I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A lesson in ethics

Some of the past week's events have got me thinking, so I'll take an opportunity to explore some of my concerns here. If you look up the definition of the word "ethics," it generally means "the moral correctness of specified conduct." Kant was a philosopher who also posited that humans are bound, from a knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings. I believe that, too. But it doesn't extend to the natural world, although I think it should, because I want the world to be fair, and it isn't.

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.
Although they are prevalent in all parts of the United States, cowbirds are what is known as "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.


June said...

I, too, used to dislike cowbirds for what they do. They have been doing it for a very long time without my fixing, though, and so far haven't wiped out any other species.
Last summer I found a robin's nest on the ground, where it had blown out of the maple tree. The babies were dead, of course, looking like tiny yellow reptiles. My heart broke for a while.
There's a plan for this kind of thing though. Maybe that robin won't have babies that grow up to put nests in spots that are vulnerable to wind.
Big questions you ponder today, and this is no answer, just evidence that I ponder them as well.
Thank goodness we don't have to manage the whole natural world!

Kathryn said...

I learned about the cowbirds from some camping friends, and was still left confused over whether to 'hate' them, or just accept nature's arrangement. I've had my own ethical dilemma, when we've stopped our cat from killing a bird. We see what's happening, jump up to intervene, yelling 'Bad Cat!' to jar him into dropping his prey, then 'rescue' the bird and set it free if it's able to fly. The cat is just following his instinct, and has doubtless got away with it hundreds of times when we're not around. Perhaps the birds it catches are weak or inferior in some way, and the cat is just acting as a catalyst (no pun intended) to a certain death. Perhaps the bird is just unlucky?
I do wonder about our well-meaing interventions; are they right or wrong?

CiCi said...

Believing I have no control over the animals or the weather or the plants keeps my thoughts in perspective. I believe I am connected to nature, we are all connected. But I am powerless over it all. I do what I think is okay to do, to participate without interfering in the natural instincts and needs of nature. I will never understand the why but I can appreciate the what. In the past three years I have been privileged to watch birds and animals up close like never before. I am grateful for this. Maybe this is enough. At least for me.

Arkansas Patti said...

Oddly, the cowbird is not an unattractive bird, in fact I think they are quite handsome. I hate their parenting skills but not the bird. However, before breeding season, I do not put any feed out for I have found they are little piglets at the feeding dishes. At least if I don't feed them, I am not enabling them.
Thank you so much for your words of comfort and understanding. I am sorry that you have also been there.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Nature is based on food chains, so I rarely hate one creature for preying on another. But like you, I still grieve for the one that suffers. We stopped letting our cats out when we realized they were killing songbirds. We keep the feeders full, and once in a while (especially when the sparrows are passing through) a bird crashes into the window. And then there are the eagles, which I love but which, as Far Side notes, can prey on well-loved little dogs. Just remembered that in some philosophy class I was taught that Natural Law is just the way things are; its rules will be followed no matter what we intend. Moral Law (?) governs human activity. Hmm, wonder whether I can find any old notes.

Rita said...

Even chimpanzees kill other species of monkeys and will fight with intent to inflict deadly injuries with themselves sometimes. Animals are constantly killing each other for food or just to survive. I have wondered, too, are human morals are just something taught to keep our own animal natures in check or are they something innately born within us? I would like to think the latter.

Cowbirds have always bothered me, too. But I have wondered if it isn't because, as human beings, we are the biggest parasite on earth?

Fascinating post, Djan. Seems like we ponder a lot of the same questions. ;)

Anonymous said...

Survival of the fittest? Members of the animal kingdom (we humans are members) have always caused suffering to others. Take sports like boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts, for example. Why do humans think it's entertaining to watch people being hurt? Think of the early Christians cowering in the lions den and the early Romans jeering at them. Is that why we call it the Animal Instinct?

Red said...

What's the saying, "Power corrupts." So many humans who cut the corners cheat, are mean are those competing for power and wealth.
Sorry to tell you that here are other parasitic bird species around the world
However sitting there watching one of these little critters lose the battle is rather unsettling.

Rubye Jack said...

Nature is ruthless and merciless, but it is with ethics that we humans try to separate ourselves from nature. Not all people see a need for any sort of ethical behavior though and survival of the fitness seems to rule our behavior also. It's too bad we depend on religion to dictate our ethics rather than an idea like the categorical imperative.

Sandi said...

Interesting post, in that it brought up several issues I'm not aware of. I haven't heard of a salmonella outbreak in our area, yet. And, I've been completely ignorant of cowbirds! I am going to look them up as soon as I finish this comment!

I haven't noticed any ill birds around my house, but there are a lot of them. I'm going to watch and see about the cowbirds, as everyone else seems familiar with them!

Donna B. said...

Wow...interesting post. I never even heard of Cowbirds...I used to encourage birds to feed and visit when I lived in CA, but not here...we still get them...I have no idea what kind they are...one type bird builds a nest in the Arizona Rosewood in my side yard. If I get near the bush, be it cleaning up after our dog or walking on the outside of the fence, the bird attacks me! Swoops down on me and dive bombs me...not just me, but others who happen to walk by with their dogs...

I have a bird bath and fill it for them to drink or cool off in the summer...and they also eat the Pyragantha berries...but they land on our patio furniture and poop all over everything!

We have Doves and Quail. The Dove sit on top of our roof and coo...and the Quail and their babies peep and do Conga lines all over our front patio....

We also have Hawks and Falcons which have been known to pick up small dogs and cats! There are huge Crows too...

Linda Myers said...

We have a wildlife habitat in our yard, but I'm quite ignorant about what goes on out there. I have mixed feelings about letting my cat out; I'm fairly certain she would be unsuccessful stalking a bird unless it was sick or injured. Oddly, though, she leaves the neighbors' chickens along.

Dee Ready said...

Dear DJan,
Thank you for struggling with this question of ethics and our response to the sufferings of others--both humans and animals. I stand with your thoughts and feelings and conclusions.

It has been difficult for me to see or to hear about human cruelty to other humans and to animals. And now to learn about the cowbird. Well, let's say I was floored by what you posted.

And so, like you, I make the same conclusion about trying to find some meaning in suffering.

You certainly always get my noggin working! Thank you.


Crazy Life of a Writing Mom said...

I want to believe nature is pure too. I've never heard of cowbirds. That is soooo interesting. I'll have to tell my girls about them. Sky (the Hippie) really loves birds ;)

CrazyCris said...

I think our ethical behaviour is something we have learnt and isn't hardwired into our brains (or genetic makeup). I think it's a sign of growth in the human civilisation, a step above the law of the jungle. And so we can sometimes be shocked, surprised, ashamed when some of our more "animal" instincts surface... I don't know if I'm making sense here...