Nature’s majesty sometimes becomes nature’s nightmare.
When you see a video of a lion chasing an antelope, who do you pull for? Or when the screen shows a hawk bearing down on an unsuspecting rabbit, where do your allegiances lie?
Often we find ourselves pulling for that underdog, even though we realize that the law of the jungle requires the lion to win sometimes and the hawk to prevail. After all, if they don’t succeed their species is in jeopardy.
Fortunately there are many, many more individuals of prey than there are individual predators. There is safety in numbers, and the loss of one antelope means that the herd will survive for another day.
Knowing how and why nature works as it does, however, makes it no easier when it happens in your own backyard.
The great blue heron is an impressive creature. It stands over four feet tall, has pronounced features and blue-gray feathers. It is a stealthy predator that feeds on fish. Unfortunately, some of the fish on its diet inhabited the small garden pond we have on our patio.
The pond was something my wife wanted when we moved a couple of years ago. At our previous address we had a fairly substantial pond beneath the shade of many trees in our yard. We put a few koi and goldfish in the pond, and over the years they multiplied until we had several dozen at the time of our move.
The new pond was much smaller and was absent the sheltering boughs of trees overhead. It was such a small thing, though, and we didn’t give much thought to the idea that predatory birds might pick it out as a dining spot. A few of the fish from Pond No. 1 were brought to Pond No. 2, and, with the addition of a few purchases and a summertime hatching, we had close to 20 fish showing off their colors. Until last week.
Our dogs became excited one morning, and when I opened the door to the patio to let them out, I saw a great blue standing in our backyard. It immediately flew away when the dogs burst through the doorway and began barking at the uninvited visitor.
Since it was not too close to the pond, it didn’t really register on my alarm, and I thought with the dogs in and out through the day, the bird would not bother returning to investigate the tiny body of water. Wrong!
A few days later I went out onto the patio and found one of our larger goldfish – about eight inches long – on the concrete near the patio wall, some 15 feet from the pond. It was coated in sand, and some of its scales were gone. I presumed it was dead, but after looking closer saw that its mouth was still moving, so I put it back into the water.
Upon placing it in the water, I made the terrible discovery that almost all of the rest of the fish were gone.
There was one other large goldfish and a butterfly koi that we had bought this summer. They were both cowering in the shadows of the water plants at the far end of the pond.
We have since bought netting and put it over the water so that the remaining fish will be safe – we hope. But the discovery of the Fish Pond Massacre, as it will be forever known, has given us cause to consider how our perspective on the ways of the world can change.
A year and a half ago we saw a great blue heron fishing below a waterfall in northern Oregon. We were transfixed by the way it took careful steps in the water and pierced through the water to catch its prey.
We had no problem with this wonderful creature doing what its genetic makeup required it to do in order to survive. However, when it came to the same kind of bird and the same kind of prey in our own backyard, we were not nearly as charitable in our thinking.
In Oregon we were on the side of the bird. In South Carolina we were on the side of the fish. In the end it is nature that wins out as one generation of herons gives way to the next, one school of fish makes way for the next.
Jeff Wallace is the retired editor of the Aiken Standard.