Relativity, realities, and perspectives from nature photography
A brief revisit to the "new life" theme in life in Part 1
Sex is usually necessary to produce new life. It is unlikely we equate sex with death, but there are times in both the plant and the animal kingdoms when sex is not just the beginning of life but also results in its end.
Once upon a time, the scientific consensus was that only the human female, among all female animals, could experience the pleasure of orgasms and La Petite Mort. That assertion is now suspect, but for the males of some animal species, there is a near-certainty of Le Mort Finale. Male praying mantises are highly likely to lose their heads and become fast food for the female immediately after providing sexual service. Male spiders of some species may meet a similar demise.
Salmon spawn and die. Some males of other species actually appear to **** themselves to death in a variant "frenetic suicidal reproductive strategy." (This is a PG-rated post. The correct answer is ‘mate.’ Thanks for playing). The reproductive strategy of having a singular, usually fatal mating or mating period in a lifetime is called semelparity.
Death-by-sex is an interesting side-note that expands the notion of "life-and-death" to life-and-death-and-life—rinse, repeat. It is a relatively rare occurrence in the totality of the animal kingdom, so let’s move on to what is not.
Perspective: Death and sustaining life
After years of studying and photographing many lower animals, I came to realize the term ‘food cycle’ could be used almost interchangeably with the term ‘life cycle.’
Natural relationships and processes result in exponentially larger numbers of those lower on the food pyramid dying for the benefit of a much smaller number above. When you consider all the meals you have eaten containing various chicken parts, how many chickens have you likely consumed in the course of your life? How many cows, pigs, lambs, or goats? How many shrimp, clams, or mussels in just one meal?
And let’s not forget that all those plants we eat, be they eaten raw, cooked, or as products like cereal grains converted to flour then into bread. All were once living things, too (and yes, viable seeds are living things).
In their tiny macro worlds, these interactions are just ordinary and predestined parts of their life-cycle. Certain species prey only upon other certain species, maybe only one. Like humans, some are more general in their predatory practices. In higher animals, there seems to be an inborn taboo against eating one’s kind and limitations as to what is acceptable for consumption.
Human consumption of animals involves a process: There is a slaughter to bleed the animal out, then butchering, distribution, more butchering, packaging, selling, buying, storing, then preparing and consuming at our leisure.
Dinner time in the wild is a different story. We have all seen nature documentaries of lions on the plains of Africa. Smaller prey may be killed and taken to a safe place to eat. But if a lion kills a large animal, it quickly consumes what it can, in place, before the kill attracts unwanted competitors for the spoils.
What do you see?
What do you see now?
In this life-and-death drama, this time around, it was hornet 1, fly 0.
Cicada killers are large wasps, harmless to humans, that eat nectar and lead solitary lives. The female is a prodigious excavator. She will dig a nest with multiple chambers. Into each chamber, she will put from one to three cicadas she has caught, paralyzed, flipped onto its back, and carried back to the nest (despite being up to twice her weight). She will place one of her eggs on top of a particular spot on each cicada underbelly. About three days later, the larvae will hatch. Each larva eats its own immobile cicada in such a way as to keep it alive for the two weeks it will take to consume it.
As common as internal, intra-oral (direct-ingestion) is, many species do not have anatomies for that type of feeding.
And a reminder that perspective is relative.
Sometimes it is linearly progressive:
Small fish get eaten by bigger fish, who get eaten by even bigger fish.
Sometimes it’s circular:
One minute the hunter has successfully captured and fed upon its prey...
…and in the next ...
Early on above, I mentioned that higher animals seem instinctively hardwired with a sense of what is and what is not acceptable for consumption that includes a taboo against eating one's own kind. Not so much in some lower forms:
But that is something that occurs more than we know in the natural world we rarely see or think about.
Perspective: Other means of death in nature
As humans, we tend to think of death from a perspective associated with ourselves: The result of “old age” or diseases and conditions, all couched under the phrase “died of natural causes.” We tend to ignore, through blissful ignorance, what death by natural causes is in much of the animal world we generally don’t see and don’t care about much, if at all.
