Monday, November 16, 2009

HUNTER & HUNTED

A Cooper's hawk lands in the box elder beyond my workroom window.
Something—a slight noise, intuition—causes the hawk to looked behind…
…and then to turn around…
…for a perch and view facing toward the sound.
Every single inch is scrutinized…
…no direction is overlooked.
Eighteen inches from the window, and fifteen feet from the keen-eyed hawk, a chickadee huddles, back to the feeder which blocks the hawk's view—and seems to stare imploringly at me to not give it's precarious position away.
Even closer to the hawk—in fact no more than five feet away, in plain view on the same side of the tree as the Coooper's—a gray squirrel flattens, caught without refuge, masquerading as a bump in the bark an eyeblink from winged death. Only by holding their places until the hawk gives up and flies off does either near-victim manage to escape the hawk's notice.
——————
Too often, I expect, when we consider wild creatures, we do so with a sugar-coated, Disneyesque overview that ignores the precarious reality of their daily existence.
It isn't easy being a chickadee or gray squirrel, field mouse or raccoon, coyote or Cooper's hawk. Life is tough—quite literally, a life over death struggle. Moreover, a struggle which must be played out and won day after day, winter, spring, summer, fall.
The first imperative, as it is for all of us inhabiting plant earth, is eat or die. Some of us pampered folks might take a rather long time to actually die of starvation. But if you're small with a high metabolic rate, you can starve to death in a matter of hours if you fail to find sufficient food for your next meal.
Food equals energy equals life.
No matter which wild creature you study, one of the first things you realize is how much time that animal spends looking for something to eat and/or actually eating. Grazers graze…a lot. A downy woodpecker spends practically every waking hour pecking and probing up and down the trunks of trees and their branches, looking for insects and spiders, grubs and larva, plus a few tasty seeds picked up along the way. In fact, most birds spend most of their awake time eating or looking for food.
So do squirrels. Yes, they chase around through the treetops a bit, and occasionally stretch out on a limb in the sun for a nap—but mostly they look for food and eat what they find. The same can be said for skunks, woodchucks, and whitetail deer.
Eat or die, there's no other choice. But there's an addendum to the equation: for most animals, it's eat or die…and sometimes die by being eaten. The life-and-death dynamics of predator and prey. To search for food, you must expose yourself to becoming food; the consumer consumed.
At the risk of being labeled anthropomorphic, I'd say there's desperation and terror on the face and in the eyes of the chickadee—and a look of near-resignation on the gray squirrel. A cognizance by both that death is close, maybe inevitable.
If you're lucky, you've never known the experience of being prey. Not much hunts us except other men. The fear of death stalking and finding us amid the long grass, or in a sudden, sharp-taloned swoop from the sky, is not chief among or modern worries. For that, I'm very glad.
Nor should we look upon this hunting hawk as a villain. It isn't, no more than the downey woodpecker searching for an ant or beetle among the folds of bark.
Still, I'm happy that, this time around, both the chickadee and squirrel escaped…though I hope the Cooper's hawk didn't go hungry too long thereafter.

28 comments:

Carolyn H said...

Lovely photos of the Cooper's Hawk. the chickadee looked especially tense, i thought.

Carolyn h.

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-

Your photos/images and expressive words about life and death and falling prey and how we all eat to not die is just amazing. I REALLY was effected by this piece tremendously.
The metaphors here are spectacular. As humans we spend a lot of time considering our next meal - albeit easy access for most There are some that scavenging and scrounging and searching all day for food is part of their day as well - not unlike the hawk, squirrel or woodpecker. Some humans are more aggressive than others - maybe that has to do with hunger or fear. Some have fallen prey to a stronger more aggressive more afraid hungry hunter - they have been killed for their days find. As I read your powerful words detailing survival in the wild - I was drawn to image the inner city - not too far from here - they are the hawk and the squirrel or the chickadee - exactly what you described is happening to our hungry homeless brothers and sisters - because like you said - "food equals energy equals life."
I am stunned by the parallels you have creatively imaged. Stunned.

Love to you my amzing creative friend
Gail
peace.....

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Carolyn…

I felt really sorry for that little chickadee. It just looked terrified.

(The photo wasn't very good because of the reflection of a shelf in my room. But the best I could manage from that angle; same on the squirrel pix.)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

Most of us never give it a thought—but as recently as a generation or two back, "eat or die" dictated the lives of many mainstream Americans. My parents in their youth, and my grandparents for most of their lives, lived on a farm where they raised or grew all their food. They lived well. But they would have starved had they not supplied their own needs directly.

