American Birding Podcast



Life Just Is

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,

I really love to watch them roll…John Lennon
Snowy Owl face, Fremont, NE, 13 Jan 12 by Ted Lee Eubanks

Most years the wheels roll smoothly. Flowers bloom and die. Trees bud and leaves fall. Birds arrive and depart. This relentless force, life, slouches forward.

I understand why people credit this force to a god. From a distance life appears ordered, even planned. From a distance life is perfect. From a distance the earth is a big blue marble.

Naturalists do not view life from a distance. We see life intimately. From our vantage point life is messy and disordered. We see the chaos that disarrays the perfection. We know that life is a crap shoot, a game with losers and winners. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers threw snake-eyes. They lost. Eskimo Curlews crapped out as well. Yes, both were cheated by man, but life without a god, without a judge, is without right or wrong. Life isn’t just; life just is.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise…Aldo Leopold

Snowy Owls are on the fly this winter. Normally they stay to the north, away from the densely inhabited regions of North America. I regularly see snowies in North Dakota, for example, in out-of –the-way places such as Bottineau, in the Turtle Mountains and the Red River Valley, and around Icelandic State Park and the Pembina Gorge. Snowies are safe in the North Dakota void. Snowy Owls cruise the vast lane.

Life in the Vast Lane by Ted Lee Eubanks

This winter, however, Snowy Owls are careening farther south. People are speculating that an abundant lemming population spawned an unusually prolific breeding season this summer. This profusion of young birds has forced many to the south in search of food. Now snowies are appearing where there are people, where there are risks.

I use the word careen purposefully. Snowy Owls are magnificent creatures, but they are ham-fisted (or ham-winged) migrants. The young birds are wholly unprepared for the challenges they face. They are shot, winged, clipped, crashed, broken, and starved. One snowy made it to the Hawaiian Islands, only to be capped along the airport runway where it chose to winter (snowy owls are terrorists?). Owls are attracted by the light poles and mowed grass along highways, with predictable results.

Even if these birds avoid the multitude of threats that comes from being close to man, they still face the most significant (and in many cases insurmountable) challenge of the season – food. There is none. The corn fields of Nebraska are hardly burgeoning with vermin awaiting a predator. In early January I drove the back roads west of Lincoln. In about four hours I managed to see no more than 20 Red-tailed Hawks and one Northern Shrike. The miles after endless miles of corn stubble were predator-less. For an owl that eats lemmings like potato chips, exactly what’s for supper?

The Birds of North America challenges this assumption, though. According the the BNA,

Many Snowy Owls that move southward from arctic regions are mistakenly assumed to die from starvation. Although this may prove to be the case during irruptive migrations of young in western and eastern sections of North America, there is no evidence that this is so in the N. Great Plains. In Alberta, 45% of the specimens examined had moderate to heavy fat deposits, and traumatic injuries were the major cause of mortality (Kerlinger and Lein 1988a). Causes of death or injury were collisions with unknown objects (46.5%), automobiles (14.1%), utility lines (4.2%) and airplanes (1.4%); also gunshot wounds (12.7%), electrocution (5.6%), fishing tackle (1.4%). Only 14.1% was believed due to starvation. Even as far south as Kansas, a Snowy Owl fed on rodents at a lumberyard for nearly a month before being accidentally electrocuted (Parmelee 1972). Gross (1947) inferred that individuals seen far from land at sea never live to return, but this is a moot question, difficult to resolve.

Snowy Owl (3) (800), Fremont, NE by Ted Lee Eubanks, 13 Jan 2012

Contrast this with the Texas coast. The central coast (Calhoun County, for example) is awash in hawks this year. The drought in interior Texas has no doubt pushed many birds to the grasslands that border the shore. Where there are small mammals there are small mammal eaters. Where in a day along the Texas coast I have counted as many as 400 hawks in the winter, in Nebraska I might see a dozen or two in the same distance.

The owls do not know this, however. Snowy Owls rarely venture as far south as the Texas Panhandle, never mind the coast. I suspect that they wander south to an area that looks somewhat familiar (plowed fields look vaguely like tundra, I guess). But if that corn field, highway shoulder, or airport runway lacks the prey that might get them though the winter, they starve.

Too many young owls made it through the summer, and now the population will be brought back into check. If too many Snow Geese survive the winter in waterfowl refuges, they will damage the tundra where they nest and there will be a reckoning. If feedlots support too many Brown-headed Cowbirds, Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers will pay the price.

There is a balance, just not one ordained. There is equilibrium, one that is the product of billions upon billions of organisms scraping to survive and reproduce. If one peg edges up from its hole, the others will hammer it in. Shoot too many Passenger Pigeons, and they will go away forever. Allow Brazilian peppertree to become established along a coast, and native grasslands and marshes will be displaced. Create ideal goose habitat in urban parks, and you will be blessed with Canada Geese out the wazoo.

Snowy Ow 600l, Fremont, NE, 13 Jan 2012 by Ted Lee Eubanks

There is something Newtonian about such a process, isn’t there? Newton’s Third Law states that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Often we see the action (the Snowy Owl irruption), but ignore the impacts. For example, does a wintering Snowy Owl displace the Red-tailed Hawk that wintered in that field last year? Does the Townsend’s Solitaire wintering near Corpus Christi accelerate the sprawl of Brazilian peppertree by spreading the fruits that it eats? Do the birders attracted to these rare birds inflict their own wounds?

Does it matter? Do we care? As long as the peppertree attracts birds (a strategy that it has perfected), it will have its human defenders and continue to thrive. The eucalyptus in California and the Mute Swans in your neighborhood park have their defenders as well. Our longing to see a Snowy Owl, I suspect, will trump the knowledge that most will not make it past the winter.

We cannot claim that we do not know the reactions that correspond to our actions. If man sucks the last drop of oil, spews the last cubic foot of gas, and gouges the last clump of coal from this planet, it will not be because we didn’t know better. If the planet warms to a moment when Snowy Owls no longer irrupt south, it will not be because of ignorance. It will be precisely because we did know yet didn’t care. Man isn’t ignorant. Man is indifferent.

And it will not matter. As with Snowy Owls, there will be a reckoning, just not one of a god’s choosing. Choose whichever god you will; I respect them all. But let’s not ascribe to a god that which is due to man’s action, man’s greed.

Life isn’t just; life just is. We make of it what we will.

Snowy Owl, Fremont, NE, 13 Jan 2012, by Ted Lee Eubanks