I was recently asked by a colleague if I had any photos of birds that appear around feeders this time of year. She was working on a article about feeding the birds in winter. As I surveyed through my photos I came upon a photo I had taken just the previous week of a bobcat that had just killed a cardinal. "Wow!", I thought to myself, remembering the made for TV moment I had witnessed when I took that photo... and then I thought about something. People forget just how important birds are to the food chain. We always talk about feeding the birds, but remember birds are food too and play an enormous role in the survival of other species.
Setting the Stage - Predator and Prey
An arctic like wind swept across the snow covered fields that January day while hunting with a buddy off Old Mine Road in the Delaware Water Gap. The little thermometer dangling from my field jacket said 17°F, but it felt more like 40 below. Suddenly out of nowhere it appeared, a bobcat slowly sneaking through the little bluestem and cedar succession field. This was the first animal we had encountered all morning -there was nothing moving or flying in this bone-chilling cold. Then from about 20-yards away it saw us and froze in its tracks. It looked at us, just for a second, and then got down low and continued to stalk using the tan colored bluestem grass for cover. When it neared the thorny hedgerow it perked up its ears and pounced fast and hard disappearing behind a tuft of snow covered grass. When it looked up from the grass, flashes of red appeared flapping from its mouth! A male cardinal! The cat watched us there for a full minute, holding the cardinal tightly in its mouth, with almost an expression of relief and satisfaction. I quickly snapped off a few photos and then it turned and as stealthy as it came in, the predator slid off into the underbrush without a sound with its now lifeless prey.
To Be or to Be "Eaten", that is Question
I had previously sent this bobcat photo around to a few friends who I knew would appreciate what I had witnessed in the wild. Predator prey interaction captured by the camera, and a State Endangered bobcat too boot! They all agreed it was very cool to have seen a bobcat, bobcats are a beautiful animal and how lucky I was to be in the right place at the right time. These comments were consistent. But then, they would follow with a comment about the bird and its death. These comments varied in tone and content.
Some felt bad or sad for the bird, or asked why couldn't the bobcat have kill a mouse instead. Some were upset by the bobcat's actions of killing the bird. Some even said how they hated that it was a cardinal that was killed and could it have been some other "less showy bird" to fall to the bobcat. Others cheered the bobcat for finding food in 17 degree weather so it would live another day. While some wondered if it caught the cardinal for food for its young to help the next generation of this species survive through winter. The comments provided very different perspectives on a very natural process - the food chain, the very basis of existence.
Insight From a Friend
One of my friends who responded to my bobcat/cardinal photo email sent me the following:
"Up yonder I write a monthly poetry column featuring a seasonal poem by a Vermont writer ...check out: 'Red Removed' http://thenewsfrompoems.com/spring/ ...seeing your picture captures the exhilaration /triumph of the capture, not so much the tragedy of the pretty bird."
"That was a interesting response, very insightful," I thought. So I clicked the link and read the poem - "Red Removed'
Beautiful. Very apropos for what I witnessed that frozen day with the bobcat and the cardinal in the wilds of Warren County, NJ.
"That's the wonder of nature", I thought to myself after reflecting on the poem. "Life and death from different perspectives."
But it's those life and death moments in nature that define species roles in the existence of others. It also magnifies the importance of having quality habitat to provide those critical components to support the existence of a variety of species, ensuring the balance of life remains. A Greek proverb states, "Even a wolf will not stay -Where sounds no bleat to offer of prey."
I am proud to be a part of NJ Audubon because we are a conservation organization focusing our work to conserve the environment and restore critical habitat for the benefits of all NJ's wildlife. How we care for our landscape by stewarding our natural world and simultaneously seeking to engage more people in witnessing the wonders of nature is key to a meaningful, healthy, and enjoyable existence for all species.