A letter to the broken hearted nest observer

Breeding season is often a hard time for the tender hearted among us. The joy of watching an animal construct a nest just to see their efforts cut short by predation is painful. Likewise, finding a dead chick is tough, and prompts many to ask how they could have prevented such loss and better protected them.

I appreciate the people that bring me these questions so much. That care so deeply they would put in the effort to seek out these answers from a scientist and spend their time doing what I suggest. These are good people.

But whether you’re asking how to protect birds from crows, or crows from other animals, my answer is always the same. As hard as it is to watch animals get eaten, it’s vital to remember that predation is what keeps wildlife wild. It’s what keeps ecosystems complex & beautiful.

When we get into the business of deciding that (native, natural) predators are bad, and attempt to take action against them, we are denying the very wildlife we want to thrive from facets of their identity that make them who they are. Prey communities are shaped by the predators that have historically hunted them, and vice versa. Whether it’s how cryptic the chick’s color pattern is, how many eggs the female lays, where they build their nests…not one corner goes untouched. It’s this very process that has made something so beautiful that we can’t stand to see it harmed. But for communities to function that death is essential.

Predation is the transfer of life and that life is a gift. It’s a gift that ensures the survival of another, and even if we don’t know that individual as well as the one we watched perish, it’s not for us to assert that it, or its offspring, deserves that gift any less.

On the other hand, finding a dead, otherwise unharmed, chick can feel less…purposeful. “Why was it out of the nest so early?” “I read to leave it alone and it died anyway…should I have stepped in?” “I feel so bad I couldn’t save it!”…These are common responses.

But while it’s true that baby birds do sometimes (rarely) accidentally get kicked out of the nest, it’s also true that it’s not always an accident.

Sometimes parents simply reject offspring for reasons that are not for us to know. And that is okay. Part of honoring their wildness is accepting that they know more than us about their own lives, and that if they choose to not to support a chick they have a reason. There are exceptions of course in cases of conservation concerns, but for most backyard circumstances it is okay to accept their choice without interfering. Even if it hurts.

So please, rather than shutting down those deep feeling you have for wildlife by intervening, lean into them. Teach your friends and neighbors and children to feel those deep feelings. Because it’s from that space that we can do best by wildlife, even if it’s the kind red in tooth and talon.

It’s from there that we can grow a culture of care and empathy that shows us that nature is a community and by thinking first of community and not of the individual, can we have the broadest reach. That planting native vegetation, and keeping cats indoors, and fighting to protect land and water, is the way to love wildlife. Not by choosing who deserves to eat and who does not.


Filed under Birding, Breeding, crow conflicts, Death, Ecosystem, Wildlife

32 responses to “A letter to the broken hearted nest observer

  1. Carolyn

    Thank you for a well timed post. Just yesterday, I watched a crow systematically harass a breeding pair who valiantly fought to protect their young until the fledglings were forced out of the nest and one was neatly snatched up midair by the crow. It was fascinating, diabolical and beautiful all at the same time. One of the fledglings flew down and sat completely motionless on a low pebbled concrete wall – perfectly camouflaged. That one made it.

  2. Doro

    Wow. That’s utterly poetic, and profound.Thanks for saying it right on.

  3. Marcia Truman

    This was a great observation about the circle of life, thank you. 😊

  4. Thank you for such a powerful article. It must be extremely difficult to watch a young bird perish and know it’s for the best, but only in ways we can’t understand. I’m reminded of a case some years back in Colorado. A great horned owl kept pushing her three chicks out of the nest and kind-hearted people kept putting them back, only to have them kicked out again. Finally the chicks were taken to a raptor rehabilitator and discovered that all three of the chicks were deaf. Which isn’t good for any bird, but especially for an owl. And somehow, the mother must have known something was wrong.

