On death in the field (tricolored blackbirds)

I wrote two posts about death last summer. The one about sacrificing animals said what I wanted it to. The one about coming to terms with death did not. It always read a little schmaltzy and unfocused to me. In re-reading, I realized what it was was desperate. I took an easy example of death being manageable and tried to persuade myself I was okay with the whole thing. There are still contexts, mainly when I am a Scientist, where that strategy works. But just outside those lines, I can’t handle it at all.

This season I saw a lot of death in the field. Specifically, a lot of dead babies. Two reasons explain their occurrence and my rational vs. emotional responses.

The first reason had to do with the biology of hatch order. In the other blackbirds I’ve studied, the female lays one egg a day but begins incubating only after she lays her penultimate egg. This means that if the female lays four eggs, she waits until her third to get on the nest. The first three eggs all start developing together, with the last egg a day behind. You show up on hatch day, and there are three pink babies and an egg. You show up the next day, and there are four pink babies, one smaller than the other. Hatching is relatively synchronous. The runt’s disadvantage is slight.

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Here are three red-winged blackbird chicks from Bahamas 2011, around two and three days old. The runt is on the left. Since they’re so close in age, sometimes size isn’t the easiest way to tell them apart. The key is to look at the thickness of the gray line (the feather shafts) in the wing. Within days the feather shafts erupt from the skin and start growing outward.

Unlike those species, the female tricolored blackbirds had very strong hatching asynchrony. I showed up on hatch day, and there was one chick and three eggs. The next day there were two of each. Evidently females began incubating as soon as they laid their first egg. This means that in a four-egg nest, the first-laid egg had three full days on the last egg. I came across a nest once, and this is what I saw.

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When you have only eleven days to gain ten times your weight, and when you’re out-muscled for a fixed amount of food, three days means the difference between life and death. Many nests started with four chicks. No nests finished with four fledglings. I lost count of the number of times I found the pale, sunken body of the runt buried under its nestmates. Usually the parents practiced good nest sanitation by removing and dropping it into the water. But occasionally the faint smell of rotting flesh wafted through the marsh, indicating that somewhere close by were fat chicks resting on the carcass of their sibling.

This sight (and smell) was something I could deal with. For starters, the chicks were dead when I saw them. Second, hatching asynchrony is a known reproductive strategy. Although there is some debate about its evolution, the classic hypothesis is that parents shoot for a big clutch and then raise as many chicks as possible on that year’s food supply. If everyone survives, then the bet pays off and the parents get the highest possible returns. If the late-hatching chicks die from insufficient food, then so be it. It’s just a chance that’s taken as part of a given tactic. Science could explain the little bodies in the nest.

The second reason had to do with the snakes.

One day I was banding a female when the marsh exploded with alarm calls. Lots of birds have a mobbing call, a high harsh “reh! reh! reh!” that I have only ever heard in the presence of two things: humans and snakes. After I let the female go, I headed toward the crowd, attracted to the racket like everyone else. The last time this had happened, I was in Florida in 2007 and got to see an enormous coachwhip hanging out in the scrub.

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Oh shit. It was a California kingsnake, and it was in a nest.

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Science went out the window. Like a fool I shook the cattails and yelled at the snake to stop. I even whacked it with my field book to make it go away. When it didn’t leave, I decided all I could do was document. I figured as long as its mouth was full, it wouldn’t strike.

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Since the mobbing had been going on for a while, I’m pretty sure the mid-body bulge is a chick from another nest. I know this snake cleaned out at least three.

Photos didn’t capture the moment at all, so I switched to video (don’t worry, no blood or gore). I originally thought the chick was still alive, but I’m not so sure any more. The bill can move if you press certain parts of its body. Also, the toes are splayed instead of clenched, which is how live birds usually hold their feet.

The worst part was when the female, for reasons unknown, amped up her shrieks as the snake left. I don’t know if she’d been there the whole time, or if she had arrived with food to discover her nest had just failed. Again, no blood or gore, but it’s hard not to anthropomorphize.

