Stanley Tate Column

Nature isn't always pretty

by Stanley Tate, Special to The Newnan Times-Herald

“Come to the window! Quick, look!” My grandson shouted, pointing toward the backyard. “A hawk and it’s killing a bird.”

“Cooper’s Hawk,” I said. A perfect predator. A raptor that can move through the woods like a wayward summer breeze and follow the evasive maneuvers of fleeing prey like a mounted cavalier, I thought to myself.

“And a cowbird,” I added, studying the bird pinned to the lawn—waiting for the jolt of pity that always comes when I see another creature losing its struggle for life.

“It’s still alive,” he shouted.

“Probably not,” I said.

“We’ve got to do something,” he declared, starting for the door.

“No,” I said. He returned to the window, looked at the struggle again and put all of his anguish into one word.

“Why?” He demanded. “Why not?”

As the cowbird struggled and its life slowly ebbed, I tried to come up with an answer for someone who had never watched a hawk do what it must do to survive. I was much younger than he when my grandfather and I watched a similar incident and talked about it—but times have changed.

I thought of being flippant, telling him that the hawk was just another bird coming to the feeder.

Instead I told him that cowbirds are bad birds, brood parasites that never build a nest of their own but depend solely on an unsuspecting host to raise their young; that female cowbirds systematically search for host nests and most often lay eggs in the nests of birds smaller than themselves, which can disrupt the hosts’ breeding success—the declining Indigo Bunting and the Wood Thrush populations are prime examples of this; that cowbirds have been reported to parasitize more than 200 species.

Then I explained to him that predation is a natural process—one that unites two species in the ritual of life and moves both species toward higher levels of evolutionary perfection.

Next I told him that nature is wasteful—always creating more than she needs—and Cooper’s Hawks are just one of nature’s ways of maintaining a balance.

Finally I asked him to look at the young hawk with my eyes. A streak-breasted bird of the year; thin, probably starving, with less than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving its first year of life. Most Cooper’s Hawks hatched in any given year don’t live to maturity.

He listened while I went through my list and we talked. And then I added the last thing my grandfather told me about nature’s ways.

“It isn’t our place to save that bird; we don’t have standing. Nature isn’t always pretty, I don’t like everything I see in nature, I don’t understand the mysteries of nature, and I’m not wise enough to second-guess nature, so I don’t,” I said.

By this time the hawk was gone and we went into the yard to inspect the little pile of black feathers that it left behind.

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