The Week in Wildlife
You don’t quite get how brutal nature is until you live out in the countryside. Basically everything is born to die feeding something else or in some horrendous accident. It’s hard, sometimes, not to rage against it all.
But the week started out on an amusing note. An enormous land snail (aka a Roman snail aka escargot) overwintered in our front garden and ever since it woke up and started meandering around, I’ve been terrified of stepping on it. These things can live for up to 35 years! Who wants to accidentally crunch a snail who’s been hanging in there since the middle of the Reagan Administration underfoot, even when you’re not barefoot? So most days I nose around until I find “Fred” so I can manage not to step on her+him (snails are hermaphrodites).
Well. When we found Fred at the beginning of week, we discovered that Fred had found a friend. Ahem.
You know, having spent 4 years at UC Santa Cruz, I’d heard all the rumors about the prodigious sexual feats of terrestrial molluscs, but, geez, honestly, wow, I didn’t really get it. Fred and Friend were mucous membrane to mucous membrane for an entire day. Then they spent an entire day sprawled out in the flower bed as dazed as post-coital bunnies. Then they spent another entire day going at it again. THAT’S 72 HOURS.
It was only this morning that they finally motored off on their separate ways. And now I’m terrified of walking through my front garden again. Because now I have to worry about Fred and Friend and since apparently a Roman snail migration consists of moving 15-18 feet, they’ve both still got to be there somewhere.
Immediately after discovering the snails starting to go their separate ways this morning, I went out for a 2 mile walk along my usual route between the fields. When I passed the second of the two great holes dug into the ground by European hares (which, even if they don’t remember the Reagan Administration can at least run up to 35 mph), I saw this weird roll of clay right at the opening. Which looked weird. And wrong.
But what can you do? I kept walking. And thirty feet further on, I came to a back leg that had been ripped so violently from a hare that the leg bone had snapped. Most likely a fox, my across the street neighbor informed me later, when I told her about it and wondered who the culprit may have been. Which is just WOW! I had no idea foxes were so violent they could literally rip a great big hare to shreds.
On my way back, I had a closer look at the roll of clay. It was actually the other hind leg, rolled in clay, like the perpetrator had dragged that poor hare kicking and screaming out of the den as it was desperately diving for safety. There was a bit of skull there, too.
But the day was just beginning.
Around lunchtime, I stepped outside through the glass door beside the sparrows’ nest I’ve been keeping an eye on because from the sounds of the cheeping and from the crazy stressed out alarm cries of the sparrow parents, the first chicks were due to leave the nest and that’s always a hairy 24 hours because they land, whomp!, on the ground right at cat central and it’s about a day before they’re good enough at flying to seek any ground higher than some bushes. They seem to mainly survive by finding thick cover and standing very still.
But when I stepped out the door I heard… nothing. That was so very wrong, I turned and looked up at the birdhouse. And what I saw was a little wing half poking out of the opening. And my heart just sunk into my shoes. It’s horrible when the chicks get stuck and can’t get out and die, blocking the opening so that all their chick brothers and sisters starve to death.
I ran for a ladder and I opened up the birdhouse (the front wall swings up) and the chick was very dead and rather battered from its parents’ attempts to pull the corpse out of the nest. But there was a flat plastic thread wrapped around one of the legs.
Worried that there was still a hungry chick or two behind it, I tried to unwrap the leg from the plastic and remove the chick from the nest. But it was so impossible, the whole great big stonking pile of grass, chicken feathers, dried leaves, horse hair, and plastic strips ended up coming out in my hand. And if that wasn’t horrible enough (Damn, sparrows, sorry about the nest you spent weeks building!), it became clear that the chick had died because it had swallowed one end of a strip of flat plastic thread and because the rest of the thread was woven so firmly into the nest, there was no way that chick was ever leaving the nest, dead or alive. But of course it was dead because it had a great big huge wad of plastic stuck in its stomach. Then I found the two cold eggs that were stuck in the nest with the dead chick. And then I felt so horribly, horribly, rotten.
I took the whole mess over to the compost pile and tried to pull all the plastic strips out of the nesting material, but it was impossible. I couldn’t get it out of the dead bird either. So I threw it all in the garbage. What chicken feathers did fall out were quickly whisked away by other sparrows for their own nests.
Later, when Spouse came home, he was so angry about the plastic, he dug the nest and dead sparrow out of the trash so we could take pictures. So here they are.
Here is the poor, dead sparrow chick hanging by the plastic strip that it tried to eat.
And here’s a picture of all the strips that I pulled out of the nest, plus the stomach that came out of the dead sparrow when Spouse pulled slowly hard enough to extract the plastic.
After I put the two cold, unhatched eggs under a heat lamp, just in case (although they were probably laid at the same time as the sparrow that hatched, in which case, they were already dead), I spent the whole day wondering who the fuck would put out this shitty plastic?! Which one of my neighbors was responsible?!?! And who would just leave crap like this lying around for baby birds to swallow and DIE?
I spent the whole day apologizing to the two sparrows who flew back to the bird house and kept hopping in and out of it like they were sure they had a nest and a couple of eggs around here somewhere. But then they got straight back down to working on building a new one. I hope they avoid the plastic this time, but of course they don’t get what the problem is. I wish I could explain it to them. Sparrows are clever in many ways, but this is unfortunately beyond them.
The alpaca lady next door, who is a keen observer, solved the mystery (at least in a general sense) as to where the plastic had come from. She recognized the plastic strips as coming from the “biodegradable” ground cover tarps that people put in their gardens. She and her husband had in fact installed a bunch two years ago when they made a long mound in front of the male alpaca pen they then planted the beginnings of a hedge in. At least the alpaca lady’s woven plastic tarp is black, not light blue. But still.
I feel like throwing (not sparrow) eggs at all the garden shops that sell this stuff. Everybody is like don’t use straws you’ll kill the baby turtles (etc). SO WHY DON’T THEY WARN PEOPLE ABOUT WOVEN GARDEN TARPS THAT BY DESIGN UNRAVEL OVER THE COURSE OF A COUPLE OF YEARS AND AS A SIDE EFFECT PRODUCE WHAT APPEARS TO BIRDS TO BE ATTRACTIVE NESTING MATERIAL? Sorry to be shouting, but I’m upset! Who would want to put something in that kills baby birds like this except for people who don’t know that this happens.
So that was the week (so far) in wildlife around here. Except that we just discovered that the fig tree we planted 2 years ago has its first three figs on it!!!!!!
So for every up, I guess, there is a down or vice versa. Still, as much as I love figs, I’d rather have watched that baby sparrow fledge tomorrow or the next day.
At least large land snails just dig holes when they lay their eggs, instead of building nests.