Sunday, January 31, 2016

Animal Frenemies

Like many people, I love viral videos about lions that befriend baby antelopes or zoos where tigers decide to be best buddies with the live goats given to them as food. I watch with awe, and knuckles tightened, as people show videos on youtube of their cat playing sweetly with their cockatiel or a bunch of ducklings sleeping serenely on the back of a bird dog. I’m even enjoying my own “lion lies down with the lamb” scenario here at home, with two cats and a rabbit running around in the living room together, giving off an air of happy curiosity, occasionally sniffing each other’s faces. It’s heart-melting stuff.

I’ve been obsessively watching the live birdcam hosted by Skidaway Audubon Society in Savannah, Georgia, trained on a great horned owl nest. (You can watch two live cams here or go to “highlights” for videos of some of the most interesting moments.) It seems as if the spring nesting season will never get here, and fortunately great-horned owls start their nesting season in January. So I can watch the mother - and occasionally the father, when she needs to have a break or go hunting - on the nest, keeping two good-sized eggs warm on cold winter nights.

This morning on the bird cam, I observed a couple of interesting things. First, I heard a squirrel squawking and watched as Momma Owl got more alert and interested, rolling her head around in that amazing way that owls have. I saw the squirrel come up the tree, eye level with the owl, and shake its tail. The owl tensed up, stood, clicked her bill menacingly, and rushed at the squirrel, feathers fanned out so that she looked twice her size. The squirrel ran off but continued to squawk from nearby for at least 15 minutes. Momma Owl eventually relaxed and started looking a little sleepy. Then the pesky squirrel jumped over her nest, from one branch to another, and the process began again. The squirrel was messing with her!

Just after the squirrel incident, there was a moment of much greater tension. I could hear American crows having what I call their “morning coffee”. Crows live in large, extended families and communities, and early in the morning they like to meet together in a group of tens or hundreds and call to each other for half an hour or so. I like to think they are discussing the previous day’s news and checking in about what’s up for the day ahead before they fly off in different directions. This morning the crows were very close to the nest, and Momma Owl seemed to respond with a great deal of concern, even hooting for a while, perhaps as a warning to the crows or to summon her mate in case she needed protection.

Squirrels and crows are the prey of great horned owls, which eat just about anything in the size range between frogs and large Cooper’s hawks, including other great horned owls. But Momma Owl looked vulnerable when the squirrel and crows were on the scene. If she were in the air, and could swoop down on that squirrel, the squirrel would be lunch. Sitting in her nest, needing to protect her eggs from cold air or egg-stealing species (such as squirrels and crows), however, she was vulnerable. A great horned owl is not agile enough to suddenly rise up in the air and fasten her powerful talons around a squirrel, nor do the size and shape of her bill allow her to grab at a quick, clever, squirrel-sized mammal unless she already has it subdued within her talons. There was nothing she could do except try to scare the squirrel away. The squirrel finally gave up; it had made its point. But that squirrel had better sleep with one eye open tonight, if you know what I mean.

I’ve noticed Momma Owl’s fear of the crows on other days. Her best strategy there seems to be to lay low and hope they don’t notice her. Crows are not afraid to mob and harass owls and other predators when they are in flight. But it is hard to believe that crows would try to force Momma Owl out of her nest. Why would they want to get her in the air, where she’s more of a threat to them? Nevertheless, crows are often seen harassing and taunting nesting owls for long periods of time. Again, crows seem to enjoy messing with them! This interesting column offers a thought-provoking explanation that the crows are acting out their fear and hatred of owls. There is also the possibility that crows - and squirrels - are engaging in signaling behavior, a well-documented survival strategy in which a prey animal deliberately gets close to a predator in order to say, “See, I’m so fast and strong that I know I can get away from you - so you might as well not even try!”

My point here is that there are always conditions when the prey can have a little fun with the predator or when the vulnerability is temporarily reversed. But predators are predators and prey are prey - and a change of conditions will always right the situation. In other words, I put my money on Momma Owl every time.

Same with our domesticated or encaged animal frenemies. That recent lioness and antelope video, when analyzed by experts, showed that the lioness was simply playing with the baby antelope just as a housecat plays with a mouse. It can look sweet at times, but it’s really quite cruel and always ends in mangling and death for the mouse or antelope. A tiger and a goat can be buddies in the rarefied environment of a zoo, but that should always be seen as an exception rather than a rule. Our rabbit Ollie can play with the cats while I am there to supervise, but I rely on the fact that Ollie is as big as they are, and can run faster and navigate the small spaces of our house with more agility if she needs to. The cats are well fed and lazy; if they were outside and hungry and saw Ollie streak by, I have no doubt their instincts would kick in and they would chase and kill her.

We all love the thought of the lion lying down with the lamb, and viral videos suggest that it can happen from time to time. And we apparently love to set up unusual conditions in which cross-species “friendships” can occur and then allow ourselves to extrapolate these to visions of world peace. But it’s wise to remember the old story about the girl who found an injured snake and nursed it back to health. The snake bit her, and she died from the venom. The moral of the story? A snake is still a snake.

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