Thursday, August 29, 2013

Responding to a Common Threat

This morning I awoke to a family of western scrub-jays vocalizing alarm calls. Looking out the window I was intrigued to see a crowd of birds gathering rather than fleeing. Perhaps they only understood the call to mean “trouble” and they wanted to see the source for themselves or perhaps they comprehended specifically what the scrub-jays were alerting and wanted to verify the veracity of the declaration.

Within moments two adult ravens arrived and they took to immediately hazing the threat that seemed to be about 40 ft up along the trunk of a large eucalyptus tree.  Birds of all shapes and sizes–California towhee, spotted towhee, northern mockingbird, Nuttall’s woodpecker, Bewick’s wren and three Allen’s hummingbirds–gathered to see the troublemaker. Some, like the courageous hummingbirds, flew in and out of the foliage near the threat.

My first thought was: great horned owl. A great horned owl has been hooting from the pine tree in the evening and early morning for most of August. We’ve seen the commotion crows and ravens will make as they try to drive a great horned owl out of a tree.

As the ravens took turns diving past the thick growth covering the tree’s trunk, I could hear rustling and occasional strips of bark falling. Then through the foliage I caught a glimpse of the threat: the masked face of a raccoon. An egg thief had been discovered in its daytime refuge and the birds wanted it gone. The young raccoon was slowly making its way down the tree, trying to find a thick patch of branches to hide in for the day. This teenage raccoon has been prowling the area at night.

The political astuteness of birds always amazes me. A scrub-jay poses a predatory threat to a nesting hummingbird. Scrub-jays chase ravens away from their own nesting territory. But here, the birds all saw the raccoon as a greater threat and they quickly banded together in an alliance against a common foe.

If only we humans could trust our long evolved instincts. When one among us breaks the social contract and kills using agents of mass destruction, the benefit of all should be an aligning force encouraging us to make political alliances of the moment. Those who do not act together against such a threat will all suffer the consequences down the line.

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