Every single thing could teach us through its life and death
if only we could watch and listen.
I wish it were otherwise, but most of the birds that visit my yard only stay for a few seconds. Then they fly away, where they may capture the attention of another human who, like me, is all eyes and ears at the sight or sound of them. The black-capped chickadees and the American goldfinches chase each other through the branches of the blossoming pear tree and impart sweetness to the soundscape with their calls and songs. The sweetness is both momentary and of days long past. Though the cedar waxwings are mostly gone now, north to Canada to their summer range, all throughout winter and into early spring I would often hear and then see thirty or more birds sitting in my neighbor’s berry tree, where they would join in a chorus of high, thin whistles that are almost beyond my hearing. Like other birds that flock together, the waxwings use these contact calls to stay in touch and retain group coherence. Now it is summer and the robins have taken their place. These abundant, but no less remarkable thrushes start singing each morning two hours before sunrise, when the stars shine dimly through a pollution of light and ozone, the world is still asleep, and the robins’ songs carry far on the empty air. I open the window in the room where I am writing so their sounds will drift in and fill me with joy and melancholy because I can never seem to have one without the other. Life is electric and ephemeral and on days like this it takes everything I have to live with the fact. I am grateful for the birds because they help in their way.
Sometimes I catch a sharp-shinned hawk gliding overhead, ready to bring quick death to the sparrows and starlings. She hunts during twilight so that her sleek form casts no shadow and offers no warning. If she is hungry enough, she might eat her kill on the spot. Or she will fly back to her nest and offer the flesh to the gaping mouths of her young. The sharp-shinned is a recluse that builds its nest as far from human disturbance as possible, but the magpies are not nearly as cautious. They inhabit my apple and blue spruce trees and raise their chicks in one or the other each year. Theirs are not the subtle and delicate, fine woven nests of hummingbirds or even of robins, but instead are massive heaps of sharp dead sticks, which reveal no apparent way in or way out. One wonders if this rough, seemingly impenetrable quality is what deters would-be robbers, such as those low flying shadows, the crows. But why bother with the magpies when the sparrows’ young are easier pickings? Against the determination of a hungry crow or magpie, the sparrows have little chance of protecting their offspring. All they can do is perch nearby, chatter in alarm, and watch as their young are yanked from the nest like tea bags of meat. I see way too little of the lives of birds, of most animals, but once in a while these fleeting passersby slow down, and I get my wish to witness more of their comings and goings.
Few sights are as unsettling as a dying animal, human or otherwise, and with good reason: Each passing thing is a preview and reminder of what awaits us. So pay attention, afterlifers! Even you for whom the body is a husk to be cast aside will participate in death. The idea of stripping stars from their beds is more comprehensible! Just yesterday I was at my mother’s house to plant some flowers and train her wisteria, and I saw that Abby, her formerly rotund 11-year-old terrier, had lost a lot of weight. Normally full of spunk, Abby was lethargic, dim-eyed, and withdrawn. I took one look at her and knew she was on her way out. Maybe she will bounce back, although I doubt it. I told myself that she had a good, long life. But that comfort was itself short-lived and all that remained was a resigned sadness of death’s imminence. For a while at least, life is also imminent, but it adds up to a zero-sum game, so all we can do is try to enjoy it, or suffer it, or get through or around it, depending on our perspective, luck, determination, and circumstances. So far as we know, nonhuman animals do not mediate their experience with religion or technology. With few exceptions, they seem to live and die without ceremony or notice. Or maybe we just don’t know what to look for, now that we have come or fallen so far from our origins. Other animals hide themselves away at the end. They are not afraid to die alone. They go out into the world and then disappear from it. Every single thing could teach us through its life and death if only we could watch and listen.
One morning in early April I went outside to check the yard and I noticed three mourning doves roosting on the ground by our front window. This in itself is not abnormal. Doves get most if not all of their food from the ground, so it is not uncommon to see them resting in the shade of a bush, or basking on open ground in the mild April sun. But something wasn’t right with the smallest of the doves. Sick animals—avian and otherwise—have a dullness about them, a kind of cloudy languorousness that any watchful animal can detect, for better or for worse. So it was with one of these mourning doves, the smallest of three, which was likely the offspring of the two larger birds. The three of them were almost imperceptible against the flowerbed where they sat together in a loose triangle, with one parent on either side of its ailing offspring.
