Archive for August, 2019

A Three-Week Inquiry into the Predator-Prey Relationship

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 14, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

The moment Homey introduced himself, I knew this was going to be one of those phone calls. “Look,” he said, “I have an idea for something you should write about – or maybe revisit, if my dad is right.” Once we got a bit centered, he explained. “We have been talking with our son and daughter – 11 and 13 – about bullying and abuse and violence and all those things we tell each other to talk with our kids about, and how to respond or not respond, and who to talk to if there’s trouble, and all that business. They’re great kids and there’s just so much we want them to know. At some point, my dad said ‘Well, we are all outdoor and wildlife nuts, maybe you should help them understand how the natural world of predators and prey works. Might help them with their own decisions.’ Then he said that, like maybe 15 or 20 years ago, you and that bird whisperer woman, Deborah, wrote something that he used when he was talking with me and my brothers. Do you think you guys might do something like that again?”

I told him I would think about it. As I did, I realized that, with the #metoo movement, the news and media filled with stories, advice and whatever, the subject of the predator-prey relationship is as relevant now – if not more so – than it was in when we first discussed this in 2003. I called Deborah Essman, and a couple others who concurred with our (and Homey’s) thinking. Thus, for this week and two more, we shall consider the predator-prey relationship.

Somehow, nearly three decades ago, I stumbled across the summer 1991 issue of “Parabola – The Magazine of Myth and Tradition.” Still published quarterly – each issue on some particular topic – Parabola (parabola.org) is currently using the byline “The Search for Meaning.” At any rate, the issue I found was titled “The Hunter.” The 100-plus pages of 20 ancient and new writings on my favorite activity were delicious. Two of the writings, however, haunted me.

As a kid, I wondered about robins eating worms, people eating animals, and critters eating other critters. I’ve spent days of my life watching coyotes and cats catch and play with food. Often, when hunting (being a predator) I have found myself deep in thought about the relationships involved. At odd moments throughout my life, I have pondered the intricacies of this prey-predator relationship. Deborah and Bill Essman and countless others have, as well.

It is not just about wildlife, either. We’ve seen the TV dramas. We’ve watched abusers and sexual predators talk about how they recognize a victim – prey – the moment they see him or her. I coached my young sons and daughters on important, related, life skills, teaching them to carefully observe their surroundings, to pay attention to how they were moving and interacting in public, finding options if something seemed “off,” and so forth. I always acknowledged that there are, indeed, a few evil people in the world so focused on their intentions that no amount of preparation could protect their prey. “If somehow you become a victim, don’t waste time blaming yourself,” I would tell them, “focus on being a survivor.”

The two Parabola articles to which I alluded, above, were about the truth lived by predators and their natural prey – animals and beings with an innate understanding of their roles on the planet. The authors had thoughts, also, about humans and the sacred understanding of such relationships.

The first article in that summer issue was “The Never-Ceasing Dance,” by Martha Heyneman. Martha wrote of being in struggle dressing an unruly toddler when a flurry of red and a streak of white suddenly caught her eye…

“Across the hall is the baby’s room, and in it the diapering table – turquoise blue. A low beam of morning sunshine lies across the table and illuminates the stacks of neatly folded diapers so they give off a vaporous white light. Against this background and in this light an astonishing drama is being enacted.

“A strange white cat has got in through the small door in the basement through which our own cats come and go at will. The flurry of red was a young male cardinal. He has taken refuge on the turquoise table, and now the cat has leapt up heavily and joined him. They are face to face, inches apart, looking into each other’s eyes. Neither one moves.

“Never have I witnessed, as I am witnessing now, the moment before the kill. The two are unaware of my presence. I feel like a country bumpkin who has stumbled into the sacred precinct of a great mystery. In the brilliant light the white cat and the red bird on the turquoise table are like a pair of flamenco dancers when the spotlight suddenly flashes on to reveal them motionless in its cone of swirling smoke, eye to eye, he erect and defiant in a red dress, she in a skin-tight white suit, taut as a coiled snake ready to strike, the air around them full of the accelerating rattle of castanets…

To be continued…

All About Black-Billed Magpies

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 7, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Magpies are all around the town and country of our Central Washington Paradise this summer. Few creatures are as striking as these black and white, long-tailed, black-billed birds. Flashy, big, boisterous and loud, their black plumage shimmers with bronze and blue or green and purple in the sun. So formal and straight-laced looking, it couldn’t possibly be guilty of all those bad things people say.

