Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hunting prey versus feeding time

Great Blue Heron
Photo credit: Lee Karney, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Yesterday, I was standing with my family on an elevated wooden pathway, feeding the ducks and Canada geese at a local pond, when I realized that there was a wading bird right beneath us. I believe it was a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), although it might possibly have been a Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor).

As the diet of the Great Blue Heron is primarily fish, this bird had no interest in our offerings of bread. It was stalking the small fish that were drawn to our crumbs. Every now and then, a duck would venture too close to this bird's hunting grounds. Zap! The heron would unfurl its great neck to peck at it. One time, the heron came away with feathers in its mouth. Otherwise, the heron just stood there calmly, patiently watching the scene unfold. And then, zing! It would thrust its beak into the water and snap a fish. Chomp, chomp! Two bites, and the fish was gone.

The wary interaction between the ducks & geese and the heron's sharp beak led me to think about the intersection of humans and nature, and how our intervention can often "domesticate" a wild species. In general, I try not to disturb wildlife (although I've been known to rescue turtles from the road), but even I feed the ducks sometimes. Watching the contrast between the geese & ducks (so drawn to humans for food and attention) and the heron (ignoring people, annoyed by the ducks, and hunting prey), reminded me that animals make choices too, whether they realize it or not. I suppose that our responsibility as humans -- as minders of the Earth, so to speak -- is to make sure that their available options are good ones.

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