Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Bug's Losing Battle

Female Brown-headed cowbird
  During this school year, I have led my middle school students on two nature journaling field trips to our local stream valley park. They journaled about what they observed during the fall and winter drawing connections between the Earth and sun relationship and how temperate climates respond during the seasons. During the field trips, students focused their observations and journaling on the macro, the landscape, because it is more literal to see what is in front of them. On Monday's field trip, I will ask them to observe a small creature for 10 minutes to gain insight on their habits of survival.

    Today, I had my own experience of observing a small animal to learn its relationship in the food web of my backyard. As I was pulling weeds in my vegetable garden, a female, brown-headed cowbird landed next to my rhubarb. My squat become a permanent statue.While removing the lesser celandine that dominate my garden, she drew closer and braver showing no inhibitions to the possibility that I could be a predator.  I could have reached out and grabbed her. My weed peeling revealed many pill bugs. However, she wasn't interested, maybe because they are all crust and no juice. She spotted a brown, quarter-sized spider and snatched it. She struggled with it for a few seconds before she crushed its body and devoured it. There is nothing like the predator prey relationship in nature, no matter how big or small the creatures. It is still fascinating to watch. She is not a carnivore but an omnivore, occasionally feasting on the plentiful helicopters that litter my yard. It is the bugs she preferred though. Saving the best for last, she caught sight of a bug larva. With precision, she plucked the cream-colored larva from the fresh soil. It wiggled to gain its freedom from her beak but lost the battle within milliseconds. Larva to birds are like gummy worms to kids; irresistible sweetness. As I noticed lactic acid build up in my quads, I didn't want to move for fear of missing the show. She occasionally tilted her head to the sky to check for predators, not being afraid that I could be one. After devouring the available protein, it was time for her to fill her tummy elsewhere in my neighborhood. She spread her wings and took off. My matinee performance ended with a smile.


  1. I witnessed predator vs prey yesterday on our balcony. I heard this buzzing and looked over on a ledge on the wall and a very small spider had secured itself around a fly. They fly was at least 5 times bigger and it was creepy and amazing to watch this fly struggle in the grasps of the spider. Ewe!!!!

  2. Thanks Melissa for your comment. The predator prey relationship fascinates me. Its one thing to see it on TV but wow really amazing to see it in person no matter what the species. I was totally amazed that this bird had no inhibitions to being in front of me. Makes me wonder why since so many birds fly away when approached.

  3. Jennifer, a while back we looked out our kitchen window and saw some kind of hawk eating something it had caught - we couldn't tell what, but afterward found lots of feathers. Sad to think of the eaten bird but nonetheless impressive to see - and vindicating why all the birds we see are continually scanning to detect these real predators. Unfortunately, I couldn't take a good enough photo in the light.

    Oh, your cowbird reminded me of another story. The cowbirds are the ones that put their eggs into other birds nests to be nurtured. Well near our feeder one day was some kind of juvenile - bluish, that vibrated its feathers to get the attention of its mother to be fed. The mother was much smaller, some kind of sparrow I think. Well finally we realized the baby was a cowbird, but the mom treated it like its own. In the book Tropical Nature that I think I recommended to you a while back, they riff on the cowbird story to explain that this practice is advantageous to birds whose nests are afflicted by insect larvae that land on the eggs, burrow into and spoil them. The cowbirds hatch more quickly and the aggressive hatchlings eat the larvae before they spoil the other eggs.

    No question that the more you pay attention to nature, the more incredible it is.

  4. Thanks dccampfin for your great stories. I couldn't agree more with you - I am too fascinated with the purposeful intricacies of how all the living creatures coexist together on this magnificent Earth. So much to learn!