For the Birds Radio Program: Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day Every February second, perhaps because in the dead of winter our brains don’t function at their best, Americans and Canadians wake up some poor hibernating rodent, expecting for some unfathomable reason that the dazed and bleary little rodent will have information that not even the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel, or the Farmer’s Almanac can provide. The woodchucks used in this bizarre ritual are much too groggy and terrified of people to pay attention to anything so insubstantial as a shadow, so really, if this longstanding tradition has any predictive value at all, it can’t have anything to do with the poor groundhog’s perception of shadows, so why don’t we skip the middleman and just look out the window to see if it’s sunny or not? Groundhog Day is a bad enough way to be treating rodents, but birders and bird photographers have been exceeding that in what seems to me to be a genuinely over the top way—when a rare owl suddenly turns up on rare bird alerts, some birders have been showing up with pet store mice and hamsters which they toss out like popcorn to get the owls to come in closer for photos. Hungry owls can’t help themselves—they see a rodent move and they go in for the kill. Owls are obligate predators, and wild mice are a natural food for them. Pet store mice arouse all their natural instincts, but they are not at all a natural food for them. Pet mice can harbor parasites and diseases that can hurt the owl individually, and by releasing an exotic animal to the wild, we open that Pandora’s box, too. Bad as introducing domestic animals to the wild can be, the owl is also disserved by learning to associate humans with food. The Snowy Owls that have descended upon a great swath of the United States this winter are mostly immatures who spent their entire lives until now in the tundra wilderness. It’s impossible for them to penetrate much of southern Canada of anywhere into the United States without having to deal with roads and highways, farms and towns and large cities. But it’s far better overall for them to try to keep their distance than to learn to actively approach a strange person hoping he’s got a gerbil in his pocket to share for lunch. Some people are so cosmically thoughtless that they’ve been tossing mice out close to roads, and for a prettier picture composition, even on the opposite side of the road from where the owl is perched. Owls have incredibly keen hearing, but it’s directional, and if they’re focused on a mouse, they won’t even notice the car or truck bearing down on them. Of course, all these considerations, taking the owls’ well-being and the health of the environment into account, are important in any discussion of the ethics of feeding pet store mice to owls, but I’m dismayed that someone can pick up any struggling warm-blooded mammal and drive off with it, studiedly ignoring the intelligent little eyes and the nose and whiskers wiggling with curiosity, to just toss it out on the snow to be torn apart by an owl. Pet store rodents are so much like us that they’ve served in laboratories as experimental subjects that have helped us conquer some human diseases. Predation is a vital part of nature, and laboratory research is a vital part of our own intelligent nature, but intrinsic to our fundamental humanity are empathy and compassion. Whether we’re dragging a slumbering woodchuck out of its den for a patently ridiculous weather forecast or, more lethally, tossing a mouse out on the snow for an owl’s dinner, we’ve jettisoned an essential piece of our humanity for nothing more than a quick photo op.