When Nature Is Better Behaved Than We Are

By: Mary Richmond

Sometimes when we observe nature we see things that seem surprisingly disorderly, even disruptive. After watching cute little chickadees for years, one day I witnessed one trying to kill another. It was spring, hormones were probably running high and these two birds were fighting so fiercely I was sure they were fighting to the death. One bird had the other on the ground on its back and was pounding on it while simultaneously beating it with its wings.

It was shocking. In the end, the bird being beat up on did survive but it took a while to regain its balance and even longer to regain its dignity. I have since learned that such behavior, while not the norm, is seen often enough that chickadees are described as being seriously pugnacious by some ornithologists.

More often in nature animals make a big fuss, posturing and even screaming at each other, but this only lasts a few minutes, often just a few seconds. They do more of a mock fight than an actual fight. One backs down and the other slinks off. Most of this behavior occurs around territory and mating disputes. If you’ve been out and about in nature this past week you’ve probably seen more than a few skirmishes as our newly arrived migrants establish territory and nests.

Interestingly, birds of the same kind fight way more often than birds of different species. It is not unusual to see a male cardinal keeping the area clear of other male cardinals while allowing catbirds, chickadees, mockingbirds and even blue jays to forage and set up housekeeping in its claimed territory. It doesn’t see these other birds as a threat to its mate and during mating and nesting season, there is usually plenty of food to go around.

Predatory behavior is in a separate and different category. Predation is necessary for survival and isn’t about bickering and establishing dominance, just straight on killing and eating or delivering to the young for eating. It is often silent, quick and without much conflict.

Quarantine fatigue has been the catch phrase of this week, and I think we all know what it means and looks like. It isn’t always pretty. In fact, the appallingly rude and obnoxious behavior of some of my fellow humans has me more than a little concerned about our upcoming summer. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a free for all of screaming and threatening humans at area beaches and restaurants like flocks of crows attacking a hawk just doing its job. A year ago, this would have seemed unimaginable.

Like everyone else, I’m a little tired of being home all the time. I’m having groceries and other necessities delivered and I filled up my car’s tank with gas this week for the first time in eight weeks. My hair is long and out of control, as is my husband’s, and my pets are eyeing us some days as if we are infringing on their privacy. They’re right, we are. And to be fair, I’m a little tired of them following me in and out of every room, too.

This does not mean I get to go out and yell at my fellow humans because I have to stand in line and wait. My homemade mask is probably just as uncomfortable and hot as anyone else’s but y’know what? I’m not an ICU nurse in full protective gear all day long working a grueling shift with really sick patients. I’m waiting to buy orange juice and dog biscuits. I can do this without losing my temper. And, if I feel super cranky? I’ll stay home. I’m a grownup but I still remember my mother’s rules from when I was a kindergartner. If I couldn’t say something nice, I wasn’t to say anything at all. If I was going to be a cranky brat, she would suggest I go run around outside or take a nap until I felt better. I’m pretty sure those same rules still apply.

So as summer comes barreling down the highway looking unlike any summer we’ve ever known, it’s time to put on our big boy and big girl pants and behave like the kind, generous, caring people I know we are.

And remember, when you’re at a shop or restaurant or beach, the people who work there are always the dominant animal, no matter how old or small they may be. It’s their place, not yours. You might make a stink, but in the end, they win, they make the rules. You can choose to participate or not, that’s your choice, but please leave your cranky pants at home. If you can’t be patient and tolerant, go chop some wood, weed a garden patch or run around the neighborhood until you can. Leave the people trying to do their jobs and following the rules alone. Don’t be that bully chickadee.

It’s beautiful outside, so go plant some flowers, take long walks, take a nap out in the backyard. Put out some orange halves for the orioles and sign up to buy veggies from a local farmer. We will get through this, but we will have to do it together.