One crisp, clear March day a couple of years ago, I found myself driving out to the Queen’s University Biological Station with a friend. She was going out to do fieldwork, and I was going out to help her (in an effort to pretend that I still did fieldwork). It was a typical Ontario pre-spring day: the snowbanks along the roadside were almost as tall as the car, and the sun glinted off the drifts of snow in the fields. However, there was also a faint warmth in the air, and the ice on many of the lakes and ponds was covered with a thin film of water and a fine webbing of cracks.
Just before we turned down the road leading to the field station, we passed a group of three deer standing somewhat forlornly in the snow along the edge of a large pond. Anyone who has ever driven along a country road is well aware that deer tend to be flighty creatures, and these three were no exception. As we passed them, they all jumped into action, taking the easiest route of escape – straight out onto the pond.
My friend brought the car to an abrupt halt, and we sat there, horrified, watching as their headlong flight was quickly reduced to a slipping, sliding walk. Even in the car, we could hear the ominous creaks and cracks coming from the ice. It was the same feeling you get driving past a car accident: we didn’t want to watch, but it was hard to look away. We were sure it was only a matter of time until one of the deer fell through the ice and was unable to get back out – and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.
This is one of the paradoxes of fieldwork: while the job naturally attracts people who want nothing more than to spend their days hugging trees and cuddling bunnies, doing the work often means standing aside and watching while a fox or a hawk rips the bunny apart.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I opened a nest box door to check on the family of five tree swallow nestlings inside – only to find a huge, satisfied-looking black rat snake curled up in the nest instead. As I looked at him, I could see five bumps in his body, one for each nestling, and I had an (admittedly irrational) urge to grab him by the tail and shake him hard, until they all came flying out of his mouth.
Even worse was the first time I opened a box to reveal a nest full of dead nestlings. This happens surprisingly often, when cold snaps in the early spring make food hard to come by, particularly for aerial insectivores like tree swallows. In these stressful circumstances, parents may attempt to keep feeding the nestlings for a while, but at some point, most adults prioritize their own survival (or rather, future reproductive potential) and abandon the nest. This also means that sometimes, you come across nests full of heartbreakingly cold, hungry, weak nestlings. It’s hard to close the box and walk away, knowing that the next time you open it, they will all likely be dead.
Abandonment, predation, and death are not easy things to witness, and it can be tough to stand back and get out of nature’s way – especially if, like most field biologists, you’ve developed a certain amount of fondness for your study organism. Sometimes, it’s tempting to do crazy things to try and fix the situation. I’ve certainly screamed at more than my fair share of snakes, although it’s never bothered them much. And the first time I came across a nest of dying birds, I begged my boss to let me adopt them. (Which, incidentally, is not just against the law, but also virtually impossible to do, as simply keeping them adequately fed would be a full time job.) Years later, when running my own field season in the Okanagan, it was my turn to explain to my field assistants why they couldn’t adopt the abandoned baby bluebirds.
Unfortunately, standing back and watching nature take its course is a necessary part of the job. It’s often hard to resist the temptation to intervene – but if we do, we mess with the very thing we’re all out there to study: natural selection and survival of the fittest. The parents of those abandoned baby birds will build another nest and give it another try when the weather turns warm again. And, as much as the birder in me objects, the snake needs to eat too. My job, when I’m out there, is only to observe – not interfere.
As for the deer we saw on the treacherous ice that day? We sat watching them, on the edge of our seats, for at least two full minutes – afraid to keep driving in case we caused the sudden movement that made them fall through the ice. (Full disclosure: not only was I worried about the deer, I was also very concerned that, if they did fall through the ice, my friend and I were going to have to jump in to the freezing water to try and help them – see previous point about doing crazy things.)
But in the end, the ice held and they made it safely to the opposite shore. As they scrambled up the bank and disappeared into the forest, we couldn’t help but cheer for them. As hard as it is sometimes to witness the cruel side of nature, that cruelty makes the small victories all the sweeter.