  5. Steve

    That was an excellent read. Thank you. A few months ago, I observed a group of crows harassing a Great Horned Owl owlet on the ground that was unable to fly and was not being defended by the adults. It disappeared into the brush and I don’t know if it survived or not. The crows were relentless at giving the owls absolutely no peace whatsoever because the owls took over their nest in January. Quite a show out back for a while and the nest has deteriorated, but at least two of three owlets survived. I love the crows and they’re still on the corner of my roof almost daily letting me know I’m not quick enough with their peanuts!

  6. ziviome

    Appreciative and grateful for such a clearly and compassionately written post! The compassion portion for us fellow human beings — as you said, the animals know what they need to do. My usual inelegant explanation to others is, “everyone’s gotta eat!” I think I’ll give them yours in the future.

  7. beaarthurmiller

    It’s been a rough week or so at the nest in my backyard and I have a hard time not overthinking it. I desperately needed this, thank you so much.

  8. Anastasia

    A poignant and compassionate post. I feel seen and soothed. The truth of your words resonates deeply and acceptance follows. Thank you for taking the time to give us this perspective – beautifully stated.

  9. Kristen Merrell

    Such a lovely post.
    As the refrain goes, nature is as beautiful as it is cruel. However, it’s all about the perception. All creatures seek to thrive; to eat, feed and care for their offspring. There is no malice or forethought involved. It is simply about survival.

  10. Carole Spain

    Thank you for this! After identifying a black-cap chickadee fledgling, my daughter and I were horrified to watch a Stellar Jay make off with it one minute later. Jays are now known as ‘Murder Birds’ in our backyard. This article gives me in a different perspective on the event – maybe I’ll go back to liking Jays again!

  11. Barbara Kimm

    What a beautiful essay. Thank you.

  12. Rosemary Sarka

    My crow family is now six, with two youngsters currently squawking incessantly for food. I hope that by feeding them I am not making them dependent. I so enjoy their company. Smaller birds do not seem to be deterred from cleaning up the crumbs.

  13. Ellen

    There is unfortunately no more balance in nature. People have intervened. We have killed off species and introduced foreign species. The birds are dying. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is here. We are spraying pesticides everywhere, so there’s not enough insects to eat. The bees and bats are disappearing. People decide every day which animal lives and which one dies. At the same time the geese are increasing in large numbers so that most of our parks here in Vancouver and beaches are fouled by geese droppings. Last year people culled the coyotes because they were biting people in Stanley Park. With the coyotes dead maybe we have too many raccoons now and they are eating all the baby crows.

    • Hi Ellen, I hear your sense of despair. I recently read that white nose syndrome had arrived in Idaho and having worked previously with bats in the mid-west and I know what this means. I see cause for alarm, even despair, everyday. But while I myself get into cycles of doom we must resist throwing our hands up. Things are…not great but there is still so much we have the power to do. And we have to remember that there IS a path where its not Nature and People. There’s a path where people, being the animals we are, are actually part of nature, where we can live in reciprocity even if we live in lighted homes and need to go to jobs. It’s not up to the individual to solve this on a global scale of course. Start with yourself. What changes can you make to make your home more inviting for native bees? How about installing bat boxes? Are there public lands in Vancouver that would benefit from bat boxes that you could bring to your city council? How about joining the group (headed by Jacqui Birchal, I believe) whose mission it is to change the culture of wildlife feeding at Stanley park…which is what’s responsible for both the inflated numbers of mesocarnivores like raccoons and coyotes and their aggression? I sincerely hope these suggestions don’t come across like shaming, “well if you’re not dedicating your life to this you have no right to complain” kind of thing. It’s not up to individuals to course correct the exploitative nature of our current society. But there are things that you can do that have measurable, local impacts. And I just know that when I feel stints of hopelessness, I am way less likely to actually take action than when I am feeling more hopeful. So please, do not give up. As one final example let me share with you the story of the Tinian monarch, the bird I am currently working on. In the past century there’s only been one, 39 square mile island they have lived on. (For reference, Vancouver is 12,000 square miles). In the early 20th century the entirety of the island was leveled for farming. Literally. Maybe 5% of the native forest was left. Then WWII hit. The island was relentlessly bombed by US and Japanese forced as they fought for control. Cats and rats were introduced. There’s probably 2-5 rats per ha on Tinian, as a low estimate. And they eat monarchs, let me tell you. This bird should be gone. Snuffed out. Gone the way of the Guam rail or the Micronesian kingfisher. And yet, they are not. There’s lots. There’s a pair breeding in my backyard right now. Somehow this rare, island specialists has survived the most destructive forces colonialism has thrown at it. That the Micronesian kingfisher did not pull through is devastating. It makes me want to give up. But then I look to the monarch and I see that while we have irreparably changed things, all is NOT lost. And we must fight for what is left.

