More on Nature, "Red in Tooth and Claw"
with Mike Lushington

Each week, the Saturday edition of the Telegraph-Journal runs a page of nature photographs and questions in its "Salon" section. The October 10 edition had two pictures of a Blue jay eating a robin. The person sending in the pictures described the scene as "gruesome" and asked resident bird expert Jim Wilson whether Blue jays were usually so "vicious". I couldn't help but think that, once again, someone has placed a decidedly human set of values on an action that in nature is neither gruesome nor vicious.

Blue jays are aggressive, intelligent, opportunistic omnivores. This one may have come across a dead or injured robin, (which was Jim's take on the situation); it seems to have decided that another human value, that of "waste not, want not", applied.They jay may have attacked the robin, but, like Jim, I don't think that that was likely. More to the point, though, is the fact that the jay was merely doing something for which it was programmed, and that was to take advantage of a windfall food source - for itself or for its nestlings.(The photos were taken in early summer.)

I remember, years ago, watching a Gyrfalcon (one of those spectacular, occasional winter visitors to our area) calmly sitting on the ice by the Bon Ami Rocks in Dalhousie, devouring a duck that it had killed. When I first saw the bird, it was preening at some distance from the carcass, obviously digesting its first course. At the same time that I spotted it, a couple of ravens spotted the remains of the duck and decided to investigate. That caught the attention of the Gyrfalcon. A brief chase to reassert prior rights to its possession, and the bird settled down once again by the carcass and finished it off. Even as I watched this whole saga unfolding, I was aware that there were a couple of hundred of other ducks in the immediate vicinity, and that none of them seemed particularly upset over the "gruesome" fate of their erstwhile fellow, or in any undue fear or revulsion over the "vicious" actions of a bird that, after all, was only doing what it was genetically programmed to do.

Such comments seem, in a rather perverse way, to reflect on an idea that creatures in nature are supposed to act in ways that we ascribe to (in theory) as representing the best of what it means to be "human" or "humane." William Blake asked the question years ago, in describing the creation of a tiger ("tyger" as he spelled it); "Did He who made the Lamb make thee?" Well, insofar as God can be credited (or blamed) with creation at all, the answer has to be "Yes." (If I remember my old catechism classes correctly, one of the mantras drummed into our heads was that "God created all things.") Unfortunately, we too often forget that these "humane" values are honoured by humans as much for their absence in human affairs as they are for their presence. One has only to consider the daily reporting on massacres, murders, wars, and unspeakable acts of pure "viciousness" that we are capable of as a race. When we do that, we must surely realize that condemning a bird for eating another is really a mindless judgement. The bird was performing an act that, in fact, has a valid basis in the fundamental struggle for survival - and that was all it was.

It is too bad that people who think that a lynx killing a hare, or a falcon, a duck don't have an opportunity to drop into a slaughter house to get a glimpse of a truly "gruesome," "vicious" spectacle that results in our having meat on our tables - including, (dare I say it?) the turkeys that many of us enjoyed over the Thanksgiving weekend.

On another note entirely, I was pleased to read that the injured Snow goose whose story was told a couple of weeks ago (and upon which I commented at that time) has found a safe home. My congratulations to those who persevered in effecting a happy end to that story.