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.