When they saw me, the two larger birds rose and walked away a short distance, but the young bird just looked at me flatly and did not budge. I can count on one hand the times I’ve watched another animal die. Quickly or slowly, it’s never been easy. The awe and spectacle of death makes me take notice; it pulls out a chair and says, “Come, sit down. Let us rehearse.” Rilke’s poem Washing the Corpse ends with this line: “And one without a name lay clean and naked there and gave commands.” I knew all three of the doves were having a tough go of it, each for its own reasons, so whenever I passed them, I walked wide so as not to compound their stress. I asked my wife and kids to do the same, who by now have come to expect this sort of thing from me. In this way I invited them into the unfolding drama, even though by doing so I risked their happiness. Whoever said that experience was supposed to make us happier? When my own time comes, I say make my exit as fluid as possible. If I am lucky, in one deep breath I will say goodbye to everyone and everything I love, and in the next I will say hello to Chopin’s Nocturnes and the morphine drip.
Over the course of the next three days, I looked after the ailing bird, which did not move more than a foot or so. I realize now that the bird’s choice of resting place was itself evidence of its struggle. Out in the open and in the sun, the bird seemed to make no attempt to hide itself from whatever harm may come. Hummingbirds have been known to build their nests in the same tree as a hawk, the logic being that wherever the hawk is, other avian predators aren’t for fear of becoming the hawk’s prey. I wonder if the dove hadn’t made a similar decision by choosing to rest so close to me and my family. I would check on the bird several times throughout the day, especially toward dusk, when the parents would leave their offspring to fend for itself and perch in my neighbor’s maple tree for the night, where they would be safer.
I know it’s hard for us to fathom, but there are limits to parental fealty. In our own species, the likelihood of child abuse, including filicide, is usually greatest early in the child’s life and diminishes as the child ages. The older a child gets, the more apparent its reproductive promise becomes, at which point it would not make genetic (as opposed to strictly moral) sense for parents to destroy their offspring and thus a chance of genetic survival. Before that time, abuse may occur for various reasons, including low socioeconomic status and unavailability of resources, as documented by social scientists. A less discussed, but no less well-documented underlying cause of child abuse is low phenotypic quality of offspring, in which case children who early in their lives do not communicate fitness are much more likely to become the victims of non-fatal and fatal abuse at the hands of their parents.
Luckily for us, the majority of humans agrees that child abuse committed in any form and for whatever reason is morally unacceptable. But genetic success is not defined by our claims of what is right and wrong (Is it right that some children are born with brown eyes or red hair? Is it wrong that all normally developing infants cry?) Instead, genetic success is determined by whether or not a particular gene is copied. The evolutionary question then is not a matter of right and wrong, but of why, what, and how. Why does the dove exhibit a particular behavior? What are the survival benefits of this behavior? How might an evolutionary as opposed to a moral framework help us better understand animal behavior?
Leaving the young dove at night would seem like a high risk for the parents to take, especially after risking their lives to protect the dove during the day. Why put in all that effort only to abandon the chick at night? Did they do so because they sensed the bird was unlikely to survive? But if that were the case, why stay with the bird at all? Why risk being killed instead of cutting their losses from the outset and investing in a new round of reproduction? Perhaps the doves did a bit of unconscious cost/benefit analysis and day roosting on the ground and night roosting in the trees was a compromise. A compromise of this sort might lead the doves to care for their young only under circumstances that exposed them to an acceptable level of risk. In this scenario, the level of personal risk is weighed against the probability that the young bird will survive. If the loss of future reproduction due to personal risk taking is greater than the gain from protecting an existing offspring, than parental fealty will win out. Daytime probably involves a significantly lower probability of predation, which in turn might explain the parents’ decision to stay with the sick dove during the day and to retreat to the safety of the trees at night. So does this mean that at night the odds are not in the dove’s favor? What changes during the nighttime? The short answer: the sun goes down.
