Volume 14, Issue 19 ~ May 11 - May 17, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Mothers’ Day in the Wild

Survival of one mother’s young can mean death for another’s

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?

—Keats, 1795-1821

The songs of spring — they are all around us.

Finches turned brilliant yellow, rabbits coming out of winter hiding, woodchucks standing erect in meadows, grasses turning refreshingly green, the sight and scent of freshly tilled soil, boats returning to Chesapeake waters, flowers sprouting and blooming, and fresh air wafting into the house through the screens that replace storm windows and doors.

These are the things we all notice all around us, but there is more to witness in this delightful season when the biggest changes of the year take place.

Fox vs. Geese

There is the fox intent on goose eggs or perhaps goslings in the meadow. Grasses are not yet high enough to secret the mission of the persistent sly red fox from my view — or that of the two Canada geese tending a nest close to the shore of a small pond.

Some who have shared the watch say the fox should be dispatched with a .22 rifle. Others insist nature should be allowed to take its course. I lean toward the former, though I would not raise a gun to dispatch Reynard, who is doing only what instinct dictates.

In the wild, survival for one can mean death for the other. The fox must eat; the geese must hatch and rear their young. It’s the law of the wild.

The goose is aware of surveillance by the fox, which spends much of its time watching and waiting perhaps 75 yards distant. The gander is also aware, and twice when the fox slinked closer, the protective male set forth with threatening call and flapping of wings to make it known he would tolerate no further encroachment.

The goose remained at her nest but watched. Had the fox not slowly retreated to its original outlook, what would she have done? Set forth to strengthen the defense, or hunkered down to face the predator?

Doe vs. Dog

On a farm north of Chesapeake Beach, two dogs run free on a farmer’s big spread; they’re frisky and live for the chase. Also on his property is a big doe that comes to the edge of a field to feed in early and late day.

When the dogs see her, they commence the chase. She has been through it many times before. She waits until the dogs are perhaps 50 yards away, then dashes not back into the trees but along the edge of the field to the north. Finally, with the dogs in close pursuit, she dashes into the woods — only to reappear in the field father to the north.

She leads the dogs a merry chase but always away from where she first appears. We think we know why. A fawn or two are secreted within the woods, and her maneuvering is designed to lead the dogs as far as possible from her offspring. Thus far, she has been successful.

Dove, Jays and Ducks

In one of the two juniper trees outside my house, a mourning dove has presumably just brought off a successful hatch. I hope so. For a couple of weeks as I passed by, there she was on her nest when I looked through the cover carefully to avoid alarming her.

Among the species, she’s a good mother. Not infrequently, doves are helter-skelter nesters; sometimes they just make do in a meadow. In the juniper she is safe; the bristles on the tree too impenetrable for any stray neighborhood cats. My eyes would be no more than three feet from her as I passed; she merely sat frozen.

Two bluejays are nesting in the thick brush at the side of the house, so they get extra peanuts — and also plenty of privacy. I won’t approach too close, for I recall when my late father-in-law Max Doggendorf tried to help out by picking up a young jay on the lawn of his home on the other side of the creek.

For days, his noggin showed the thanks he got as one of the birds attacked when he tried to put the defenseless chick back in its nest. The hostile jay made several nosedives, and Max had neither a hat nor much hair so his battle wounds were obvious.

Three mallards, two drakes and the hen are back. She leaves her nest in the reeds on the creek shore, picks up the drakes and they all come for cracked corn I stack for them. I wonder why the drakes are still interested, but for several years, they have been a threesome, which thankfully survived another shooting season.

I recall Myrtle the mallard who nested in a tree at Remington Farms near Chestertown more than 30 years ago. After several ground nests were wiped out by foxes, she finally got the message and took to a tree, from which she surveyed her surroundings as she warmed her eggs.

After the chicks hatched, she nudged them from the tree as the late farm manager Joe Linduska watched from a distance. They didn’t attempt to fly, just flopped unharmed to the ground 20 feet below, and when the last of five landed, she glided down and led them off in single file.

Fish vs. Hunger

When I go bass fishing, I see their nests fanned out close to shore, the males guarding the contents. The females are long gone; they’ve done their job. Still, the males don’t want anything around, including the lures of fishermen. They will blister a plug, and if hooked and released, oft times the damage has been done.

Hungry perch and crappies lie in wait, and before the freed bass gets back to the nest, some of the eggs or the fry will be eaten. I picture what will occur in days or weeks: The male will stay to belligerently guard the young — until he feels the pang of hunger.

Then he will turn about and start gobbling up some of his offspring; paternalism is gone. The young scatter off. Nature’s way is curious though well founded.

Moving down the Chesapeake as I write are big cow rockfish, their spawning mission completed in tributaries of the Chesapeake. They’re headed for the ocean. Some won’t be back for years; others will be caught by hooks or nets in this great exodus down the Bay that brings us our most exciting fishing of the year.

Spring has sprung; enjoy it. There’s no other season that can match it. Don’t waste time tinkering with the lawnmower; get out and enjoy its bounty, observing, catching and breathing that fresh air.

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