Nature vs. nurture strategies are realities based on where in the pecking order a species is situated. Those at the top produce fewer offspring but nurture them for a relatively long period to a level of maturity that gives them the best odds of survival to reproductive maturity. Those at the bottom do not nurture offspring, instead produce sheer numbers to assure that a few survive to reproduce.
There are times when even the best care is not a guarantee of a successful outcome.
A large 10ft-tall sticker bush close to the house is a favorite nesting site for many local bird species. Over the years, I had successfully documented the nesting activity within.
I could observe activities outside the bush from the living room window. Getting shots inside the nest was not easy. I could manage to get in close using a ladder, pick my moments, get my photos, and get out without causing much parental stress or me getting ripped up by those thorns.
All seemed to be proceeding well in the nest for its three newly-hatched cardinals. On the morning of their third day, I observed the parents making their endless rounds of procuring food and feeding the hatchlings. While they were both away on a foraging session, I quickly got my shots to document daily development and then had to leave to run errands.
When I returned, I looked out the living room window and observed the father in another nearby bush. He was looking intently at the ground at the base of the sticker bush but not appearing to be agitated, simply observing something I couldn’t see from my vantage point. I did not see the mother.
I went outside and carefully approached the scene. The father flew off to a new perch. Looking on the ground, I saw two of the hatchlings slowly writhing, eyes still closed. Both were bloodied from wounds in their thin translucent skin over various parts of their tiny bodies. They were doomed.
At this early stage of their development, there is no way the hatchlings were energetic enough to have pushed themselves out of the nest. All signs suggested the nest had been invaded by a marauder.
But this outcome was unexpected and made me pause — for the first time ever — to consider whether this action was the result of one or both parents pushing them out of the nest. There are reasons why this might happen, including the detection of physical handicaps or diseases that would prevent a successful development. Or the possibility the parents did this because of the continued threat of another marauder attack. Some experts might contend that my actions around the nest were seen as a threat to hatchling survival, causing the parents to terminate the process. Parents of some species have been observed eating those they have jettisoned from the nest. However, there was no sign of the third hatchling, intact or in pieces.
So were the observed wounds the result of being pecked and tossed about by the parents or invader, then falling seven feet through a dense sticker bush, having their delicate skin and developing organs stabbed and ripped by the thorns during the fall to the ground? And where was the third hatchling?
I had been doing this for years. Until this event, every nest, in every shrub, every year, has had 100% success of all hatchlings fledging despite my careful intrusions. But I couldn’t shake the sense that I may have some blame for this outcome.
We see so many living birds. Have you noticed that we rarely find them dead? Has that ever made you wonder where birds go to die?
One winter day, I looked out my window and observed the disturbance of a large shrub in the next-door neighbor’s yard, about 20 yards away. I assumed it was some squirrels playing. After a minute, a magnificent goldern hawk emerged with a bird in its talons. It flew to a clear spot of snow in my yard about 10 yards away from my window. It took a look around as it held down the grackle, methodically ripping out feathers and randomly tossing them around the area. Then I watched it use its hooked beak to rip open the belly of the bird to disembowel it. It tossed the bloody guts around the area of what had been a pristine blanket of fresh white snow.
It took its time ripping out hunks of flesh and consuming them as it casually looked around. I stood there mesmerized but not once thinking to get a camera.
Its meal completed, the scene strewn with feathers, guts, and blood, it flew up into a nearby tree where it rested for a good hour as it digested its meal.
This story will not have photos either, simply because I didn’t take any:
I had a project to do outside that involved laying down paving stones. When I finished, I sealed the approximately half-inch deep and wide spaces between them with a self-leveling caulk that doesn’t completely cure for about 24 hours.
The following day, I went out and found a pile of feathers strewn around my work area. I also saw a single bird leg stuck in the caulk, severed off above the knee. The feathers told me the bird was — had been — a mockingbird. I haven’t a clue why it was on the ground and got stuck in the hardening caulk. There were little bits of bird, now covered in ants, mixed in with feathers, as well as some bloodstains, scattered about on my pavers. I’m sure I uttered something quite expletive to vent my anger over the callous disregard for my labor.