Nowadays we substitute dollars for the necessary hands-on fulfillment of our food needs. We still must have the food, but we let others raise and grow it, put it somewhere (a grocery story) where it's easy to obtain, and pay them for this service.

But the eat-or-die imperative remains.

And you're right that some among us (to our everlasting shame as a nation of such abundance!) still go hungry, still must scrounge or beg for their next bite…still occasionally starve. And more often than not, these are the very people who also become the prey to our urban predators. They would, I'm sure, know well the terror of the chickadee, the resignation of the squirrel…the fear of being the hunted.

Civilization is but a veneer over reality. Eat or die. Predator, prey. Both will be with us always.

Gail said...

HI AGAIN-

Your response, sentiments are well written - heartfelt - honest - true and so very important to hear.
I so appreciate your experience-strength-hope-wisdom and compassion.

Love to you
Gail
peace.....

p.s. my latest post has some pictures of 'Chatfield Hollow' - the park I wrote about where my Dad, as a youth member of the Connecticut Corp Of Engineers built all the bridges. There is a really food photo of one of them.

The Solitary Walker said...

Excellent, salutary post, Grizzled, and I also liked your reply to Gail.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

He's a beauty, your hawk. I wonder if it is the same one you 'captured' a while back?

We are prey to things less concrete, less real. Prey to our own fears, prey to invisible predators such as viruses and bacteria, prey to ideologies, prey to capitalism and consumerism, prey to peer pressure, etc. etc. Would that our instincts would always inform us what to do - fight, flight, or freeze.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

I will take a look…

As always, thank you.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Solitary…

Hey, the prose was easy. Getting the hawk, chickadee, and squirrel to cooperate for the photos was another matter.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bonnie…

I wouldn't be a bit surprised to think this is the same Cooper's hawk I keep seeing and photographing—although I haven't a shred of evidence to prove such a notion.

Yes, we are prey to many things, both real and imagined, in our modern lives.

But ask anyone who spent time lugging an M16 and slipping through the steamy jungles of southeast Asia, a ball of fear about the size of a grapefruit gnawing like a rat in their stomach…they'll tell you it's one thing to be fearful of the H1N1 virus and another to know that a second from now you could be bloody pulp on the soggy ground.

Both can kill you, but it's palpable fear in the soldiering instance. Any cop nowadays can probably relate, too. And this fear of actually becoming prey to an predator animal is not quite forever erased, either.

Back in the 1930s, my mother and father were trailing a mountain lion in the snow up a Western hillside. It was late, the light starting to go, with a bit of new snow beginning to fall. Suddenly, both Mom and Dad said they felt the hairs on the back of their neck start rising, "like an electrical current was running down my body," is the way my father put it. They looked around, peering into the fading light and shadows among the pines and rocks, then without speaking turned and began heading back down. Fifty yards from where they'd stopped, as they followed their own trail back, they saw a fresh set of cat tracks imprinted over theirs. That cougar had circled and was stalking them—and had been, they learned, for the last quarter-mile. "That was a pretty scary hike back to the car," they always said—and you could tell the experience had rocked them deeply.

I've never been stalked by a mountain lion, but I've had a few bear encounters, and once, while snorkeling down in the Florida Keys, got the absolute stuffing scared out of me by a hammerhead shark about the length of a living room.

I know just a tiny bit of what that chickadee and squirrel must have felt.

KGMom said...

Nature red in tooth and claw.
And you are so right--either eat or be eaten are the choices for many creatures in nature.
I did enjoy the photos of the Cooper's hawk turning round and looking every which way.
I am kind of surprised the chickadee was caught off guard. At our feeders, occasionally all the birds instantly scatter. Then we see the raptor or a feral cat.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

I didn't notice the chickadee until after I'd shot the first few photos of the hawk and was maneuvering to get a shot of the squirrel through the adjacent window. I don't think there were many birds around to scatter and give a sort of group warning. My guess is that, quick as chickadees usually are, this time the hawk just flew into the tree, kaa-bang, and the chickadee's only reaction choice was to hunker and hope.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Just read your response to my comment Grizz. Your recounting of your parents' experience is riveting. We humans are operating on much duller senses, it seems.

Sounds like you've had a few frightening encounters yourself. A shark as big as a living room. Eeeek. Isn't it amazing that our hearts can endure such a fright?

And was that you in southeast Asia - having to keep moving while knowing each step could be your last? You certainly have a keen sense of what it means to be at risk as prey. What we ask of our soldiers - to risk their lives as easy prey, while being reluctant predators themselves. Good thing the psyche offers us the defenses of suppression and repression - as the full impact of the terror and horror of killing or being killed would be too much to bear.