Doves are exposed to various threats at all hours: hawks, cats, dogs, raccoons, snakes—all would eagerly kill and eat a dove, especially a sick dove that would require very little energy and risk to procure. This list of largely nocturnal predators offers one possible reason for why the doves were willing to protect their offspring during the day but not at night. Humans, including this one, generally retire to the indoors when night falls, so any advantage the doves may have had due to my presence would no longer apply. And why do humans feel a strong need to return to their shelters at night? Because we can’t see very well, which can be a real problem when large predators are out, which they were throughout most of human evolution. Like us, doves are diurnal, so they too have strong incentive to find shelter at night. In fact, their incentive is likely stronger than ours because their predators are still very much alive and well. Whereas ours, not so much.
During the day, doves can detect threats from above or below and respond accordingly, even if it means fleeing and forfeiting their young to a predator. At night, by the time they detected a threat, it would likely be too late to do anything about it. In the light of day, they at least have a chance of saving themselves and possibly their young. Incidentally, I wonder if their protective instinct to surround their young is a deterrent by virtue of appearing formidable to any would-be assailants. But that’s the problem with any bluff: it’s only a matter of time before someone or something calls it. In any case, it could be argued that the doves are behaving maladaptively by staying with their doomed offspring. If this is true, the doves’ parental drive, which is normally adaptive, is so powerful that it causes them to put themselves (and their genes) in danger.
Each day when the sun got high and the temperature rose I would turn on the hose and slide it across the flowerbed toward the little bird. It watched as the silver water trickled toward it and then mustered the will or the strength to rise and walk a few inches to drink. Though this seemed like a good sign, when I read it in the context of the other signs, my optimism waned. For other than the occasional blink of its eyes, this was the only time I saw the bird move. Otherwise it remained gray and frozen, as though it were ebbing into stone. I had hoped the bird would pull through, and that I’d wake to find it perched in our mimosa tree, or better yet in the maple tree with its parents, alert and alive, its head bobbing as it tried to fix me in its sights. But two days passed with no apparent change to the bird’s condition and my worry deepened. My reaction was somewhat surprising, even to me. In the past I didn’t much care for mourning doves. I’d see them every day when I lived in Arizona, milling about, or cooing softly from their perches on my roof. Compared to the mockingbirds, or verdins, or even the ubiquitous grackles, the doves didn’t command my attention.
Apart from cooing and eating and their occasional scuffles, they just didn’t seem to do anything interesting. But of course the fault was mine: I was unwilling to give them the attention needed to appreciate their nuanced behavior. We humans have a well-developed sympathetic response when it comes to distressed animals, so when I saw that the little dove was in trouble, my protective instinct kicked in and I did everything I could to look out for it. It may be worth noting that while my reaction was clearly derived from my own parental and social behavior, my caring for the dove did not in any way advance my reproductive success. Still, the capacity we humans have to feel sympathy, especially for other humans who may assist us, almost certainly does have a reproductive benefit. But caring and not caring both come at a cost. Our ability to live and feel deeply is greatly informed by how much we invest in our lives and all that they involve. When I think of the people in my life who have needed me, I don’t think of their words to that effect, although they would not go unnoticed. Instead, I think of how they looked or appeared. Trouble fills the face and body. Thus we would have learned to recognize the sight of trouble long before we learned the words for it, which may be what makes it possible for us to recognize distress in nonhuman animals as well as in our own kind.
On the third day I awoke early, checked on the bird, and then went out back to do yard work. Off and on throughout the morning, I would find some excuse to walk out front and look at the doves. By then I had the full support of the kids as well, and when they finally made it outside each morning, the first thing they did was check on the birds. I was pleased by their interest because it meant that they saw the value of life besides their own. Now that the children were on duty, I returned to the back yard and for the next while gave myself to that work. I was caught up in it, oblivious to world beyond my own sweat and toil. A couple hours later I went out front and discovered that all three birds were gone. Wilder and Greer helped me search for them. Kim’s truck was in the driveway, and Wilder was the first to notice a couple feathers below its door. When he pointed them out I said “Oh, no,” and hurriedly checked beneath the bushes for the birds. But Wilder knew better, because then, without any suggestion from me, he crawled under Kim’s truck and found not only more feathers, but a silver-dollar-sized pool of fresh blood. Then I recalled how earlier I had heard the magpies squawking and carrying on. They are raucous birds to be sure, but did they have the ability to injure the dove to such an extent? If not, then what did have the ability? I scanned the neighborhood for cats and dogs or for any animal that might have gotten the dove, but the neighborhood was silent and empty.
