One tends to think of birding as an idyllic pastime. One goes into the field, sees gorgeous creatures, identifies them, and then brags to one’s birding friends about what wonderful creatures one saw. Sometimes one sees one of the gorgeous creatures do something interesting and one tells one’s birding friends about it but with less bragging. Of course, sometimes what one sees is somewhat disturbing, which is where the title of this post comes in to play. Though what I witnessed this weekend was strictly between birds I guess it might be better to title the post “Red in Beak and Feather” but that’s not from Tennyson and does not have quite the effect for which I was looking. Let’s just say that if you don’t want to see a bird in an existential struggle then you should not read any further. You should, in fact, get away from this post and go look at cute Killdeer.
Still here? Great! I guess you have the stomach look into the center of the circle of life and not feel faint at what you find there. Let’s set the stage for the photographs that follow. I was birding at Jamaica Bay on Sunday and ran into a fellow birder, Shane Blodgett. Shane is a heck of a birder and a nice guy and we ended up making our way around the West Pond together, seeing a whole host of species and having a grand old time. We had stopped to scope the very northwestern edge of the pond where a host of Canada Geese, Mallards, Gadwall, herons, and a couple of Greater Yellowlegs were resting or foraging, when Shane picked up a bit of commotion and realized that a Great Black-backed Gull had a hold on the back of a young Gadwall and was not letting go. The sun was shining so heat shimmers were an issue and the range was pretty long, so some of these pictures are far from ideal but you will get the idea…roll over the pictures for pop-up captions.
To be honest, while watching this whole struggle, which took probably ten minutes start to finish, I contemplated walking away a couple of times, and both Shane and I wished we had been closer so we could intervene on the duck’s behalf. Sure, things get killed and eaten all the time in nature but to see a duck struggle like that just to end up gull food, well, it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had while birding. Even the Canada Geese couldn’t watch: as the struggle progressed they all gradually drifted away and left the young Gadwall to its fate, alone except for the prying eyes of herons, the gull, and oblivian.
Interference is a slippery slope, raptors eat like this every day. Once you start giving birds human attributes or seeing the Gadwall as the underdog where do you draw the line how much interference becomes acceptable. How many times does a hawk get chased from prey before it effects it’s breeding success etc?
I am with Alan.
Besides, I find it much more brutal that you show a Yellow-crowned Night-heron on your pics without even mentioning it as something noteworthy.
Not nice, Corey, not nice.
At the risk of further anthropomorphizing the situation, Great BB Gulls are total brutes. They even intimidate me when they give that evil eye.
That’s nature for you.
I agree that intervention would have been a bad thing.
If we believe in evolution, then this particular Gadwall is better off not in the gene pool, while this GBB Gull has certainly earned the right to breed again.
Of course, those Yellow-Crowned Nightherons are pretty cool too, hopefully you got some pictures of them too?
I wonder why that duck? It looks awfully big and healthy and like a lot of trouble for the gull compared to, say, just flying over to Coney Island and hitting the trash cans on the boardwalk.
@The non-interventionists: You all are right but it was seriously hard to watch…that duck fought hard. I do challenge you to show me where I anthropomorphized though…
@Nate: Serious brutes!
@Patrick: Gore and all!
@Carrie: It does seem like a lot of work for some duck meat.
@Jochen and Will: For we regular visitors to Jamaica Bay in summer Yellow-crowned Night-Herons almost reach trash-bird status. 🙂
Great Black-backed Gulls are nasty birds. Even if you did intervene, the gull would probably just finish the job later.
How did the gull make the kill? Did it drown the duck or kill it by breaking the neck/strangulating it?
And I don’t care what you say. YC Nightheron is NEVER a trash bird.
Yeah well, Mississippi Kite is now a trash bird in these parts! 🙂
I had a similar experience at the Jamaica Bay NWR last summer but with a happier ending. A gull had hold of a duck but another duck crashed into the gull forcing the gull to let the duck go. Then a swan came over and scared the gull away. The ducks seemed no worse for wear.
I was happy to see the duck saved. It was hard to watch the duck struggling, but I did not stop watching. At the time I hoped there were no children around to see this because it was too violent.