Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 16
TRAGEDY IN NATURE
BENEATH the ancient beeches I came across the body of a kestrel, a male in all the beauty of its nuptial dress. For many weeks I had watched this bird, had heard its cheerful note when it made love to its mate, had seen it circling and wheeling round her, and had admired and wondered at its easy hovering flight when it beat the meadow for food. The nest of the pair was in a hollow timber near by, and probably the eggs were laid; but the keeper had also seen the birds, and now one, widowed, was left to bring up the family. Beneath the nesting tree lay pellets cast up by the birds, fur and small bones of mammals, shining elytra of beetles and other rejectamenta; but they contained no bones of gamebirds, nothing, indeed, to justify the murder. One russet wing was smashed, and there was a cruel shot rent in the neck; but the bright yellow cere, the blue-striped head, the broad banded, widespread tail, and the creamy throat and cheeks were unstained by blood. The yellow legs were drawn up, the claws clenched, the bill half open; fierce to the last, he had died in an attitude of defiance. Of what use had been my arguments that the bird was a farmer's friend, my warning that to slay it was breaking the law? To the keeper it was a hawk, and so must die.
The dead kestrel is but a single example of the daily, hourly destruction that wasteth the animals and plants: one tragedy out of countless thousands. In the broad parkland, where the bird lay, evidences of the ever-present struggle for very existence are ever before us. Here stands a fine old oak, many hundreds of years old, slowly perishing in the strangle-hold of the flourishing ivy; here beneath the sombre fir the grass is withered, robbed of the moisture it craved; there the trailing bramble has invaded and choked abed of hyacinths; there rushes crowded out the blue forget-me-not. Park and woodland are a battlefield.
"But having entered in,
Great growths and small,
Show them to men akin,
Sycamore shoulders oak,
Bines the slim sapling yoke,
Ivy-spun halters choke
Elms stout and tall."
Here lies a rabbit, bitten in the neck by a stoat; there a duckling mallard, torn and mangled by the murderous brown rat. Beside the tussock where the tree pipit has its cosy nest are the callow nestlings, stark and stiff, shouldered out of house and home by that diabolical foster-brother, the infant cuckoo. Nailed on the barn are the fostering, wind-dried, grinning trophies of the keeper's prowess—hawks, owls, jays, magpies, slender stoats and weasels, grey-pated daws and a rook or two, a squirrel, and the tails of sundry domestic cats.
Under the owl roost, the thick ivy on another oak, lie a litter of pellets, larger than those of the kestrel but easier to break up and analyse; these show what destruction goes on amongst the lesser woodland folk when the reeling barn owl makes its rounds. Rat skulls are there—the murderer murdered—jaws and limbs of bank, field, and water vole, house and field mice, shrews galore, even bats mingled with fragments of sparrows and finches, torn in the night watches from their perches. The heron has left an unfinished meal on the margin of the pool, and on the unpicked shoulder of this bream is a deep wound where the spear beak struck; the rail above the outflow stream glistens in the sun, for there the kingfisher beats off the scales of the minnows, its victims. Under the bracken fronds are bleached bones of a fallow fawn, starved during the winter; a ring-dove, struck down but discarded, suggests the passage of a peregrine; a litter of feathers is all that the fox has left to mark the murder of a pheasant. The tail of a chaffinch and a decapitated bunting lie at the foot of the tree where a carrion has a nest; not far away are a brood of young jays, thrown out to perish miserably when a fierce gale overturned the nest.
Man, though the direct or indirect cause of the death of many creatures, plays but a small part in this great tragedy of nature. His interference, except in a few instances, does not lessen or increase the actual death-rate of wild creatures; slaughter for food continues whether he steps in to take a hand or not. When, however, he attempts to regulate the massacre, strives to protect one species from its foes or to wipe another off the face of the land, he causes widespread calamity, for very precise and definite, albeit ruthless, laws regulate birth and death rate in nature. The Balance of Nature—have not the masters of science pointed out what it means again and again? Yet, how readily we forget or ignore their teaching, for the relative abundance of interdependent animals and plants must be, in the long run, a stable quantity. In order that there may be neither increase nor decrease, when we take an average of many generations, it is absolutely necessary that each pair of animals shall produce during their whole lifetime no more nor no less than a couple of offspring to perpetuate the species; the rest, however many see the light of day, must perish childless. Naturally the number varies with regard to individuals; some leave more survivors, some none, and from year to year increase or decrease in the species may be noticed. But when the average results are considered the final doom is always the same—all but two of the hopefuls must go to the wall.