Bernie said...

I love the photo of the hawk's tail, you know Grizz all these beautiful creatures are being (and doing) who/what they are meant to be, fulfilling their destiny....I am thinking all 3 of them ate well today after visiting your lovely tree...it would bother me to think they went hungry.....:-) Hugs

giggles said...

You are such a gifted story teller.... and photographer....gorgeous.

Scott said...

When I watch a science fiction film with human-pursuing/human-eating monsters, I often think about the fact that one reason that these films are so effective is that humans are not used to being "prey," which makes the film protagonists' life-and-death situation all that more terrifying. What's the difference between what happens to the humans in "Alien" and what happens to a hapless insect paralyzed, buried underground, and eaten alive by wasp larvae injected inside them? Both are grisly, but one actually happens all the time. Humans are very, very lucky.

The Weaver of Grass said...

And maybe they learned to be a little more careful in future, do you think, Scribe? Fantastic photos as always.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bonnie…

I was down about 25 feet over a reef off Key Largo. The big hammerhead appeared overhead. I had only the breath in my lungs, was scared to death, and had to try and stay calm (sure!) and wait for the shark to move before heading to the surface.

That's the first time in my life I really knew I was facing an animal that could—and might—eat me…and there would be nothing I could do about it one way or the other. Nothing is ever quite the same after such a moment. There's a realization that remains and informs the rest of your life when you see your place on the food chain.

(BTW, sorry to be so slow in replying…I left the house early this morning and just now got back in. And I'll have to go out again in another hour. Talk about a day getting used up!)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

You're right…hawks, chickadees, squirrels, and all the rest, have their role, their place in nature's pattern—the way life in the wild is meant to be lived. They way we also live, except we just contract out the parts we don't like or want to do.

And you right, too, in that none of the trio in the photos appeared underfed. I don't begrudge anyone their meal.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

An Irish motormouth from birth, the gift 'o gab and storytelling (yarns) buried in my DNA, and at least occasionally a lucky photographer. Sit at a desk, stare out the window long enough, and things happen out there beyond the glass. Snap, snap. Blind hogs and acorns…

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Scott…

We humans are, indeed, very, very lucky. We live in a dangerous world, but seldom do things stalk us—either with gun or fang, or in whatever a good alien brings to the table by way of nasty armament.

I sometimes wonder how much we'd change if that were the case. Suppose, say, shrews grew to the size of Holsteins? Or little brown bats had the wingspan of of a tennis court? Or Cooper's hawks came in XXL, and could swoop down and carry of your average nature writer like we snatch a taco?

Do you suppose we'd become fearful? More neurotic? Less petty and self-absorbed? Would Cub Scouts still help old ladies across the streets…except leave 'em in the middle of the intersection and hope whatever was flapping around up there in the sky would zoom down and nail them first so's they could proceed safely onward? Would everyone huddle in their homes, doors and windows boarded tight, and practice cannibalism?

Or would we become a nation of the fatalistically watchful?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

I'm not sure such incidents teach any squirrel very much—squirrels being rather devil-may-care creatures and little inclined toward furthering their education. However, if the look on that chickadee's face is any indication, it is not going to get caught in such a predicament again anytime soon. :-)

Anna said...

Interesting thought process, I am just glad that we don't have any crazy predators that would hunt us, lol. Excellent story line, I love your hawk photos. Anna :)

Jayne said...

Love your Coop photos Grizz. I feel the same way you do. Yes, it's sad to see the hawks capture prey, but they are being... well... hawks. And, as you said, it's not different than the other birds eating what they can find as well. Some people vilify birds of prey as if they are evil. Nonsense. Utter nonsense.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Anna…

Well, as any week's news reporting will bear out, there are predators out there stalking us, and especially our kids…but they seldom have fur or wings.

The photos were just luck—being in the right place at the right time. But I'm glad you liked them. We don't often get to see these little dramas.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

Too much Disney, not enough time off the sidewalk. As Tennyson put it:

"Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed…

A Cooper's hawk is not cruel, or evil, just being a hawk.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Anonymous…

Sometimes it takes a while to sort everything out and find the right "voice" and stride when writing for a particular media or slot readership… and I would agree I'm possibly a bit more on the mark. But editorially speaking, I do have to say there are a few of the early posts that I think are as good or better than anything I've written in, say, the past six months.

New or old, though, I'm glad you find something you like here. That's the point. I do this for fun and to share. It doesn't work either way without readers who like the posts.