July 10, 2014
American Kestrel male plucking House Sparrow

A friend, an avid student of bird behavior, says there are only two kinds of birds, those that are predator and those that are prey, although she doesn’t always express it that elegantly.  I have another friend back in the Midwest whose favorite birding season is winter because he loves to watch the cardinals, towhees, and chickadees attracted to the feeders he provides.  Or so he claims.  But I know him well and I know there’s another attraction going on because his most effusive reports come in winters when his feeders also attract Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawks, the ultimate bird predators.

I got to thinking about these dichotomies upon the recent discovery of a family of American Kestrels using our neighborhood and seeing the demise of multiple mockingbirds, finches, and sparrows in the talons of these fierce but beautiful little hawks.  For every birder who watches birds because of their colorful plumage, their graceful flight, or their lifestyle diversity, there is at least one who celebrates the power and pervasiveness of predation in the avian world.

Is not the reason the same as that for why we watch hockey, cannot avert our eyes from train wrecks both literal and figurative, and glorify war in our vernacular language even as we lament its causes and consequences?  Once upon a time our species was predator and prey, and that’s all we were then because being one of those two and not the other was a twenty-four seven endeavor.  Granted it was long ago, but not so long that these instincts have been erased from our DNA.

The visceral fascination we have with predation in the avian world should come as no surprise.  Listen to business people around the water cooler recounting their latest deal in battlefield terms.  Listen to “helicopter parents” describing the academic feats of their grade schoolers as if their survival into adulthood were hanging in the balance.  It certainly bleeds into our leisure time pursuits.  Don’t you wish the Arizona Cardinals had a more fearsome totem?  And my wife’s mountain bike?  Not coincidentally, it says “kestrel” on it, which brings us full circle.

We’ve evolved as a species, but not as far as we like to think.  Fight or flight still courses through our veins.  How many generations does it take to rewire a species’ brain?  “Seahawks eviscerate Cardinals!” is better than marching off to war, though some of the latter still goes on of course.  Full disclosure here, I did not serve in Vietnam and, if called, I would now be American by birth, Canadian by choice.  I say this without defiance, without pride, and without guilt.  It is what it is, and it is because I lost my father in the Pacific in World War II when I was eighteen months old and have been parsing the “why” of that since I was old enough to know I would never know him.

More full disclosure, I’m secretly fascinated by our kestrels, hope the little hawks hang out with us until the young “leave home,” hope they nest in the neighborhood again.  If they do, I’m having T-shirts made, stooping kestrel with talons extended on the front, and on the back, “Go birding, not off to war.”  It’s an evolutionary step, don’t you think?