Last April, I went searching for river otters at Abbotts Lagoon in Point Reyes. It was part of the wonderful Point Reyes Birding & Nature Festival and led by Megan Isadore of the River Otter Ecology Project. Among the many wonderful things we saw on our ambling was this magnificent ravens’ nest on the face of a sheer cliff. We stared at it in awe for many minutes, marveling at the two large birds residing there and their remarkable feat of engineering.
Later, we came across a field biologist who was checking up on the Snowy Plovers. These adorable little birds inhabit many Bay Area beaches, where there are often fences attempting to protect their habitat. Unfortunately, there are only about 2,500 Snowy Plovers left on the West Coast, down from tens of thousands. Despite almost 40 years of protection, population recovery has been slow. Humans are the main reason why, but another nontrivial factor has been natural predation. And as we learned from the biologist, one of the most voracious predators of Snowy Plover eggs on that beach were those same ravens we were enjoying earlier.
I’m one of the thousands of folks who seem to have discovered birds for the first time during the pandemic. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours watching them in our garden and on the balcony outside of my office, and I’ve become familiar with many of them. I won’t lie, I usually greet them out loud when I see them, most often by their common name, but sometimes by names my partner and I have given them: Hoppy, Twisted Lip, Helen Hunt, etc.
The line between valuing and anthropomorphizing wildlife is a fine one. If you pay enough attention, you start to notice behavior that may feel unsavory to our human selves — bickering, bullying, and sometimes a lot worse. One time, I was at a red light on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Oakland, watching in horror as a murder of crows ganged up on an injured pigeon in the intersection. I wanted to get out of my car and chase the crows away, but the light turned green, and I ended up driving past, watching helplessly as the crows shifted their business to the sidewalk.
Corvids — including the ravens who snack on Snowy Plover eggs and the crows who bullied the poor pigeon — are large, social, and notoriously intelligent. They are marvelous birds, and, not surprisingly, many of their kind have adapted well to human development. Corvids are also known for theft and pedicide, often stealing hard-earned food from smaller birds or feasting on their hatchlings. It feels all too easy to pass judgement, but it doesn’t make any sense. Corvids are not people. This is what they do to survive. Moreover, many of the changes that we’ve made to the environment have served to amplify these “distasteful” behaviors.
On our river otter walk, Terrence Carroll (the Director of Research at River Otter Ecology Project and Isadore’s husband) explained that, over the past few years, river otters have been seen hunting and eating Brown Pelicans, one of the Endangered Species Act’s great success stories. According to Isadore, witnessing this is not for the weak of heart or stomach. The otters sneak up on the pelicans while they’re resting in the water, grab them by the leg and pull them under until they drown. They then drag them to shore, where they either consume them or stash them away in makeshift larders.
Angry birders who have found beaches strewn with pelican bodies have begun demanding that something be done about the otters. Carroll explained that we don’t know whether or not otter predation is having a significant impact on pelican populations. Their organization has applied for grants to try and study this. Regardless of what they find, the anger seems misguided. Ravens eat Snowy Plover eggs. River otters (which themselves have only recently returned to the Bay Area after disappearing for decades due to pollution) eat shorebirds, including Brown Pelicans. That is in their nature, and this is how nature works. The main reason the Brown Pelicans were and the Snowy Plovers are endangered is us — we human beings and our ongoing attempts to co-opt rather than co-exist with nature.
I’m still learning this lesson. I try not to project my human code of ethics onto wildlife, but I also have the opportunity to create my own space that encourages co-existence in a way that seems palatable to everyone. Early in my birder evolution, I started experimenting with bird feeders. Inspired by my friends, Jon and Linzy, I started by tying an old frying pan to a tree and filling it with sunflower seeds. That enabled me to see what felt like a wondrous number of birds in our backyards, and it also acquainted me with a familiar bird feeder foe: Sammy the Squirrel. (I name all squirrels I see, “Sammy.”)
Many of my early design experiments were spent trying to fend off Sammy. (Yes, I’ve seen the Marc Rober video on deterring squirrels, and yes, it’s amazing.) However, over time, I shifted my attention to creating harmony among the many different bird species who visit my feeders and baths. I noticed that bigger birds sometimes dominate the feeders, chasing away (or worse) the smaller birds, so I created a tube feeder that only smaller songbirds could access. I noticed that a small single point of access would cause the smaller songbirds to fight with each other, so I strategically placed branches nearby where the birds could queue up.
Hummingbirds are viciously territorial, and I often saw them fighting over our two feeders. Earlier this year, I visited bird illustrator Keith Hansen’s studio in Bolinas and noticed to my surprise that the hummingbirds fed side-by-side in harmony at his feeders. He has found that if you have at least six feeders up, the hummingbirds decide that there’s enough for everybody, and they cooperate rather than fight.
Structures impact behavior. I have always applied this principle in my work of getting people to collaborate more effectively with each other, but watching birds over the past few years have caused me to appreciate this even more. On my small balcony, I have managed to create my own little ecosystem of birds and nature. I have two feeders and two small bowls, which I regularly fill with clean water for drinking and bathing. I designed and placed them strategically among my pots of native plants to favor different kinds of birds so that there’s enough food and water for everybody.
The House Finches and Mourning Doves hang out on my balcony year-round, and a wide variety of birds visit regularly depending on the season — sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Chestnut-Backed Chickadees, hummingbirds, Scrub Jays, Brewer’s Blackbirds. I have a few individual stragglers as well, from the Dark-eyed Junco that serenades me almost every morning to the Yellow-Rumped Warbler (i.e. “Butter Butt”) who seems to enjoy the company of my bird cohort, even though their kind don’t traditionally visit feeders. I don’t know why, but the ubiquitous city pigeons mostly stay away, with the exception of one goofy couple that makes me chuckle every time I see them.
When the crows started coming, I had mixed feelings, as I was afraid they would scare away all the other birds. But I observed them for a while, and I came to love them. There are a few who now recognize me, and when I see them, I often take a short break to step out onto my balcony and feed them peanuts. A few of their cousins, the raven, even come by every so often, including an affectionate couple, and I’ve been able to marvel at their size and beauty up close.
Last year, I was on a client call, when I heard a loud thunk outside. I looked outside, and to my surprise, a Cooper’s Hawk was sitting about ten feet away from me. It took all of my willpower not to jump off the call and grab my camera. Fortunately, the hawk and its mate became regular visitors, and I was able to watch them with interest. I didn’t want my balcony to become a restaurant for these raptors, which love to feast on Mourning Doves, although I was open to it happening. However, while the ongoing activity continued to attract the hawks’ interest, it turned out that some combination of my balcony’s proximity (which made it hard for the predators to sneak up on other birds) and my crow friends (who were used to warding off fiercer, larger birds) kept them at bay.
It’s not my place to dictate whether or not a bird eats or bullies another bird. However, I think it’s fair for me to be thoughtful about how I can positively impact an ecosystem by learning as much as possible about these wonderful feathered creatures and by loving them without anthropomorphizing them.
I’m not going to stop naming them, however, or saying hello when I see them. I have to draw the line somewhere!