FEEDER BY-CATCH CAN BE EXCITING
by Whit Gibbons
February 3, 2008
is a term commercial fishermen use to describe animals that are caught
unintentionally. Dolphins in tuna nets and sea turtles in a trawl are
examples of by-catch. I was thinking about the term the other day as I
stood looking out at our backyard. Gray squirrels at a bird feeder, I
realized, are technically just by-catch. So are more unusual visitors.
came last week to my workplace during a hard rain. I scatter sunflower
seeds on the grassy ground outside my office window. Dozens of goldfinches,
house finches, and juncos cover up the place each day. But during the
rain, they sensibly took to the trees and bushes to wait it out. But one
critter's sensible is another critter's opportunity. In the pouring rain
was a fat possum grazing along the ground as it gobbled up the smorgasbord
of sunflower seeds mixed in with mud and grass. For 30 minutes this big
dumb marsupial mushed around in the sloppy ground. On the other hand,
is it better to be wet and well fed or dry and hungry? Maybe not so dumb
we have such an abundance of squirrels that sometimes they seem like the
target species and the birds seem like the by-catch. We have a plethora
of these gatecrashers, in part, because our neighbors also feed squirrels
while trying to feed birds. I feel certain that on days when I forget
to put out birdseed, some of the squirrels hightail it across the street
to bird feeders there. As we are all aware, squirrels think roads are
built to make it easy for them to cross from point A to point B, without
considering that cars also use these pathways. The result is roadkill.
Last week, our across-the-street neighbor Judith and I stood in our respective
front yards and gawked at a bird that we had inadvertently attracted.
In its own way, it was by-catch. As we watched, a gigantic turkey vulture
landed in the road between us and began dining on road-killed, birdseed-fed
gray squirrel. The vulture qualified as by-catch because our collective
bird feeders had attracted the squirrel that had now attracted the scavenger.
in fascination as the vulture dined. When a car approached, the vulture
flew into a tree to let the car pass, so I picked up the dead squirrel
and tossed it into our driveway. The friendly scavenger soon returned
and finished his meal in peace. (If the housing market is bad now, imagine
trying to sell your home with a vulture having a snack in your front yard.)
the week I witnessed another by-catch phenomenon. When bird feeders attract
dozens of birds day after day, predators that prey on birds are often
attracted as well. So it is with sharp-shinned hawks. As several of us
stood outside my office where the birds feed every day, I saw a small
blur of bright red pass by my shoulder, followed a millisecond later by
a larger streak of brown. Both moved bullet-fast, a sharp-shinned hawk
in pursuit of a male cardinal. The pair made two complete trips around
a big wax myrtle bush. The hawk was a foot behind its intended prey when
the cardinal wheeled abruptly into the center of the bush. The hawk was
deflected by the bush's branches and came to rest on a pine limb 30 feet
Like a gangster
in an alley with his arms crossed and his gun tucked under his arm, the
hawk stared at the bird in the bush. Inside the metaphorical drugstore
where the quarry had taken refuge, he waited for his chance to escape.
For 10 minutes predator and prey sat silent and unmoving. Then the cardinal
made his break and quickly reached the safety of a thick clump of bushes.
In a moment, the hawk holstered its gun and headed off. The feathers of
a sparrow I found on the ground later in the day suggested that one small
fowl had not fared as well as the cardinal.
notwithstanding, bird feeder by-catch can sometimes be more entertaining
than the birds.
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