, and vanished — a wonderful bird, a wonderful moment.

It makes its living by eating other birds. It likes sunflower seed feeders because they are magnets for the little birds it likes to eat. You put out your seeds to help titmice and they help the sharpies to kill the titmice. Should that weigh heavy on your conscience? Should you stop doing it? Won’t your seeds help the little birds to get wiped out?

No, no, and no. Titmice are capable of making their own decisions about the pluses of food gathering and minuses of mortal danger. Life is always dangerous for them. They must get food somehow and it is a fact that bad winters and starvation kill many more titmice than any Sharp-shinned Hawk — or crow.

A Sharp-shinned hawk killing can be a distressing sight — a dying bird is a pitiful thing. If you don’t consider it heart-rending, you don’t have a heart. I have heard from people who have seen such sights at their feeders and are deeply distressed by the existence of Sharp-shinned Hawks and the amorality of nature. A bird’s life is a hard life — most wild lives are pretty hard — but living difficult and dangerous lives is what they are good at. And all things being equal, I’d rather be a titmouse in a Sharp-shinned Hawk infested woods than a chicken in a chicken house.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are here to be admired, accepted, and reveled in for their speed, agility, and cunning. Nothing in nature is as good at moving fast through dense thickets, dodging, weaving, tucking in a wing here and turning on a dime there. And Sharp-shinned Hawks are rarer than titmice — in the same way that titmice are rarer than caterpillars. In any piece of woods there will be many more caterpillars than titmice. Titmice eat caterpillars — titmice are cruel to caterpillars. They eat an awful lot of them but there are always plenty of caterpillars that survive. That is why there are butterflies as well as titmice.

There are many, many caterpillars and there are many titmice in our woods. But there is only one pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks — and that is because we are lucky. Our woods are big enough to hold enough caterpillars to hold enough titmice to support the life of a top predator. The population of prey animals controls the population of predators. It’s counterintuitive, but that’s the way things are. The bigger and fiercer you are, the rarer you are — the more vulnerable you are.

Which brings us back to crows. The same rule applies to them. I don’t know where this myth about “all the songbirds are gone” came from. I live on Oak Mountain and in our little patch of woods there are plenty of crows. There are also warblers, finches, mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Gray Catbirds, sparrows, woodpeckers, and Blue Jays. This is because there is plenty of cover and food for the songbirds. Crows or no crows, they flourish and the crows flourish with them.

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