A few days ago, I was headed home after stopping at the dollar store to gather the usual sundries. As I passed through the busy parking lot, seeking the exit, something caught my eye. There, off to the left, a short distance away was a pair of male grackles, going hard at it, a small vortex of fury on a sea of asphalt, oblivious to everything around them.
As anybody who lives in River City already knows, grackles are a part of the landscape here. They are numerous, gregarious, demonstrative, loud, and everywhere. They camp in large numbers in seemingly odd locations: next to busy parking lots, around high-traffic intersections, on campus commons. Wherever you find humans, you also find these close relatives of the common crow. Mature male grackles are mid-sized birds, a handsome glossy, iridescent blue-black from head to toe. Females are a tad smaller, and as is usually the case, drably adorned by comparison, with matte brown bodies and slightly darker wings. Like other members of family corvidae, grackles are pretty sharp cookies, known for their high intelligence and adaptability. If captured early, they may even be taught to mimic human speech. And being so uncommonly well-equipped, they flourish over an exceptionally large and ever-expanding range, now covering most of North America.
It isn’t at all unusual to see individual grackles, always males, squaring off on occasion over the standard points of contention: food, territory, mating rights. But these conflicts, such as they are, are mostly just for show. And a fine show it is, avian high drama, a spectacle of sound and fury with much squawking and screeching and leaping and forceful flapping of wings, but little bite. After a suitable period of skirmishing, following some protocol only the grackles understand, one emerges as the winner. And the dispute having settled, the combatants go their separate ways, the victor’s status slightly elevated, the loser’s slightly diminished, but neither any worse for the wear. This is the way these things are supposed to work. But somehow this time the fail-safes had failed. And what I was seeing was something that is not supposed to happen.
What was surprising about the thing was its sheer intensity. This wasn’t the usual dustup, a second or three of noisy commotion and then done. It was an altogether different grade of conflict. It was vicious and dirty. It was personal. They really seemed to hate each other. This way and that they rolled across the asphalt, locked in a mutual death grip, pecking furiously, claws as sharp as ice picks lashing, a tiny savage struggle made somehow more acute by the nearly complete lack of sound. Instead of the usual loud and raucous vocalizing, all you heard was a peculiar “errrr” sound, waxing and waning with the struggle, so low that you had to lean close to even hear it.
Every vocalization has some kind of meaning: “I’m hungry,” “I’m horny,” “This is my turf,” “Here comes a threat.” Sometimes the meaning is clear to us humans, sometimes not. But any higher-order vertebrate would instantly have recognized the meaning of this sound. You would have, too. You would have recognized it as the signature of mortal combat. And if you’re ever in a really serious, life or death, struggle you’ll likely make a version of it yourself. There is no sound on earth quite like it: guttural, inarticulate, desperate, primal, issuing from the innermost core of a being in deadly peril and fully aware of it. There is no subtlety to the sound whatsoever, and its message is clear and unambiguous. If you are an endothermic vertebrate, this is the sound you emit when you are in a death struggle, and every fiber of your being is focused on surviving.
I stopped and stared, riveted to the minute display of raw fury, so incongruous in the blandly artificial setting. My initial reaction had been a sort of inarticulate exclamatory reflex, which had it actually congealed into words would have been something on the order of “Holy shit!” But my second reaction was a typically human one: I need to stop this! My inner schoolmarm recoiled at the brute display and aimed to put an end to the nonsense before somebody got hurt.
But I wasn’t quick enough. I had already slid the shift lever into “park” and was reaching for the door handle with the other hand when the conflict settled itself. Without warning, one of the combatants suddenly broke it off. It fluttered a short distance away and took up a station, where it strolled back and forth at a leisurely pace, tracing an elongated figure-8, all the while exuding what seemed like an exaggerated casual air, as if to say: No big deal, all the while pointedly pretending to ignore the other, who only seconds before had been its bitter enemy. And who now lay trembling upon the pavement, broken and bleeding, gasping for breath, in extremis, its life ebbing away.
Because we have the good fortune to possess large brains and supple, capable hands, and because we have the further good fortune to live at a certain point in history, at the apex of millennia of continuous learning and refinement, many of us humans now have the extraordinary luxury of going through life from beginning to end almost completely insulated from the natural world’s rougher edges. And because we live in this bubble we forget. We forget that Nature is not the warm and cuddly goddess of goodness and plenty that our privileged lives allow us to imagine.
From the safety and comfort of our bubble we personalize Nature, imagine that “she” welcomes and nurtures, and enfolds all in a warm motherly embrace. But in reality Nature would just as soon smite us with a lethal plague as look at us. She is neither warmth nor goodness. Indifferent to our struggles, immune to our blandishments, Nature is nothing if not coolly, cruelly efficient, utterly unsentimental, and deeply red in tooth and claw. And every now and again, whether we like it or not, she chooses to remind us of this.