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As if ...


I never expected calamity in such a pastoral setting.


Picture it: Clusters of nearly branchless, dead trees, reaching up out of the blue surface of a beaver pond. Atop these snags, sixty feet above the water, the huge nests of an entire colony of great blue herons. A few birds are settled on the nests, but many others perch silently in trees or wade at the edge of the pond.


We’d heard about the heron colony and taken a short hike to see it for ourselves. We approached the shoreline quietly, careful not to disturb the birds in their native habitat. The half-dozen herons we could see among the natural camouflage paid us no notice.


Within a minute or so, we heard a few clucks from various places around the pond. Then a nervous squawking rose, and we saw a hawk swoop toward a heron’s unattended nest. He grabbed at the feathered brood that had nearly outgrown the roost, dislodging one of the fledglings. Its foot caught in the twigs of the nest itself, and the young heron dangled upside down, high above the water. Guttural screams of alarm came from the dozens of herons we now saw perched on dead branches, all facing the attacked nest. The parent bird swooped in as the hawk circled and dove again. We watched, and the entire colony of herons watched, as the aggressor dug his talons into another fledgling and carried it off, leaving its sibling twisting desperately in the air.


Unreasonably, I wondered, “Why are all the other herons just standing around watching?” I don’t know what I expected them to do; wild birds do not call 911 or gather to stand below with a safety net.


The fledgling finally dropped to the water with a soft splash. He did not move, and neither did any of the other birds, who had fallen silent. Like mourners at a gravesite, they all faced the scene as if to pay their respects.


As a human, I was horrified by the violence of the hawk attack. But I realized the hawk did what he was hard-wired as a raptor to do: capture prey with his talons in order to eat. His actions were a matter of survival, as were those of every graceful, wading heron that suddenly snatched a fish from the water. The hawk understood this, and so did the herons.


As if we are higher life forms, colonies of humans watch now as Russian forces annihilate the Ukrainian people and their homeland. We lament the news, gasp at videos of buildings exploding into rubble, cry at the sight of bleeding children and desperate refugees. We stand by as we consider our options, weighing how to best protect ourselves and our interests. As if the violent taking of life were simply a matter of survival, and not the uniquely human greed for power and wealth.


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