A pair of birds may lay an average of four eggs per year for three years; ten out of twelve produced must have negative results; the young if hatched and reared must never become parents, or if more than the two survive in many of the same species we shall at once have a noticeable increase. A small steady increase in the families descended from one pair of birds will, in a few years' time, mean a vast army; any mathematician can demonstrate that. And what does happen when this occurs? for it does constantly in certain species. Simply this, that the joy and success of one species spells sorrow and failure for others. The supply of victuals, whether animal or vegetable, of each species is not inimitable, and when your successful species gets to grips with others the weaker kinds suffer famine. How often do we deplore the decrease, say, of the woodpecker, the chough, the swallow. Do we ever think that there may be any connection between this and the increases we welcome of sterling, jackdaw, swift? That these particular species mentioned have any interdependence is mere theory, and the whole skein is so ravelled that we cannot disentangle its intricate meshes; but there is connection between all increases and decreases. By no means is it certain that the improved breech-loader explains the absence of the great bustard from our open plains, or that the egg~collector wiped out Savi's warbler and threatens the Kentish plover and Dartford warbler; men, in their greed, help to destroy the struggling species, and there is no excuse for this rapacity; but these were struggling when man took a hand in their final extinction. The red-legged partridge, a hungry alien, the go-ahead reed warbler, the ringed plover, and even the willow wren, may have played a very important part in the competition for food supplies.
The life stories of different creatures are by no means equally easy or equally difficult—generally it is towards the latter quality that the complicated history leads us. Some animals have more enemies than others, some pass through stages which expose them to more varied dangers; indeed, the more complex the life before reaching maturity the less the chance of attaining it. But there is compensation, or none of the weaker brethren could survive; the creature with a simple, shadowed life produces few young, and the required number, a fair proportion of the whole, come to their own; the one with many foes and a long and precarious youth presents the world with an overflowing family. The cod with its two to five million eggs might mourn the death of five million infants and leave its fortune to two and only two; the rest, if it is any satisfaction to it to know, have probably gone to improve the stock of other species, not excluding the cod itself; indeed, it is not at all unlikely that many cod thrive on their own offspring.
The guillemot, on the other hand, a bird which no doubt assists in keeping down the surplus population of the cod, has but to lose a few, perhaps two or three, out of its annual output of one big egg. The mortality of the species is small, yet when we find the storm-battered bodies of this pelagic species thick along the tide line we think more seriously of it than the massacre of the millions of possible cods. Suppose that for a few seasons the cod should have a dearth of enemies, say if some epidemic or other catastrophe overtook the normal feeders on its pelagic eggs and larvae, and a few thousands from each we came to maturity; where would the food be in the overstocked seas for the vast army of hungry cods? Nature, by the simple method of starving the unwanted, would adjust its dislocated balance. And what would happen, any time might happen, to the guillemot if the carrion crow, jackdaw or other egg-snatching species should for a few years increase abnormally? Certainly there would be a rapid depopulation of the crowded ledges of our steepest maritime cliffs.Fluctuations do occur, sometimes through climatic variation, often directly due to human stupidity, or from reasons which we cannot fathom. Suddenly we awake to the fact that the field vole is swarming in some hilly area, that the concourse of starlings is beyond all calculation, that the gamma moth is on every plant, that an army of caterpillars of the antler moth are eating all before them. For two or three seasons the overabundance continues, and we are threatened by a new plague of Egypt. The last serious vole plague happened in Lowland Scotland in 1889-90; grass and herbage were devoured, sheep were starved for want of nourishment. Shepherds and farmers, unable to stop the increase of the little mammal with dog, trap, and poison, appealed pitifully for help, and a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to enquire into the trouble. Some very interesting zoological facts were ascertained; man rose in arms against the rodent; many useless suggestions were mooted, and still the voles increased. The Committee laboured, sent a commission out to Greece to learn what they did when voles troubled them, wrote a very instructive Blue book, and drew fees. But Nature could not wait for Mediterranean steamers to return, and took the matter in hand. Who can explain what happened? Short-eared owls came over in the autumn in greater numbers than had ever previously been known, and fewer returned across the North Sea in spring; they had hit on a land of plenty, and they stopped. They nested and reared double broods, laid larger clutches than usual, and
Nature did not sweep off the superfluous young; for once in a way they were not superfluous. Kestrels passed the message on, rocks swarmed to the field of action and became bloodthirsty mouse eaters. For generations game-preserving man had been fighting against these vermin, and vermin came in hordes, returning good for evil, to feed on vermin. The voles declined, the voles vanished, the tainted fields recovered and clothed themselves with grass, and the enemies of voles, replete, either went back to their own place or in their turn perished.
But a few years ago the papers were full of the ravages of the antler moth; from the Cheviots to the Peak all the uplands swarmed with hungry caterpillars; they devoured the grass on the hillsides and descended in solid, squirming armies to hunt for food. It was a wonderful sight to see the travellers striving to top the rough grit walls, and to note the streams and roadside horse troughs full of their drowned, bloated bodies. Again the Board of Agriculture gave advice, and some effort was made to reduce the plague, but it was the rocks and daws, the partridges and, most of all, the ichneumon flies, which really tackled the problem; the grass came up again, doubtless fertilised by the parasitised corpses of its late enemies; once more Nature was responsible for righting the wrong.
