We Love The Jerk?
by Jeff Gordon
"He’s a no good so and so, but she’ll never let him go / Though she knows it will never work, she loves the jerk / She loves the jerk."
--John Hiatt, "She Loves The Jerk"
A friend of mine once observed that we often admire qualities in birds that we find irritating or even abhorrent in people. She was thinking in particular of the Great Kiskadee, a spectacular flycatcher whose garish dress and loudmouthedness she compared to a stereotypical used car salesman. Love it in the bird, hate it in the human. She was joking, of course. Mostly.
In a parallel but more serious vein, I was really struck by the juxtaposition of two blog posts yesterday about Snowy Owls and the trials they have faced this winter as so many have come south: Ted Eubanks' here on the ABA blog and Greg Neise's at the North American Birding Blog.
They're both great posts, well-crafted and thought-provoking, and I find myself largely in agreement with the sentiments expressed in both of them. But I can't help feeling there's a double standard at play so extreme that it demands some careful consideration. Not so much in the posts themselves, but in the responses they've gotten.
Greg's story of the Peregrine/Snowy encounter was greeted with comments like this:
"that was incredible, oh to have just one of these encounters, lucky ducks!"
"Whoa. Totally awesome to see. I'm glad they got photos to share with the rest of us. Wow, wow, wow!"
While the video of the owl being flushed that Ted links to inspires such disgust in cyberthrush that he suggests that, "... this guy should have a scarlet letter 'J' tatooed directly to his forehead," recalling both the extreme social ostracism of The Scarlet Letter as well as Brad Pitt's punishment for captured Nazis in Inglourious Basterds. And cyberthrush isn't alone in his outrage. The internet has been groaning with the cries of birders protesting the flushing of Snowies, as any recent reader of the New York Birding List can attest.
In short, when a birder/photographer harasses a Snowy Owl, oafishly flushing it once, we're ready to light the torches and grab the pitch forks. But when a Peregrine Falcon mercilessly strafes a Snowy Owl again and again for five minutes, "...we [are] happy just to witness one of nature's greatest gifts."
I'm not suggesting that one set of these reactions is wrong and the other right. But the differences sure are striking.
Of course, I get it. It feels vastly different seeing a human clumsily and needlessly flush a bird versus watching a Peregrine use its consummate aeronautic skills to force one to throw its talons in the the air in self-defense again and again, even if the latter is surely far, far, far more stressful for the owl involved. If I myself were present at the events videotaped at Boundary Bay and photographed at the Chicago Lakefront, I'd certainly have been indignant at the former and exhilirated by the latter. My question is, why? And what, if anything, should we do about it?
I would say up front that I find the oft-expressed view that one is, "natural," and the other is not to be deeply unsatisfying.
But I am also more than willing to concede that our capacity for ethics places somewhat different obligations on us than on our fellow species. We won't get far with an ABA Code of Ethics for Peregrines. And yet I think that document is one of the ABA's most important contributions for birders.
And what human can say that Peregrines don't have Peregrine ethics? Ethics which may demand that they test the mettle of a potential rival and/or prey item?
And an ethical sense isn't the only difference, of course. If Homo sapiens had just been removed from the Endangered Species list, having been put in jeopardy by the activities of several billion Falco peregrinus, well, that would be a different world from the one in which we all live.
So I'm offering it up for discussion. Take a look at Greg's post and at Ted's post. Watch the YouTube video. Why does one owl incident make us shake with joyous excitement and another with rage?
And when you do encounter situations that call for action, such as birders or others behaving badly, I certainly encourage you to address them, confidently and, one hopes, effectively. But I encourage you to do so with a certain measure of understanding, even empathy. This planet is a hard place for all the life that inhabits it. That would be so with or without human beings. We've all been jerks at times and we've all flown with the angels at others. Let's help each other spend more and more time aloft.