The only animals that I knew had been in the area were the magpies, so even though I had never heard of magpies attacking other birds, let alone to the point of bloodshed, I started with them and tried to reconstruct what may have happened. To do that, I had to get inside the mind of the magpie. The feathers and blood were my first clue, and my second clue was that whatever had attacked and likely killed the dove had also taken the body. The clues were starting to add up, but to what? The sound of an animal being attacked has the unintended consequence of attracting other animals to the area, so predators of all kinds will, if possible, take their prey to a safer area before eating it. These days I am much more sensitive to changes in the soundscape, especially the sound of agitated magpies. So yesterday when I heard them going off, I dropped everything I was doing and went to investigate.
I looked outside the bathroom window and saw two of them calling loudly as they circled one of the four nests they had built in the apple tree. In addition to their calls, I also heard a low pitched, broken buzzing sound, as though something were trying and trying but failing to start up. This revving sound sped up when the magpies got closer, so at first I thought it was one of their young, excited about the returning parents. But their chicks had already fledged over a month ago and the nest wasn’t even the one they had used this year. Then a crow buzzed the nest and magpies ducked in the branches. Once the crow was gone, they started up again so I grabbed my binoculars, got out the ladder, and got up on the roof, which put me within ten feet of the nest.
When the magpies saw me, they flew to the old blue spruce a few feet away and then a moment later flew right back and again started to circle the nest. By that time pretty much every bird in the neighborhood was watching: a pair of crows alighted atop my neighbor’s maple tree and tilted their heads as though they were listening to the ruckus; house finches, starlings, sparrows, robins, and even another squirrel lined up along the power lines and sat in the cherry tree to get a glimpse of the action. Although the magpies weren’t happy about my presence, I think they were even less happy about the crows taking an interest in them. My magpie mind told me that as long as I was there, the crows would keep a safe distance, which in turn would allow the magpies to continue their assault on the nest. Of course, I realized that the nest itself wasn’t their target; it was what was inside the nest that they were after, and they were determined. Both birds would call loudly as they pulled loose sticks from and tried to dismantle the nest. They seemed outraged. I glassed the nest and saw hair, but I was unsure if it were lining for the nest or a living animal. I got my answer pretty quickly.
One of the magpies had breached the nest and that buzzing sound ramped up and got really loud, which was when I saw the eye of a squirrel. I didn’t know it at the time, but the squirrel was likely one of three that was born this spring. My six-year-old daughter Greer was the first to see them. We were eating dinner and, with a full mouth of food, she yelled something about squirrels and used her fork to point out the window. We all turned just in time to see four squirrels run across the power line. Unfortunately, one of these curious and inexperienced squirrels had wandered into the magpie nest. After about fifteen minutes of trying to pull out the squirrel, the magpies finally gave up and the squirrel made a break for it. My guess is that he won’t make that mistake again, which nearly cost him his life.
7. Red in Teeth, Claws, and Beaks
If I were a magpie that wanted to escape any unwanted attention and to eat my meal in peace, I would find the east side of my house, which is private, shady, and secluded, very appealing. I picked up the feathers Wilder had found and made my way there. I tried to be quiet in the event the magpie was still around, but when I rounded the corner, all I found was vegetation, shade, and shadows. As I surveyed the scene, I asked my magpie mind where I would go, and the answer that came was Where else, sky lubber, but high into the trees? I took a hint and peered into the empty trees. Then I walked beneath them and found what I was looking for.
The dove was partially concealed by vines that spread across the ground, so I pinched it by the tip of its wing and lifted it until it was in front of my face. The bird was perfectly intact except for one important detail: Its head was gone. I had seen what a cat’s teeth do to a bird’s head, how they grind and pulverize, leaving a rough and mangled stump. But this was not like that. The dove’s pink neck muscles and tendons were peeled back, as if they had been stripped and pulled before snapping and receding. This was not the work of teeth, but of a beak. Given the facts up to this point, what other conclusion could there be? But now I had a new puzzle on my hands: Why would the magpie eat only the head and not the body?