  14. I have hawk friends and dove friends, and it’s so hard when friends eat friends.

  15. While I get the gist of this post, I must differ. While in some more wild locations, “prey communities are shaped by the predators that have historically hunted them,” that is not really correct for our urban and human-dominated rural areas. Today’s prey species of birds, especially our songbirds, face a gauntlet of threats their forebears never did. We all know those are. But, we should acknowledge that our predator species in many locations are able to proliferate to population numbers that historically our prey bird species never had to contend with. Our corvids today thrive in the urban scene from garbage, handouts, and finds. As do other predators, like raccoons. They also do not have the predators they would in a wild setting. So, corvid populations are soaring is some places. Studies of robins in Urban centers with high crow populations show a nesting success of as low as 5% or zero. There is virtually nothing “natural” about that. The ecological ethics for today should fit this new world. As a songbird rehabilitator I can attest to all of the threats and poor nesting success of many of our urban and rural songbirds. Our native songbirds need more help, not less.

    • Thank you for your response Elise, I always appreciate an opportunity to think critically of my work. It’s absolutely true that suburbia has created novel environments which have presented new challenges for urban-adaptors (like robins and chickadees i.e. “backyard birds”) and urban exploiters (crows, raccoons, coyotes, etc.). But your assertion that the way to manage this is put a stop to depredation by native predators isn’t backed by the data. I suspect the paper you are referring to is the 2017 Malpass study. The key detail of that paper though was that they were artificially inflating predator communities by putting out more bird feeders in neighborhoods than were being put out by residents. They found that in cases where feeders were high and crows were high robin success could be as little as 1%. But this relationship was so complex with predation being inconsistent from year to despite consistent food abundance that overall that they weren’t actually able to make strong inferences about trends. And again, they only found that trend when there were high crows AND high bird feeders, not just one or the other. So the solution suggested by that is to reduce bird feeders, not predators. Likewise, a 2007 (Marzluff et al.) study looking specifically at the relationship between nest predators (crows, jays and squirrels) and songbirds (robins, flycatchers, towhees, juncos, wrens etc.) in suburban neighborhoods did not find that predators had a strong influence on nest success or community structure. That crows and raccoons lack the predators they would in “wild” settings simply isn’t true. For example, downtown NY has the highest density of peregrine falcons anywhere in the US. Just as urban centers are great for omnivorous predators they can also be excellent for larger avian specialists. And don’t forget that the crows and jays must also contend with the kind of novel threats not address in my article (cars, cats, windows, poison, the arrival of west nile which is unusually lethal for crows, etc.) that other birds must too. I don’t mean that good community structure is implied in any suburban or urban setting, of course. It takes exactly the kind of thoughtful mind towards ecological ethics that you speak (if you haven’t already, check out resources on “Built Environmental Strategies” I think this field will appeal to you!). In other, words in cities that are putting an emphasis on designs that work with wildlife we see those fruits, but of course not all of them do. It may be that you live in a community where that has not been made a broader priority, and that IS a problem for which I am so grateful you have this much passion! If your take away from my article was that we should be helping songbirds less, that saddens me and I’ll think on how I can better emphasize that moving forward. Rather, my point was /where/ that effort should be placed. Clearly, urban centers can be made into well functioning communities. But we don’t get there by shoeing away each crow or squirrel we see “sniffing” around the yard during breeding season. We get there by thinking critically about how we can shape our backyards, neighborhoods, and cities to best support whole wildlife communities. And that starts with rethinking our aesthetics (less grass more native trees and other plants), taking more responsibility for our pets and introduced predators, and showing up to fight for land and water.

