There is a salmonella outbreak happening right now in the songbird world, with vulnerable pine siskins being hit especially hard by the disease. Apparently they have little to no resistance to it, and I received a warning in my email from the local birding group to make sure to clean my feeders often with bleach and to keep the area where the birds congregate as clean as possible. I've done that, but still I've found a few birds that have died. They first get lethargic and then begin to look really sick.
Some birders have removed their feeders in order to encourage the birds to disperse, hoping they wouldn't sicken as easily. I called Valeri at the Wild Bird Chalet where I buy bird seed to ask for advice. She said this happens every few years, and that stressing the birds further by removing a known food source is not a good idea and would only make them more vulnerable. So I didn't, and a few days ago I saw a sick bird on the porch. As I was filling the feeders, the bird didn't fly away, didn't move except to shiver. As I watched with pity, it died. The life just left and the eyes closed. Its suffering had come to an end.
I have special birding gloves I use to handle birds, so I gently picked it up (so small!) and carried it out to the area of blackberry bushes where the birds nest at night and laid it down, knowing that it would be returned to the world as food by some foraging animal. Many raccoons and skunks live in there, along with feral cats. I've seen blackbirds catch and eat sick birds, and of course the falcons.
It was only a little bird, but that event keeps coming back to me, remembering the moment when it went from a living being to a dead one, now simply food for predators. I asked Valerie if salmonella would sicken other animals and birds (like hawks) who eat them, and she said no, they have a different digestive system. That made me feel better.
I love the wild birds that come to my porch, and I've watched a few that I know aren't long for this world, one chickadee who had lost a leg, a finch with some sort of disease over its eye, a house sparrow with a broken wing that didn't seem to keep him from flying, although it hung down at an odd angle. My heart goes out to all wild creatures that are part of the natural world, and I wish that somehow I could alleviate a tiny bit of suffering. That's one reason I feed the birds, but I recently learned about cowbirds.
brood parasites." They don't make a nest and raise their young; they slip an egg into an existing songbird nest (after removing at least one original egg), where the chick hatches and is raised by foster parents. They are bigger and more aggressive and usually cause the other chicks to starve and wear out the parents who struggle to feed the big bird. Cowbirds evolved to follow herds of bison and learned to survive the nomadic life by developing this technique. With urbanization and development of forest lands, the cowbirds have thrived and become prevalent, at the expense of declining populations of songbirds.
Some species of birds eject the cowbird egg from the nest, and others abandon the nest altogether. But many species just raise the bird as if it were their own egg. The cowbird never sees its own kind until it's time to mate, but it somehow knows its own call and manages to carry on the same behavior through the instinctual hard wiring in its brain. It's fascinating, even if a little scary to realize what evolution has wrought through brood parasitism.
All the birds that I've learned about have one thing in common: they do what is necessary to survive; birds of prey are magnificent creatures in so many ways. But I don't like cowbirds, and I find that I have an aversion to their instinctual behavior, and it's this aversion that causes me concern.
Birds are not rational beings like humans are. They follow a different drummer, so why am I so bothered? Why do I expect other creatures to treat each other with respect? Of course they don't, but I want to alleviate suffering in the world, not add to it, and I am confused by my attitude towards the evolutionary adaptation of brood parasitism. I think I want to believe that Nature is pure, not flawed like humanity. I am ashamed of the cruelty that so many humans display toward other species, as if we have the right to cause other creatures (and each other) suffering.
Those people who derive pleasure from watching the suffering of others are, I have always believed, damaged through their environment or some physical mis-wiring in their brains. I think I have found the root cause of my discomfort: that perhaps ethical behavior is not hard wired into our brains, but superimposed upon our mental framework through a desire to find meaning in a world of suffering.
I know I will not find any resolution to these questions, which have been asked and pondered since humanity first began to realize we are sentient beings, along with all the other sentient beings on the planet. But struggling to put these words into a post have helped me to understand my feelings.