The kingsnake slipped into the water and vanished, leaving a nest that was empty but for the dud egg it hadn’t touched. I stood there for a few minutes, then retreated through the cattails. All around me, within arm’s reach, chicks rested quietly in their nests. The closest nest to the depredated one was a foot away.

I hated how any of them could be next. I hated how they were so helpless their only defense was to hold tight to the lining. I hated how the adults could do nothing as the snake played duck-duck-goose with their kids. Most of all, I hated witnessing the moment of no return, when the snake had chosen and bodies went into alarm and systems failed. The first moment of the end of life was terrifying to watch. And it was all too obvious why.

Clearly the impartiality I said I’d achieved in the old entry was utter BS. Here I was, projecting like crazy, siding with Team Blackbird and brimming with resentment that the snake had to eat. I took the food chain and the “no value judgments in nature” and threw them against the wall. A pathetic sense of injustice settled instead, the little-kid kind where you wallow in the unfairness of the world. I went home, showed the photos and video to my colleague, and learned I was the first person to observe kingsnakes as blackbird predators.

A few days later the exact same thing happened in a different part of the marsh. The chick was days from fledging and was taken head first.

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Knowing what to expect, I had a little more time to process what I was seeing. It felt so much more immediate and violent than coming across a withered chick in a nest. I think I winced the whole time.

But I also know I would have been miserable if I’d watched the runt in the act of starving too. Maybe the only difference, then, was that I’d been present at the death of one and not the other. Maybe the deciding factor was simply how well I could relate to the moment. When I see death this up close, in a situation so easy to personify, I can’t not get scared. And the only bizarre comfort is that I know it would be strange to feel otherwise. These are the moments when death stops being “comfortably abstract” (thanks, Carolyn Hax), gets in your face, and freaks you the hell out.

So. That epiphany (or platitude) explains some uncomfortable truths. Like: why I wept for Newtown but don’t for Syria. Why we can eat factory cow, strategically slaughtered hundreds of miles away, but not the family dog. Why I predict wonders for my emotional stability when death strikes closer to home. I decided it’s a good thing to feel unfocused when writing about it. It means one’s family and friends are still here.

To the snakes and the surviving chicks, who can all flee from danger now, I wish you long lives together in the marsh. Stay just the way you are.

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9 responses to “On death in the field (tricolored blackbirds)

  1. ceruleanstarshine

    This post was amazing, both visually and emotionally. Thanks for sharing it.

    I don’t think I could be impartial, either.

    • Thank you! I almost wish this post were highlighted instead of the previous one. It’s much more in line with what I usually write about. (But I’m glad the FP post brought you here :-))

  2. Yes. Yes to this article and Yes to the article about the man in the restaurant. (Such a beautiful last line) Your writing is wonderful.

  3. Wow! You have tremendous writing skills, I enjoyed this very much in spite of the subject matter.

  4. Amazing post Irene

  5. I know the feeling – when I watch nature shows I always wonder how the photographers can not step in and save the animals they have been following and filming for weeks, like Flower, the mother meerkat the series about meerkats – they could have kept her from going into the hole where the snake was. On the other hand, they can’t interfere with nature. It must be very hard.

  6. Your use of video makes this post even more immediate. What a great profession you have.

  7. Intense drama, all around us. I hate it when our cats kill songbirds. Recently, I saw a dead bird laying in our parking area with a cat sitting nearby. As I walked up to it, I kept praying “Please don’t let it be an Indigo Bunting.” But it was, that gorgeous shimmering blue bird that I adore so much, killed by a cat that didn’t even eat it; just killed for sport.
    Or finding the two small snakes that our dog killed with their innards spilling out. It makes me wonder how any baby animals survive in the wild. That ones that survive must be the really smart ones (or just lucky?)….

  8. I have read a few of your posts and loved them. It happens that I also love birds and can’t wait to see what else you write and share about them. Thanks.

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