Jack ThumbnailBy Jack McShane

Many may not realize it but nature is, when observed closely, an environment of what could be called a continuous battle: fighting, harassing, predation and territorial conflict. These scenarios are played out usually under cover of the tree canopy and the dense forest cover and are not intrinsically evil, for this is how nature moves forward.

How many have observed two whitetail bucks clash in an earnest attempt to cow if not severely injure a sexual competitor? I do not mean the almost playful sparring of yearlings as they attempt to structure the hierarchy before it becomes worse, where death or serious injury might occur. Only once in all my time spent in the forest have I witnessed such an event and it was spectacular if not a little scary, as I was on the ground and not safely ensconced in a tree stand. I was doing some pre-season scouting when I heard the first clash of antlers and immediately knew what was occurring. I quickly, if somewhat foolishly, moved in the direction of the battle and suddenly found myself within thirty yards of the seriously battling bucks. They were so intent on winning this very serious combat that they never noticed my presence. As they continued to push each other to their knees I realized that I could find myself in the midst of the ever-moving scramble so I edged over to get behind a large oak tree. The pitched battle continued for about ten minutes, when suddenly they separated. The larger, an eight pointer and the bigger bodied, stared at the smaller, also an eight pointer, which in deference and apparent submission refused to make eye contact. Dominance by the larger was accepted by the two combatants without further conflict or injury. At this point the smaller of the two spotted me and both were gone in a flash. A good location for a hunting stand and luck being what it is, neither trophy was seen again.

Predation, another cause of much conflict in the natural world, is necessary for the survival of the predators and population control of the prey. We humans tend to root for the prey and delight when the predator is unsuccessful; this is our nature. A shrieking vole captured by a short tailed weasel caught my attention once and I immediately spooked the weasel into dropping the vole which scampered off to safety. Only then did I realize that I had just saved one of the damned critters that were girdling my apple trees. This was, I guess, what might be called a non-thinking, knee-jerk reaction caused by our somewhat unique human capacity for empathy.  So be it.

Prey creatures are very aware of just who the predator guys are, and this is very noticeable among our avian friends. Birds know who the bad guys are even though they may be similar in size and color. A perfect example is the recognition of the very rare northern shrike, which is about the size of an oriole but gray in color with a hooked beak used to kill and tear apart its small bird or other prey. Just about every chickadee in the vicinity of a northern shrike knows he is present as the word is passed by excited verbalizations. Sometimes the opposite occurs: I was once perched in a tree stand enjoying the bird activity when suddenly all bird chatter ceased and the local white breasted nuthatch that had been chirping merrily tucked himself safely under a large branch and remained motionless and quiet. There was total silence as a sharp-shinned hawk landed in an adjoining tree.

This unusual silence and lack of any activity lasted until the hawk decided to move on to a more bountiful place.

Just recently I witnessed a really phenomenal show of nature’s beauty during a short harassment scenario. Peering out my kitchen window I saw two male kingbirds acting in an agitated manner; they were excited and diving at something below. I adjusted my viewing position and there was a large raven strutting in what appeared to be a rather noble manner and totally ignoring his harassers. The kingbirds were quickly joined by a numerous and diverse team of harassers. The team, along with the two kingbirds included one purple grackle, two red-winged black birds, and, believe it or not, four Baltimore orioles, all of which were males of their respective species. This marauding, dive- bombing, aerial combat team caused what appeared to be of very little concern to the raven. He would occasionally look up from his nonchalant foraging when a harasser got close, but took no defensive action as none of the harassers had the temerity to actually make body contact. The red-winged blackbirds with their blazing red epaulets in full aggressive display, the orioles with their brilliant orange in full glow, the kingbirds with their white-trimmed tails in full display and finally the purple iridescence of the grackle was apparently an adequate multi-colored display of aggression for the raven as he nonchalantly lofted himself into the aerosphere. The show over, the players moved on, and calm prevailed. No death or injury on battlefield nature, at least this time. ~