Its habits of attacking the eyes of injured or sick animals, raiding other birds’ nests, and picking at sores of cattle and horses have not endeared it to us. The first written report of a sighting was by Zebulon Pike in 1806. On November first, according to Pike’s journal, magpies “alighted on [our horses], and in defiance of their wincing and kicking, picked many places quite raw.” Magpie’s name is said to be short for “maggot pie,” for its eating of maggots off decaying meat, although some insist it is short for Margaret, or is an old term for “chattering female.”

Into the 1930s, periodic contests were held around the West to exterminate magpies. Thousands more died from poisoned baits placed for predators. Very few birds have been so reviled.

Yet, this is a very intelligent bird. The Earthfire Institute (earthfireinstitute.org/story/the-intelligence-of-magpies/) reports research showing that the brain size and cognitive abilities of corvids (crows and magpies) are relatively similar to those of the great apes. The birds may be among the most intelligent of all animals. Corvids’ brains are built very dif­fer­ently from ours, and they use portions of their brains with no counterpart to human brains. Their intelligence evolved quite differently than hours, yet they plan, they remember, they learn.

Magpies can, and do, learn to talk; google “black-billed magpie talking” and dazzle your kids and family with the videos you find. (No, it does not have a split tongue, and splitting its tongue does not help it talk.) My up-the-Little-Chumstick-Creek-out-of Leavenworth, Washington, Uncle Ed Palmquist, often told of rearing a magpie in Wenatchee in the 1920s and teaching it to talk. At the age of two, it was trapped and killed outside its entry and exit window which had been absentmindedly closed by his mother. The culprit, he said, was a “f#$%!* cat.” His mother reported hearing what sounded like the bird’s voice calling “Help! Cat! Help! Help!” but did not respond quickly enough.

While magpie makes a variety of whistling, cackling, and trilling sounds, its primary call has been described as a series of “jack jack jack!” notes with a rising “Maayg?” It is highly adaptable, with a perfect bill for its varied diet. It caches food when it has an excess, and eats more insects (including grasshoppers and ticks) than any of the other jays, ravens and crows in its family.

Were it not a bird, the magpie would probably be an architect. Nests, often easily seen perched in brush and trees, are constructed of sticks, with a mud cup, and sometimes look like small adobe houses lined with horse hair, fur or fine grasses. The nest will generally be used year after year, and may be two feet or more in diameter and several feet from top to bottom. It is not unusual for this mud and stick home to have a domed roof and two side doors (one likely for the long tail).

Black-billed magpies form long-term pair bonds, often staying together throughout the year. The pair will rear one brood from seven to ten greenish gray eggs, heavily spotted with brown. The female incubates for 16-21 days, and the male feeds her during that time. Both parents bring food (nearly always animal flesh) to nestlings, who leave the nest within 30 days.

Other birds quickly take over abandoned magpie “homes.” Some cavity nesters, such as the American kestrel, will move right in. Great horned and long-eared owls have been observed building their own nests atop the sturdy foundation provided by the magpies.

In keeping with the wishes of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. Magpie is in the crow and jay family and its scientific name is Pica pica. It is a broad-winged bird to 22 inches long (with tail). It is highly adaptable, with a perfect bill for its varied diet of insects, carrion, baby birds and small vertebrates, with some fruit and seeds. Communal and protective birds, groups of magpies will often mob hawks and other predators. Find more in “The Birder’s Handbook” by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, any good field guide, at  www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-billed_Magpie  or google them.

Magpie is a favorite among birdwatchers in the state, and can be easily found in our east-of-the-Cascades countryside and towns. Forget its reputation; where would we be without scavengers such as the magpie, to clean up dead critters?