Nature's Tiny Teachers

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Published on: May. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

Anyone who has sat quietly within 5 feet of a hummingbird feeder knows that television is a poor substitute for the entertainment at that feeder.Hummingbirds, those wee dynamos, can teach more about nature than 100 classrooms. You'll learn about intraspecies competition, territoriality, food habits and a host of natural history events you don't even know you're learning.

Think small. The famous French entomologist Jean Henry Fabre (1823 1915) wrote many books about insects, and most of his work was done in his back yard. Yet he is just as famous in natural history circles as Darwin or other naturalists who traveled widely and theorized on a much grander scale.

My friend Gale Lawrence, a Vermont naturalist, has written several books about nature study in familiar surroundings, including one on the ecology of houses. The Indoor Naturalist covers everything from dust to yogurt.

Gale opens peoples' eyes to what is around them everyday, everywhere.

Her fascination with the little things around us led her into bookwriting, a natural extension of her curiosity and her training as an English teacher. Most wouldn't carry their enthusiasm that far, but the world is filled with interesting little epiphanies.

For example, the orb weaver at our front door. We called her Charlotte after the spider in E.B. White's book. She crocheted her webs with ceaseless energy and skill, her legs working together with incredible precision to pick and fasten strands.

She was resident for a month a couple of years ago. Each night she would start building about dark and would continue her spinning, like Griselda in the fairy tale, until she had a lovely web.

We carefully searched for the anchor strands that sometimes stretched across the deck. We didn't want to destroy her handiwork, and we'd do the limbo to slip under the support work. Yet each day the web was wrecked, tattered in the breeze.

Somewhere in my vast store of misinformation, I believed that orb weavers destroy their webs each day and start over. Not so, the books told me. I was intrigued enough by the hard-working spider to check, and I learned that time, weather and prey destroy the web, not the builder.

It was a tiny revelation that won't change either the world or my life, but I'm one fact richer for it, one step closer to understanding the world around me.

My son Eddie always has had the good eye for the small. Barely out of toddlerhood, he would spend many minutes watching an ant work or appreciating the complexity of a leaf.

Eddie's idea of leaf-study is a good one, especially if there is a hungry caterpillar patiently reducing the size of it. The caterpillar's head bobs rhythmically, like some fuzzy harvesting machine, and the leaf gradually disappears in tiny bites.

If we could get world leaders to spend a few days on their bellies in the grass watching caterpillars eat, there would be far less mischief on a global scale.

Most people, even those with an appreciation of nature, miss out on much. I think being a hunter is a plus for a nature-watcher. Hunters are predators; therefore we are attuned to motion. I will see a groundhog working the edge of a pasture where people with me don't. A bird's flicker in the trees catches my eye while others miss it.

Because I subconsciously know what should be there, I notice what shouldn't-a straight line in nature's irregular pattern for example.

But my favorite nature study area is the hummingbird feeder, not for what I can learn about hummingbirds, but for the fun of watching them in action.

There is a South American hummingbird whose latin name is superciliousus, and whoever named it knew hummers. Hummers are snooty beyond any other bird. They know exactly how good they are and flaunt their talents endlessly.

They are contentious far beyond their size. If a hummingbird were as big as an eagle, none of us would be safe. They are fearless, always wearing a chip on their tiny shoulders. They have as much curiosity about me as I do about them.

If I wear a red hat, I look like a potential Big Mac of a flowerhead, and they'll buzz the hat, making me duck instinctively.

What does it take to catch a hummingbird? The reflexes of Rocky? The legerdemain of a card shark? Nothing I've seen remotely threatens a hummer.

They'll duel with irritable wasps, and it's no contest. As quick as a wasp is, it doesn't have a prayer against a vigilant hummer. The wasp feints at the hummer and finds nothing there. The hummer is gone in an eyeblink now behind the confused wasp. It's like Muhammad Ali in his salad days, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee-except the hummer doesn't sting; it just evades.

But hummingbirds are only one little act in nature's variety show. A garden spider, patiently waiting for food to 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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