When I first heard this line from Sweeny Todd, I thought it was a little sarcastic but decidedly validated by an abundance of supporting evidence.
Yet when it comes to wildlife and nature, especially concerning newborn creatures, most Homo sapiens want to cling desperately to a kinder and more romantic worldview. And in this regard I am as guilty as the next person, yet a recent event that played out extremely close to home has put my romanticism under the cold light of reality.
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting, as I am now, in the courtyard of my building, facing a lovely pink dogwood tree (well past blooming) and typing on my portable computer. The courtyard is so lovely and since my wireless router is strong enough for me to access the internet from this chair and table on ground level underneath my third floor apartment window, I’m fortunate enough to actually have a lovely alfresco extended office.
That day as I was writing, the local robins and house sparrows who call the courtyard home kept up their usual musical chatter however I noticed that periodically one robin flew to a fork in the tree, stayed there for a minute or two and then hurried away, only to return five to ten minutes later. Curiosity piqued, closer observation revealed a small nest and although the angle was a little extreme, I could see a tiny bright orange beak stretched upward in the universal sign for “feed me”. Delighted to have an opportunity to practice shooting the nest, I ran upstairs, grabbed my 7D and 100-400 L and zoomed back downstairs to see if I could get a few shots of the nest and feeding action.
From a slightly better viewpoint, I waited until the male robin returned to the nest. In his beak were assorted delicacies and as he bowed his head toward the nest I could see that there were two little beaks seeking nourishment – one decidedly more aggressive and vocal than the other—the cardinal rule for any multiple infant nest. “Survival of the fittest” is one of nature’s base concepts and it continues to be a primal rule because it works. With an angle that was still awkward and fairly low light in the branches, I was only able to get one shot that I considered useable and I did not spend a lot of time in such close proximity to the nest as I didn’t want to scare the adults off the nest.
Two days later, the circus of life having stolen the intervening 24 hours, I went back downstairs for another look. This time I brought down a ladder although it actually didn’t improve matters significantly. Hmmmmm! After a short wait, the male again returned with chow for the children, only this time only one tiny beak stretched up to receive the meal. I watched for quite a while but it was abundantly clear that there was only one young bird now. The weaker nestling had succumbed or perhaps been pushed from the nest by his bigger sibling.
A few days passed again. The circus of life in full glory and a major act in all three rings, I needed to go to Rockport for a few days and when I returned I was very tired and behind in a few critical matters. Just before sunset Dotty, who had come to love the little tyke and had been peaking at the nest from our window with a pair of binoculars, became agitated when she saw a large seagull flying repeatedly down into the courtyard and circling in the vicinity of our tree. We see lots of gulls flying by overhead but this was highly unusual for one to fly down into the atrium. She suspected foul play or perhaps fowl play is more appropriate. Although the light was dim, it seemed the nest was suspiciously inactive and we feared the worst for its inhabitants. The next day dawned with no activity and when last seen the single chick was not remotely ready to fledge. Neither of us saw the actual disappearance of the smaller chick or the demise of the larger one however we have reasonably surmised that the single chick suffered predation and the adults abandoned the nest.
Dotty and I both felt bad for the robin chick. Her feeling is a mixed “How could he do such a thing to a helpless child? I can’t believe he did it!” Although we recently returned from a Puffin cruise where we learned that the Great Black-backed Gull is a fierce predator and almost solely wiped out the Puffin population on the Maine coast, we were still upset at this demonstrated behavior so close to home. I admit I know this is how nature works but still I missed the little guy.
However, emotion aside, there is a lot to think about here. The chick we mourned wasn’t too warm, fuzzy and protective with his sibling in the nest. If fratricide occurred as we suspect, certainly the young robin didn’t hold his brother in high moral regard. Why then should we differentiate when the Gull commits avicide? Sure the Gull was bigger than the robin chick but then the surviving robin chick was larger than his smaller brother so a bully is still a bully. In the end, it all returns to the realization that Sweeny Todd was right, at least in his observation on the natural order of things. “The history of the world, my sweet– Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!”