Saturday, April 10, 2010

Catch up: 1. How much to interfere with nature?

The end of semester really caught up with me, and the blog had to go on hold. I didn't post (except for the music trip), but kept taking pictures. Stories were there, and today is the first official day of a two-week break before the Summer semester begins. Something makes me have to post those stories. Call it obsessive. I won't argue:)

Looking back, the photos seem to separate into four categories:
  1. Two sad events that forced the question: How much interference with nature is reasonable and/or helpful?
  2. Blue Heron mating sequence
  3. Bill and Black Jack
  4. Everything that didn't fit into the first three.
So, four posts to follow in fairly close succession. I am sorry that the first one is quite disturbing. There are no graphically horrible pictures, in the sense of blood and guts, but a mother's distress, no matter the species, is excruciatingly painful to watch.

It was on April 2nd that Bill and I went for a pleasant walk around Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park. We came back to the heronry, planning just to spend a few minutes watching the herons flying in and out of their nests, before heading home. As we rounded the tennis courts, there was unearthly squawking. We laughed and noted that herons will never win any awards for their musicality, but at the same time, I was feeling a bit uncomfortable. That sound seemed a degree or two worse than even the fights that sometimes break out in the heronry. I looked up to see this heron, with feathers standing on end.

Then, we saw this racoon heading down the tree.

That was a surprise, as the Parks Board put up metal sheets around most of the trees this year, and we both thought that would make it impossible for racoons to get past them.

The unearthly squawking continued all the while, and we slowly guessed that the racoon had been trying to steal eggs from a nest, but had been driven off by a male returning to help out his mate. But as we watched, the racoon suddenly turned and began to go back up the tree.

Both of us thought it would never make it into a nest.

Unfortunately, we were wrong.

Another heron began a heart-wrenching scream as she understood that it was now her nest, and eggs, that were under attack.

She was driven away, and here, on the left, you can just see the hind end of the racoon as it enters the nest. (Click on the picture to see the large version. Then use the back button to return to the post.)

The top of this picture shows the mother's face, as she looks on helplessly. The racoon cannot be seen, but there was no doubt at all that it was enjoying a feast.

There were three things that shocked me about the entire tragic sequence of events. First, that the racoon could get by the metal barrier, second that the heron, with her sharp bill, could not defend her eggs, in spite of her very obvious grief and fierce anger, and third, that other herons made no move to help her. I am assuming her mate was too far away (perhaps hunting for food) to be of help. But why didn't all of the herons in the nearby nests come to her aid? I have learned that crows band together to help any threatened member of their community, and are often successful in deterring hawks and eagles. I haven't witnessed a racoon attack against crows, so perhaps that would be a different story. But, in the case of the herons, there was silence from all of the others, in spite of the fact that they had to be aware of what was happening. They seemed to have a "thank heavens it isn't me" attitude. We watched for quite a long time, talked to several people, made phone calls, trying to think of some way we could help. Finally we left, with the mother's cries in our ears. I e-mailed Dalyce when I arrived home. She is a member of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists and has devoted nine years of study to the Stanley Park herons. I promised her these pictures, and am so sorry to have taken this long to get them posted. Both Bill and I returned the next day, and neither of us could be sure we were identifying the nest correctly. There are so many nests, and I could swear they shift position, depending on where one stands. I do think the nest was in the second tree down from the top of the path between the two tennis courts, and next to the only tree around that had no metal barrier. We both wondered if the racoon climbed up the unprotected tree (which has only two nests in it, and I think those are possibly unoccupied) and then jumped to the next one. So, where does one go from here? I don't know. I would, as always, be most interested in your thoughts. I do know I've stopped by many days in the past couple of weeks, and have witnessed no future racoon attacks. To end on a somewhat positive note, Dalyce said that there is still time for that poor mother to lay some more eggs and have a family. I fervently hope that will be the case for her.

We encountered the second sad story that same day, when we saw an American Coot with what appeared to be a severely injured foot. I didn't take pictures, but we stopped by the Nature Centre, and spoke to a volunteer who told us they usually let nature take its course, especially if the species is not an endangered one. Again, both of us were saddened, and that coot continued to stay in my mind. On April 7th, I stopped by to see this coot taking a vigorous, and it seemed to me, enjoyable bath.

It worked away, scrubbing under the wings, and making sure to include every part of its body. Then, it began climbing out of the water.

That's when I realized it was probably the same coot we had seen five days earlier.

There was its poor, injured foot.

Again, taking the best possible spin on the story, I would point out that the coot was clearly getting on with its life in the best way it could. Perhaps, it will survive just fine. It is able to swim in the pond, and climb out, and hopefully, get enough to eat. My thought is mostly that the foot may be infected and causing it pain, and I wish someone could just check that out. But, I am not a biologist, and my emotions are way too active. Not helpful at all, I realize. The people like Dalyce and all of the other hands-on workers have my admiration and respect. Still, I will think about that coot for a long time. And, I will always wonder if there is some way I could have, or should have helped.

Must get out on this beautiful day, but I hope to post a much happier story, the Blue Heron mating sequence, very soon.


  1. The title of this entry poses a question I have often thought about (but for which I've never found a satisfactory answer!).

    The relationship between species in the wild, such as the herons and racoons, is one I don't think we should mess with - after all, racoons must survive too. That said, the abundance of food (garbage) that humans leave accessible in the cities has, in part, contributed to the overpopulation of racoons which may lead to a reduction of the species on which they prey. So while I don't think we should interfere with the relationship between species, we do have to be cognizant of the ways in which human behaviour impacts this relationship.
    In the second story, I do believe we humans have a responsibility for stewardship, and when a wild animal is injured it behooves us to ensure that it isn't suffering, and if it is then to either treat it or help it pass humanely. I suppose one could argue, though, that weakened animals are part of Nature's game-plan, as they make an easier target for predators. It's a tough call.

  2. I think mankind adds unnecessary strain by inviting wildlife such as raccoons into populated areas through feeding and/or allowing them access to garbage. About the injured animal, I hope there would be help, although I’m not sure how realistic that expectation is for every animal in distress.

    I’ve never forgotten the fluffy chick that was one of dozens shown at a PNE farming event years ago. I noticed it appeared to have a broken leg and was being mauled by other chicks so I mentioned it to the caretaker. He took the chick away and I genuinely thought someone would make a stint for its little leg. But I was later told that the damaged chick was likely killed because it would not be able to survive. I felt guilty. But either way, it would have died. As for the other chicks, they might have grown to end up on dinner tables. Although survival of the fittest (and most clever) seems to be how it works, I would prefer some other way.

  3. Wise words, Jean. Thank you. Being "cognizant of the ways in which human behaviour impacts" wildlife and the idea of stewardship resonate with me, but as you say, "It's a tough call."

    And yes, Penelope. I, too, would prefer another way. Poor little chick. Sad story, but thanks for telling it. It reminds me that those expectations before we learn the harsh realities of life come from a good place that we need to nourish, as painful as that may be at times. Becoming numb may seem easier, but doing what we can for even one creature/human in need is Jean's idea of stewardship, and it feels right.

  4. It always stirs up a lot of feelings for me when I see things happening like this. We have already interfered with nature so much that it's hard to know what is interfering and what isn't. Dorin says Audubon in his time once took 60 eggs from a Flicker and it kept replacing it. As with most things what is right or wrong. You certainly have a gift for capturing the moment.

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