As I cleaned up the mess, my sense of perspective changed as I began to visualize what happened. I considered the cat’s perspective, crouched under the car a few feet away, surveilling the scene as it comprehended its good fortune just before striking. I then considered the state of mind and the raucous noise the bird likely made as it panicked over its predicament and foresaw what was about to occur. After attacking, the cat was probably a little perplexed by what was preventing it from dragging the bird away. The visual evidence suggested it settled on consuming most of it where it was stuck, eventually gnawing through the leg to separate the carcass to take elsewhere.
I came out of the house, headed for the garden shed when I noticed something dark in the grass. As I got closer, I could tell it was a bird, not standing up but squatting.
This was very unusual. It wasn’t moving. It made no effort to escape as I approached. Was it alive? On closer examination from only a few feet away, I could see it was holding its head up, eyes open. I could imagine the fear it felt being in the open, on the ground, vulnerable, apparently incapacitated for reasons not obvious. It made no effort to move and made no sounds of alarm.
Fifteen minutes later, the head was no longer held up. The eyes are open, as they appear to have been the whole time, but had dulled. The bird now appeared to be dead.
I reached down and picked it up. There was no movement and no perception of a heartbeat, no sign of trauma.
I placed the bird on a nearby shrub so I could monitor it as I worked, just in case it appeared to revive. It never did.
Was it sick or dying of old age?
Was it aware of its impending demise?
Was it in pain?
I pondered these questions for a few moments.
Would I have these kinds of questions and empathetic concerns about things not furry or feathery?
I tossed the carcass in the trash with the rest of the yard debris and continued with my work.
I am continually watching shrubs in the yard for evidence of mockingbirds building nests. When they are happy, they constantly sing, starting very early in the morning. They make it hard to sleep. When agitated, they screech and emit other vile noises from hell that get more prevalent during the mating-nesting season. I do not want mockingbirds nesting on the property.
They can produce nasty warnings if you get close to where they are building a nest or have one just completed but tend to do their venting from a safe perch nearby. But linger when eggs or hatchlings are present, they become screaming banshees or will appear out of nowhere and stage multiple flybys of your head, so close you can feel the throbbing air pressure oscillations as the wings beat past your ear. If you simply walk by a shrub that has a nest with eggs or hatchlings, you will likely get tag-team flybys past your head for the duration of the nesting period.
I must prevent them from becoming established; otherwise, I can’t garden, I can’t mow without constant harassment.
So this one morning I am out working in the yard when I see a mockingbird on top of a shrub. As I approached the shrub to search for a nest, I noticed the bird was not flying away, nor was it attacking me. Then I noticed it was a juvenile so there was no reason to suspect a mate would be nearby to harass me either.
As I got to the shrub it didn't fly off, it simply moved away from me to the opposite side. Very strange. Then I got a glimpse of it out in the open and could see there was a problem.
For whatever reason, this bird was unable to fly.
The following image was taken eight days after the ones above. It is not the same bird. Given their proximity and state of development, they were likely nest-mates. These excrescent maladies could be xanthomas, feather cysts, or signs of a parasite. But regardless of the nature of the affliction, it prevented the bird from flying and otherwise functioning normally, probably leading to its premature demise.
I’ll admit I probably never think about it until I see it: Wild animals are prone to their share of physical problems, most resulting in certain death, including bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections; tumors, and broken limbs.
The death-by-cat was gruesome — Christians vs. lions gruesome — not the usual way cats find, capture, and dispatch birds. Hawks don’t usually look at other birds as their preferred prey, but those stories are also not that uncommon. The bird in the grass was an unusual and unresolved scenario. Obviously, to this day, I’m still pondering its stoic death. And only once before, a few years back, do I recall ever seeing a bird with an obvious physical issue that would likely impact its survival.
But they all were the result of natural processes.
The series concludes in Part 3 with what is not.