Summer Animal Wars

“It’s not easy being green”—-Kermit, a frog

I once lived in a house on on the shore of a small cove connected to a large lake. I loved my cove, a wondrous place visited by fish, turtles, crows, starlings, black birds, eagles, egrets, blue herons, hummingbirds, an occasional snake, five geese, many ducks, otters, beavers, and five swans.

About 10 human homes (many more now) existed along the edge of my cove, depending on where you draw the boundary line between my cove and the lake. We human cove dwellers had fairly amicable relationships with each other. Not so the cove animals, some of whom engaged in relentless summer wars.

Consider the hummingbirds, for example. Shortly after we moved in, we hung a sugar-water feeder so we could observe the flight of the delightful-to-watch hummingbirds. After about a week, the hummingbird wars began.

About five hummingbirds aggressively and relentlessly attacked and dive bombed each other with a ferocity totally unexpected given their fragile, cuddly appearance. Several days later, one of them took up a position in a rosemary bush in a corner of the deck where it could observe the feeder. There it remained, constantly on guard. Whenever another hummingbird appeared, this defender of the territory would drive the intruder off. This went on for many days, after which the other hummingbirds stopped visiting the feeder and the winner returned to its nest in a nearby tree.

True, several times a day other hummingbirds would attempt to visit the pink sugar feeder, and some did succeed, but the winning hummingbird who nested in trees along my cove owned the territory around the feeder.

Other animals had their own summer wars. Consider the five swans. Neighbors told me the two larger, mature-looking swans were the parents of of a three-quarter grown trio. The father of the brood spent considerable time driving his offspring away. In short, swift spurts, like a human being doing the butterfly stroke, he pursued his offspring, driving them away. The mother swan floated demurely after her mate.

The father swan focused mainly on one of his progeny and would swim over a half mile to drive this particular swan away. Was food territory being defended? Or was the young swan a male, and the older male sensed future mating competition? Or maybe he just wanted his descendant to leave?

In addition, consider the song of the birds, lulling lullabies to our ears, yet chill warnings, threatening war to intruder birds to stay clear of the territory desired and protected by the singer.

Consider also the ducks, wondrous birds. My neighbor set the stage for the duck wars when she returned from work about 5:30 pm each evening and threw 2 to 3 pounds of dried dog chow into the cove to feed the ducks.

And how the ducks loved it. As a result, in the summer, my cove was visited by more than 100 quacking ducks each evening wanting to be fed. They started arriving about 4 pm, and waited with short-tempered anticipation for a good meal. The ducks gathered into a relatively small area around my neighbor’s house and squabbles among them erupted frequently.

Occasionally, two ducks, both almost always female, would bump into each other, arch their heads back, puff out their chests, and engage in a serious shoving match. They would push ferociously against each other until one of them gave up. If the loser returned to the vicinity of the winner, the pushing squabble started again.

I enjoyed having the ducks around. During the day, they would mob the dock area if we threw bread into the water. “Let’s feed the ducks” was an invitation that would galvanize my grandchildren.

At night, the ducks slept peacefully, gathered like ships into one large squadron in the center of the cove, with occasional squawks to remind us that they were there. The loudest ducks were 5 to 6 white domesticated ducks hatched as pets by another neighbor and released into the lake environment.

After two summers, my duck-feeding neighbor moved away, and in a twinkling, the main body of ducks disappeared from my cove. The easy meal was gone, and so were they.

I was amused by the summer animal wars. And why not? These are cuddly, soft animals, few of which were hurt. The hummingbirds didn’t make contact. The father swan didn’t catch his children. And the ducks didn’t use their beaks.

We now live in town. About six squirrels in our yard constitute all that we see of the animal wars. At various times, one of the largest squirrel would drive visiting squirrels away, vigorously. And he would occasionally chase birds feeding on the ground.

And the singing of the birds reveal their territorial wars.

During the chill that comes during fall-winter days in our town, I reflect on these summer animal wars, nature’s strategies for managing territories without boundaries. These harmless shows of aggression are the means by which animals interact, claim and protect their food source, teach independence to their progeny, protect their mates, etc.

Territorial conflicts exist often in the animal kingdom. Mostly the animals resolve them through posturing, displays, and trials of endurance and strength. Of course, animal wars can be brutal too, resulting in injuries and death. In my cove, the eagle’s war on fish results in death. And the turtle’s war on ducklings results in lost legs and death. And the geese eat duck eggs. And the snakes eat…everything? But these are predator actions, not nice at all.

Consider how all this relates to human behavior. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on what’s important. Boggles the mind.

©2017 by Ed Glassman, Ph.D.

Ed Glassman is a retired professor from the University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and a former columnist for the Chapel Hill Herald and the (Raleigh, North Carolina) Triangle Business Journal.

About the Author
Ed Glassman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former head of the "Program for Team Effectiveness and Creativity," in the medical school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.