Nature's Tiny Teachers

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Published on: May. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

bumble past, is the test pattern of small nature-its multi-colored pattern is hypnotic. And when food does blunder into the web, the resulting job of packaging by the spider is akin to a skillful outfitter roping up his pack train.

Our feeder is for birds but that doesn't keep it from being overrun with squirrels. Currently there is a tiny squirrel, probably "this year's hatch," as my wife describes him, and a larger one. The larger one gets ever larger because he gorges himself. Life is an endless foodfest. He angrily defends the feeder from the smaller one, even when he is so full he barely can move.

But the little guy will hide, then slip toward the feeder, using the cover of deck chairs and planters, until he is close enough to dart in for a sunflower seed or corn kernel. Then he sprints out of range to enjoy both the taste of the food and the pleasure of having beaten his tormentor.

None of these behaviors are human, of course, and it's wrong to apply terms like "bully" and "supercilious" and so forth to animals that are driven by causes far different from ours.

Movies are infamous for humanizing animals-anthropomorphizing them-and it is a disservice both to animals and people. When we start thinking of non-people animals as people, with similar behaviors, aspirations, motives and emotions, we have lost touch with reality.

We're the only animals with the ability to manage the natural world for better or worse, and if we forget that nature favors the species, not the individual, we'll mismanage every time.

Management is vital today because there are too many people for a natural equilibrium, and we aren't going to go away. Without management, such as hunting or habitat manipulation, we would skew the balance against the species even as we cherish the individual.

My son Andy has a wildlife degree. He feeds the channel catfish in our pond by hand and can pet them. His favorite is "One Whisker," a huge, old reprobate that lost one barbel in some aquatic scuffle. Andy absolutely forbids anyone to catch and keep One Whisker. But he also knows that the life or death of one catfish among many is insignificant; species health is what's vital.

Spiders aren't Charlotte, nor are pigs Wilbur, nor are mountain lions really named Charley. It's fine to enjoy Charlotte's Web as entertainment, just as it is to enjoy the hummers at the feeder. But it's wise to remember, as E.B. White did, that spiders die when their time comes, no matter how much you love them, and hummingbirds aren't really arrogant like some people.

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