Monday, 6 December 2010

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Earth stands hard as iron, water like a stone, and the solitary heron steps its cautious path across the deep-frozen lawn.
Always solitary, always cautious, creeping like a badly-furled umbrella away from the pond, knowing it to be yet another fruitless journey, yet another waste of precious energy.
On the far side of the lawn it heaves itself into the grey air, a metallic flopping bird against a cruelly metallic sky.

I have pangs of conscience.
We created a wildlife garden, deliberately attracting creatures to come and live near us. We created cosy little habitats, log piles for the wood lice, small woven roosts for the wrens, a pond for countless insects as well as fish and frogs. There are little houses for hedgehogs, nettles for butterflies, thick hedges for bird shelters, ivy on the walls, roses round the door.

I put out food, all the time, seeds and nuts and chunks of fat.
The heron came regularly to the pond to pick out a rudd or two. Stocking the pond with self-renewing native fish is the equivalent of putting other food on the bird-table.
Attracting birds to the bird-table creates the equivalent supply for buzzards and sparrow hawks.
You can't really pick and choose the visitors to a wild-life garden.
You supply bounty, free for all.

The garden becomes over-populated as a result.
Perhaps those who should have gone somewhere warmer have stayed around, seduced by the ready supply of food?
Perhaps too many have bred, reproduced themselves over-enthusiastically and unrealistically?
Do creatures become over-dependent on my generosity, and it is really generous or a form of self-indulgence?

Robins look good on Christmas cards, but are unpleasantly determined creatures in real life. If food runs short they will fight to the death for it.
The blue tits and great tits are still coming to the bird-table and the food holders, but I haven't seen a wren for days now, nor the long-tailed tits who daily came in a chattering, dipping family flock.

Have I created a false haven and lured them to a death of cold and starvation?

I pick up the ski poles and venture out to the shops.
I am going to buy sardines for the heron.

Right or wrong?


Molly said...

Is it ever wrong to have a kind heart?

marigold jam said...

Good to hear from you - I had wondered if you were OK since it had been a while. Life is full of quandaries isn't it? We can only ever do what seems right at the time I suppose. Hope the heron enjoys his/her sardines and that the balance of nature is not too disrupted!


Zhoen said...

Eden has always been a problematic human notion.

Relatively Retiring said...

Molly: that is my dilemma - I think it may be, and I think 'kindness' may be displaced and result in upsetting a natural balance.

Marigold Jam: I can but hope the same, that balance may be restored, that ponds may thaw, and life may return to the garden.

Zhoen: so very true!

den said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
den said...

Having the same dilemma over farmer Rex's waifs.
"Do creatures become over-dependent on my generosity, and it is really generous or a form of self-indulgence?"
The hearts is self indulgent but the soul is generous I reckon. We were doomed along with Adam and Eve to upset the natural balance.
Will the heron seize the sardines as well as the day, what a lovely gesture of the heart.

pohanginapete said...

I'm not sure any simple answer could be substantially true, but I will point out a couple of things: the kind of winter you're enduring makes survival by migration a successful strategy only for the kinds of animals (certain birds) that migrate thousands of miles (swallows, for example — certainly not wrens), and, because you've provided not just a consistent supply of food but shelter also (habitat in the wider sense, in other words), it's likely you've increased the long-term population sizes around which yearly populations fluctuate.

The short version: no. Some — more than usual, probably — will die, but that's because of the unusually harsh weather. If your garden — a true haven, not a false one — didn't exist, those "extra" animals wouldn't have been alive in the first place.

Is it better that five wrens from a population of 20 die, or that 10 die from a population of one hundred (purely hypothetical numbers, of course)? In the latter case, twice as many die, but only 10% of the population rather than a quarter. Is it better to think only five died, or that 90 lived? These might seem like semantic questions, and some people get upset about lives being treated as numbers, but I still think they're important, or at least useful, questions, even if no one answer can be "correct".

The determination of population size and the regulation of populations around that long-term (and continuously changing) average are enormously complex. Ecologists have argued over those topics for many decades. I'm sure they could argue about the effects of your garden, too, and fail to agree.

I'm glad you've provided the haven, and I love the thought of you buying sardines for the heron.

Relatively Retiring said...

Den: I've been thinking of you and those kittens. The poor little waifs are a result of irresponsible cat ownership, I suppose....but how do we judge the quality of any creature's life? One could go on........!

P.Pete: thank you so much for your most thoughtful and thought-producing comment, which gives me a better perspective - even though there are no clear answers.

I like the idea of ecologists tussling in my garden!

Anonymous said...

Why bother when your such a crap writer.

herhimnbryn said...

In Oz, we are advised not to feed wild birds, as what is often fed to them is not part of their usual diet and it deters foraging. However, we don't have your winters and I think your garden must be a welcome haven for the wildlife that visits/resides there.

I fed the birds this morning....

I don't do it everyday, but they got stale bread and sunflower seeds.I filled the 8 bird baths with water. Then I sat down with a coffee and watched 7 different varieties of bird arrive for breakfast and a bath.

Now, did the Heron get his fish in spring water or olive oil?

Relatively Retiring said...

Anon: fair question, complex answer.

HHnB: It's a difficult balance, isn't it? I know there is a school of thought here that feels the same, and there is also some evidence that garden feeding is changing the behaviour patterns of some birds, such as Black-caps.
The water is so important, and it's a real challenge to keep some ice-free at the moment.
The heron is visiting for sardines in spring water.

herhimnbryn said...

Have added an edit as a result of the comments left by you and BB on my latest post!

Isabelle said...

Oh dear. I wouldn't like to see buzzards eating my chaffinches. I do realise that buzzards are sentient creatures too. But. Nasty. Don't want to think about red/tooth/claw thing. See your problem.

Relatively Retiring said...

Isabelle: if you create a garden for wild-life it's what happens. It's a privilege to have such large birds, like herons and sparrow-hawks visiting a small garden near a town. Well, that's how I have to see it.