      • Thank you for the thoughtful response. I did not say anything about reducing predator populations. I was simply advocating for songbirds. There are rehabilitation centers across the country whose focus is raptors, though they call themselves “all species.” Yet, a common infographic used is one that advises most baby birds in distress be left, not taken in. This practice reflects the predator preference for the species most similar to us and most charismatic. In defence, the claim that ‘nature is taking its course’ is used. In Portland, OR there are so many crows – not because of feeders – and very poor robin success. I have studied environmental ethics and am trained in environmental rhetoric. Marzluff was in error in that study, there were numerous methodological problems in it. Our biggest problem with avian research is the tendency to extrapolate findings to other regions, locations, and species. His work may be relevant in Seattle, but it fails in other regions. When all of us older songbird rehabbers finally retire and grow too old to do what we do, there will be little help for these fragile beings. Very few want to spend a 96 hour work week caring for a kinglet or even a robin. If we do not now start to change the societal threads that influence behavior and our care for the least of our species, we will come to a time when we have few resources for them. Finally, I admire the corvids, but I would put a boreal chickadee up against one any day in terms of intelligence, memory, and survival skills. Just saying….:)

      • Thank for your response Elise. I suppose I’ll simply say that we are both advocating for non-corvid songbirds in different ways I suppose. As my training is not in environmental ethics but rather avian ecology I’ll offer that I disagree with your assessments on all other fronts. There are many studies from all over the world looking at the impacts of crows in suburban neighborhoods, not just that study. As for boreal chickadees…having worked an lived in interior Alaska I’m quite fond and impressed with their tenacity and caching skills. But it’s not a contest. I appreciate the work you do, however!

  16. Cheryl

    Thank you for this article. I worry about our wildlife sometimes. This article let me know it’s okay to let mother nature take it’s course. And that I am not alone when I feel worried about animals.

    • It is important to be worried Cheryl, and you’re certainly not the only one! But what to do with that worry, how best to put it into action for the benefit of birds, is the question at heart here.

  17. Tom Kubica

    Very good write up. On some of the local birdwatching sites on Facebook, a frequent question is what to do about cowbird eggs. The responses range from leave them alone to some deciding to be “nice” and protect the host nest by suggesting oiling the cowbird eggs to prevent them from hatching. Often times the Admins of the sites will shut things down after a time and also remind people that it is not legal to disrupt or destroy the eggs.
    Meaning well doesn’t mean it is the correct thing to do.
    Thank you for an informative article.

  18. Debra Ann Duguid

    This is so true, a lot of us think that we know best when in reality the parents know what’s best. And we should stay out of it. That’s the way I was taught, and that makes the most common sense to me.

  19. A. Dexter Chapin

    Tough, but thank you. I understand everything you write is correct. But still it is hard to watch and see. I am grateful for a well written reminder.

  20. Margie Robison

    I love your article and could not agree with you more. Perhaps you meant to write *facets* instead of *faucets* though.
    You phrased everything so well besides that one error..

    • Thanks Margie, you win the prize for being the first to find the “inevitable silly typo/error that is somewhere in this post, God help me”. I made the correction. Thanks for being kind in your revealing of it.

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    I know exactly what you meant, there was a nest with babies birds on my balcony light and one night before the rain it was so windy and knocked the nest out on the balcony wooden floor and 5 little babies birds died instantly..( I found this in the next morning )
    I gathered all of them back on the next and placed it in the box and buried in my backyard.. this was bothering me for weeks

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