First, my question assumes that the reason the magpie killed the dove in the first place was to eat it. And why wouldn’t I make that assumption? The magpie did eat the dove’s head, didn’t he? And yet that is the only part it ate, which doesn’t make complete sense if the magpie were interested in calories. If he were, wouldn’t he have eaten other parts of the dove as well? Surely the dove’s breast meat, heart and other organs would have added up to several calories. Perhaps my line of thinking is too narrow, or worse, I have succumbed to the old either-or logical fallacy. Maybe there is something else is going on here besides my killing for food hypothesis. An internet search revealed several personal accounts, including YouTube videos, of magpies killing or being killed by other birds. One disturbing video showed a sparrow hawk drown a magpie that it had caught! But what about accounts of magpies chewing off the heads of other birds? Turns out they are also well-represented. In one account, a man in Great Britain told the story of how he saw several magpies dive-bombing a hedge, and upon investigating discovered a nest of blackbirds, three of which had already had their heads chewed (beaked?) off. Then the well-meaning gentleman posed this question: “Does anyone know if the magpies were after the nestlings for food, and me disturbing them caused them to leave them, or were they doing what I think they were, killing them for fun?”
As one might expect, this question invited an array of impassioned responses. Some people agreed that magpies were killing the blackbirds for fun, while others said the magpies killed for food. Both answers are not without their problems, but they illustrate the difference between the proximate or immediate cause of the magpie’s behavior and the ultimate or evolutionary cause. Notice how the two explanations are not necessarily in conflict with one another. Or if they are in conflict, it’s because the proximate explanation is not really an explanation at all. When we say that magpies kill for fun (which has also been used to explain why wolves kill elk), what we are really saying is that we don’t understand what we are seeing, that there is no obvious explanation for it, so we offer an uninformed, human explanation for the bird’s behavior.
There is also judgment in the idea that magpies kill for fun, for to kill for fun is to kill without reason, which we find morally repugnant. If it’s not something we would do (or like to think of ourselves as doing), then clearly it is wrong. I guess no one bothered to tell the magpie that. Another respondent said that “only humans kill for fun” and that magpies “have no concept of killing for fun.” Of course we have the concept of killing for fun, but what if it’s just a story we tell to promote a metaphysical view of our species? In other words, the moment I say that humans or wolves or magpies kill for fun or without reason, I remove them from their ecological context, which dictates that everything an animal does is done for a reason. Whether or not we agree with it or think it is moral is beside the point.
In contrast to the magpies and the doves and other animals, whose orientation to their environment and how they fulfill their needs has remained relatively unchanged, we humans have put a tremendous distance between ourselves and the natural world. This distance creates an intellectual vacuum in which erroneous views of our own and other species emerge and flourish. Any story that attempts to separate us from our origins may comfort us in our hours of darkness, but is comfort really the best method for achieving intellectual and moral progress?
Perhaps it’s better to be a scientist who is unsatisfied than to be a nonscientist who is satisfied. Ecologists teach us that each and every animal is an expression of its environment, and by knowing the one we can understand the other. We see this with the doves and the magpies, whose lives and deaths play out just as they have for hundreds-of-thousands of years. And our own lives and deaths play out, too, more or less meaningfully. How meaningfully depends on the kinds of questions we are willing and able to ask, and on how willing and able we are to answer them.
Maximilian Werner is the award-winning author of four books, including the novel Crooked Creek, the essay collection Black River Dreams, the natural history/memoir Evolved: Chronicles of a Pleistocene Mind, and the memoir Gravity Hill. His latest essay collection The Bone Pile: Essays on Nature and Culture will be published by Hiraeth Press fall of 2017. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah, where he teaches environmental writing and Writing about War.
Photo of Mourning Dove by Marie-Ann Daloia. Photo of dove on nest by AZAZEL. Photo of Magpie by Denys Prokofyev.