There's danger on the edge of town

The suburbs are supposed to be safe. Each little house, filled with the perfect family, manicured gardens. Lawns lathered and shaved each Sunday, perfection imposed on a chaotic world. A little patch of order.

Then the person next door turns out to be a mass murderer, strange midnight, torch light, diggings in the garden, a garage locked and bolted, a car parked outside it. “He seemed such a normal bloke” “He always said hello to me, most polite” “His roses were a credit to the neighbourhood”. But it’s not just the human world that is driven into a homicidal frenzy by suburbs; nature embraces the serial killer as well. Although in nature you have the saving grace of instinct rather than psychosis. Animal rather than antisocial. Real need rather than some other, darker, less palatable warp of reality.

There are predators in the garden and they have young to feed. Gaping beaks, hungry mouths, empty stomachs. The evolutionary imperative, breed, survive, pass on those genes. The small fry , the targets, must be alert – and probably alarmed as well. Their imperative is no different than the predators, but they sit in the contested ground between the survival of self and the survival of others. This is a challenge that many predators do not face. The impeccably manicured gardens can become a killing ground for small, the weak, the un-armed. Without armour, without much weaponry, the small fry must rely on other means. Stealth. Finesse. Speed of foot , speed of wing. It seems an uneven battle, asymmetrical warfare. But the battle is as old as life itself, a battle that drives adaptation, the head butt challenge of predator versus prey. An evolutionary arms race.

As I was going to work last week I opened the front door to the synchronised calling of blackbirds, their pop rattle alarm call filled the air. Lurking in the bushes by the car was a Currawong, attempting to go unnoticed, and failing. A patch of satin blackness in the tangled greenery. A thin, drawn out crow of a bird with a 6cm bill. A chick eater, an egg stealer. The blackbirds were mobbing it. Overwhelming numbers, versus overpowering strength. David and Goliath, although David had brought along his friends. The numbers win, for a while at least. Currawongs are winter birds, driven down from the hills by wind and snow. I have not see once since this mobbed individual sat in the bushes. Perhaps this danger has passed. Passed for this year at least.

On the same day while walking home a kookaburra flashed past and landed on a garden fence post. Interesting enough of itself, given that I was in Canterbury, which does not strike me as prime habitat. In its beak was a small lizard, lip and unmoving, destined to be turned into more kookaburra in due course. Despite millennia of adaptation it had still failed, it had died that other might live. But this was not self sacrifice, this was not altruism. It was simple life and death. One dies, the other lives. That’s all she wrote.

In these two events we had death avoided (at least for now) and starvation avoided (at least for now). All part of the balance between predator and prey. All played out in suburban gardens.

A number of years ago in a different house, in a different suburb, a pair of blackbirds nested in the bush under our bedroom window. For reasons that I do not care to divulge publically, these birds became know (to us at least) as The Ardens. There were Ardens in our garden, and we rather liked them. One hot night, when sleep came in short, disturbed bursts, the awful reality of life and death in the suburbs came to visit The Ardens. With a terrible shrieking that contained fear and death and failure The Ardens protested as something came and took their chicks away. The Ardens howled their protest into the night. It was like visiting a crime scene. A gaping hole in bush where there had once been protective cover, a few drifting feathers, an empty nest where there once have been three chicks. The list of suspects was long: Cat? Powerful Owl? Possum? Velociraptor? All seemed possible given the volume of noise The Ardens made. The adults hung around disconsolately for a day or two, looking into the nest, sitting on the bush. Were they hoping for the impossible? Where they just locked into a set of behaviours that even the reality of that night could not break. I don’t know how we can know.

This week I found a blackbird nest outside our house, for reasons of desperate predictability these have been called The Ardens too, or possibly The Ardens Two. Their home was a living embodiment of all things nest-like, neat and dry looking. It was tucked between roof and a supporting pillar. They had forsaken trees and bushes, they had adopted the made world. They had adapted to what they could find. True inhabitants of suburbia. Later on the same day I found the mother sitting, and after she had left (with a rather noisy protest) I found 3 eggs. The parallels are clear. I hope they do better than their name sakes, but the odds are stacked against them. It is the order of things.

We had the first cicada night this week as well, incredibly noisy, making nights of record high temperature feel even hotter. Now the blackbirds can change sides in the suburban war of survival. Cicadas are a prize catch, although I can think of much quieter meals. The desperate, broken calls that the cicadas make as they are being eaten alive are noticeably different from their normal deafening calls. These seem to come from nowhere and yet fill the whole world with sound. The death calls, an insect alarm call, is a failing noise, a clashing noise and finally no noise at all. There was a blackbird on our nature- strip this afternoon with a Greengrocer, one of the larger cicadas. First the wings were removed, then parts of the abdomen were pierced with sharp blows, the cicada fell silent. It was now destined to be turned into more Blackbirds in due course..........

These are not the only stories to be told of urban warfare, bats and Tawny Frogmouths (giant night jars!), possums and Powerful Owls add to the mayhem.
And this is not just an Australian story. As I was working on this post an e-mail from America arrive, from Ohio, from an early winter place, where the leaves have fallen and winter comes. It brought with it a hawk. Taken in the back garden of a friend’s house. Consensus has it that it is a Coopers Hawk. But this is based on the skills of two self confessed Bad Birdwatchers, so corrections are welcome.

So there is danger on the edge of town, or the edge of your garden. And each encounter between predator and prey is at the cutting edge of evolution. It’s selection in action. Very natural, very old and very brutal. Life and death. That’s what it comes down to in the end.


Anonymous said...

It would seem that even in the midst of life and death, creation and recreation, beauty abounds. Would I be right in sensing just a smidgeon of sadness for the blackbirds who lost their young or the sad death of the cicada? It seems to me that in the midst of life we are in death. But it also seems that there is a beauty in it all which is enigmatic. And just the hint of grief centred in love for what is lost as one predator consumes another and another.....
Despite the mayhem there is a beauty and a love for the natural order. As someone close to my heart once said: "Look at the birds of the air, they do not plant seeds, gather a harvest and put in barns: yet your Father in heavn takes care of them! Aren't you worth much more than birds?....
Look how the wild flowers grow: they do not work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers. ..... (posted by Chris)

Stewart M said...

Thanks Chris - there was more than a hint of sadness when the blackbirds lost their young - if it’s possible to hear grief in the voice of an animal, then I did. It was not a good noise to be woken up to. Beauty, ugliness, waste or value who can really tell where one stops and the other begins. Glad to see you are following!