Well known is the American pond weed, choking canals, rivers, and lakes; steady and deadly its increase, sudden its death when it has devoured all the nourishment in the mud and water. Watercress, an introduced plant in New Zealand, has blocked rivers so as to cause floods, and willows have been planted so that their spreading roots may rob the cress of nourishment. By no means can man always call in the correct natural antagonist to stem the torrent of increase which unwise introduction of an alien species often causes. Stoats and weasels sent to Australia to tackle the rabbit problem found the farmers' hen runs easier to loot, and the native fauna stupidly indifferent; rabbits had competed with stoats in the old country; these unsophisticated natives were simple game. Goats on St. Helena enjoyed the native forests, and wiped out countless creatures which these had formerly supported, and in oceanic islands everywhere the omnivorous rat has swept interesting insular forms away, leaving the zoologist irate but impotent.
What is so easy to see where vertebrates are the chief actors is not so evident amongst the lower forms of life, but the great changes, the struggles for the mastery, are just as keen, just as ruthless in result.
Indeed, the wholesale destruction is numerically much greater than amongst vertebrates, and not merely because the smaller try are more abundant. Year by year, if we observe and think, we witness a calamity, a massacre more ruthless than anything in vertebrate economy. What, for instance, happens to the house flies? They annoyed us thoroughly during the summer months; we wished them anywhere but where they were; then autumn came and all vanished. Here and there on wall or window-pane we found one stiff and dead, in attitude of life, but glued to its sarcophagus by the deadly fungus that ate its life away: but we only see a few, millions perish unnoticed. Just enough survive to carry on the race, to repeople the world with winged annoyance. And the aphides, the green fly, which clustered in uncountable crowds on our plants, sucking the life-blood of our cherished roses, our necessary vegetables, our forest trees; the stem mother produced millions of parthenogenetic offspring, generation after generation during the summer. Alarming calculations were issued to warn us what would happen if the garden were neglected; we syringe, we employ all kinds of restraints and preventive methods, but the aphides continue to multiply. Then one day the air is filled with winged aphides, another and different generation has appeared, and we know that the end approaches. A frost, a heavy shower or two, and all our plants are clean; gone is the blight, gone the ladybird, syrphid, and lace-wing larvæ, which fought so bravely for us during the period of abundance. The race is wiped out, suddenly and eﬁectually, but hidden from our eyes is that spark of life in a few dormant individuals which will in spring kindle the prolific ﬂame once more; we have not done with aphides because none is visible.
Faced by such dread facts, by an order that is not only "careless of the single life," but apparently careless of life altogether. Siddartha might well be saddened when he marked—
"How lizard fed on ant, and snake on him,
And kite on both; and how the fish-hawk robbed
The fish-tiger of that which it had seized;
The shrike chasing the bulbul, which did hunt
The jewelled butterflies; till everywhere
Each slew a slayer and in turn was slain,
Life living upon death. So the fair show
Veiled one vast, savage, grim conspiracy
Of mutual murder, from the worm to man,
Who himself kills his fellow."
But is this the whole truth? Is life one great tragedy in "a world of plunder and prey"? Had not Buddha, but a moment before, rejoiced that—
"All the jungle laughed with nesting-songs,
And all the thickets rustled with small life
Of lizard, bee, beetle, and creeping things
Pleased at the spring-time."
This first contemplation, when "all things spoke peace and plenty," was as true a picture as the second. Few wild creatures perish in decline, die of old age; sudden, often violent death terminates their short lives; ordinary disease is rare, though parasitical disease, in which some other organism benefits, is commoner. And so long as there is life and health there is every indication that those possessing it find enjoyment and pleasure in the possession. Each animal to exist at all must be alert and fit, ever watchful to avoid danger, ever quick and strong to overcome an adversary or obtain a victim. But fear, as we understand it, is absent; the weaker creature watches for danger, but has no apprehension; the alertness is not merely instinctive but largely reflex. The quickest to act without waste of time for thought is the one which survives and leaves progeny; the weakling goes to the wall.The heedless butterfly, flitting from flower to flower, bent on pure animal satisfaction, for it does not need the sweets it sips, dodges the onslaught of the shrike, and at once continues its hunt for pleasure. The young lapwing crouches when the peregrine's shadow crosses the moor, but continues to feed immediately the terror has departed. The whitethroat, which dived into the hedge when the sparrowhawk swooped, sings again whilst the hunter chases another possible victim. The mouse, which froze when the owl reeled past, attends to its ablutions immediately the coast is clear. All these avoid the danger, but are not unnerved; they do not think beforehand about what may happen; they brood not on the terrors of the past. If we watch the play of animals, listen to the singing of birds, observe the busy hunt for material satisfaction of the insects, we see no suggestion of fear or misery; their alertness is hardly uneasy, though if the hare is startled or the bird's nest threatened there are certain indications of anxiety—in the one case uncertainty about where and when to escape, in the second a parental attachment to property. Immediately the animal realises that it or its home is no longer endangered it appears by its behaviour to again enjoy the
fullness of life. Indeed, that is what the healthy animal does, enjoys all that life means to it; care, anxiety, apprehension, fear, as we understand them, have no place in its economy. Tragedy and death are all around, but they mean nothing to the creature which has no fear of extinction, but is simply conscious that it exists and that its existence consists in satisfying its immediate needs.