Bullies in the backyard

Seventy-foot red oaks, sprawling Chinese elms, tall pines, dogwoods, American hollies — along with bird baths, assorted bushes and ground cover make our large backyard an ideal habitat for nature’s small creatures.

We added various feeders to attract colorful songbirds. Having built it; they came. Cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, robins, woodpeckers, blue jays and hummingbirds were just part of nature’s avian “who’s who” that soon arrived.

Then the bullies intruded. It turns out humans have no monopoly on this particular behavior.

First were the squirrels, which promptly chased away the songbirds and monopolized the feeders. We quickly switched to seeds those pests didn’t like and to feeders they couldn’t chew through. The colorful birds returned.

Bully No. 2 two descended in the form of a large flock of English brown sparrows, which summarily commandeered the feeders, bullying away the birds we preferred. We had no interest in providing these homely non-native intruders with an endless smorgasbord. They were brought to New York by a man who wished the United States to have every bird appearing in Shakespeare’s writings.

The sparrows were vanquished when the next bully arrived — a seven-member group of one of the largest and most intelligent bird species: crows. Once the sparrow hegemony ended, the crows delighted in our birdbaths. We observed wolf-like behavior as they coordinated hunts, with several chasing a mother rabbit from under our large, dense American holly while others stole the baby rabbits. They washed their food in our birdbath and left the cleanup to us. They even preferred using a water basin to soften stale bread before eating it.

But every bully eventually gets its comeuppance.

Early one morning we observed a prolonged aerial battle between the crows and a large red-tailed hawk. The hawk would dive at the crows, brandishing deadly talons, while the more maneuverable crows attacked as the hawk sought sufficient altitude for its next dive. The hawk won. The crows were banished to a commercial area to the north, which is devoid of the rabbits and squirrels the hawk craves.

We then witnessed mesmerizing, prolonged drama as the hawk pursued its prey with persistence and surprising agility. The backyard becomes nature’s ghost-town whenever the hawk is in our part of its territory, which sits on the ridge of a large suburban valley. A nearby church parking lot provides a panoramic view of the entire valley the hawk rules, and from this vantage point it can often be seen soaring on updrafts as it surveys its realm below. When the hawk’s away, the small-animal kingdom magically reappears across our landscape. I’m not certain which creature sounds the backyard version of Paul Revere’s alarm “The British are coming.”

I’ve learned that even consummate predators are bullied in turn because all creatures have vulnerabilities awaiting exploitation. Raptors such as hawks possess poor night vision. In early-morning darkness their own nests are robbed of young by Great Horned Owls, which attack silently wielding talons that apply deadly, crushing force.

The lesson of our backyard bullies applies to the human version of these villains. Bullies rarely escape eventual accountability. No matter how high up the food chain a bully may comfortably reside, ultimately it will meet its match, and some equilibrium will be restored to the natural order, however ephemeral the interlude may be.

It’s nature’s way.

Paul H. Belz is a writer living in Baltimore. He can be reached at www.paulbelzwriting.com.

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