Monday, June 4, 2012

Not dingoes, just birds: a tale of defending babies

Last week while I was out photographing the hatchlings, something happened that made me very sad. But in telling the story to my husband, I learned to look at it differently. I wanted to share that story with you, dear reader.

I was sitting on the boardwalk with my camera poised to snap a baby blackbird when its mother came back to the nest to feed it.

All through the mudflats behind the nest, black-necked stilts and gallinules were watching over their chicks as they wandered about, testing their little legs, pecking at bugs.

Mama stilt and her chicks
Mama gallinule and her ugly little babies

Suddenly, there was a ruckus. All the mamas were screeching - gallinule and stilt. I figured that a gallinule had wandered too close to a stilt's nest, because even though they are nesting in the same area, they battle each other back if they get too close. But when I looked up, it turned out that wasn't it at all.

This part isn't pictured because it all happened too fast, and I was just stunned. An egret was on the flats, stalking for prey. The egret zipped into a gallinule's nest and grabbed a tiny newborn in its beak, then took off in flight. The gallinules tried to pursue it, but they aren't swift birds. There was no hope they would catch the egret.

The stilts, even though they are constantly fighting over territory with the gallinules, took off in defense of the baby gallinule. Three of them left their own chicks behind to give chase. They dive-bombed the egret, trying to get it to drop the baby.

Soon they were out of sight, and I can only assume they failed to stop the egret. I was so shaken, so upset at the savagery of nature as I left the park. But later, as I relayed the story to my husband, I realized how amazing it was to see the maternal instinct cross those territorial barriers. How marvelous it was to watch those stilts - tiny, adorable birds, easily only a quarter of the egret's size - turn into bold fighters in defense of another species' chick.

Almost all animals have that in common - we love our children. Many will recognize and protect children of other species as well. In the end, all of this serves to make me glad that I am no longer an 'egret'  eating other species children, but a 'stilt' working to protect them!

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