Tony Vagneur: Inspired by the littlest of lives
The 3 p.m. sun at 9,500 feet had vanished behind a black cloud and a jacket was sounding good. We’d been bushwhacking through a lot of terrain, thanks to numerous blowdowns across the trail from the strong winds of this summer. Finally, we’d delivered the cattle salt to the appropriate licks and were in that end of day relaxed mode of knowing we were heading home, traveling along a well-worn path through an aspen grove.
Off to my left, it caught my eye, a tiny bird, its lineage unknown, but clearly a chick too young and unable to fly. Oh my, it scurried away from my horse, wiggling through the grass, obviously trying to get away from perceived danger. I understood, and turned my horses off the trail to the right, trying to give the little creature every advantage. Tux, my dog, was up ahead and missing the scene play out.
Should I stop, no. It might have fallen out of the nest, or maybe it had a crash landing after the first flying lesson. Likely, the mother was close by, watching. It didn’t need me clomping after it, and what could I do, anyway. But something about it struck me deep inside, watching the little creature doing its best to protect itself. Fledglings are like that.
On some level, all of nature seems hard-wired to stay alive, to not give up without a fight. Even live trees, when attacked with an axe, ooze sap and begin repair immediately. Here this little mite of a bird was so brave, utilizing every weapon it had. Which wasn’t much, no more than nimble feet and remarkable camouflage. Did it have any concept of death?
It survived me and my crew, but would a prey animal or bird swoop down on it seconds after we had passed? What were its odds? It had so much promise as we rode by, so cute, so deserving of life, but in the natural world, cruelty exists without empathy or sympathy. It’s the innocence that pulls us in, I reckon.
But other than wanting to nurture it in some way, its plight got me to wondering — what was behind the tiny beak and eyes? Was the immature creature aware of its existence in the big world, or even was it aware of itself as a bird? It must have felt incredibly lonely without its nest mates to converse with. Was there an adrenalin rush?
If you attempt to answer those questions, you will find that the science is very murky. Some scientists say animals have consciousness, others say no. If you know much about scientific research, you know that anecdotal evidence is generally abhorred. We can’t talk to animals due to the language barrier, so in the absence of concrete scientific evidence we are free to use our own experiences to show us the way.
If you’d like to read something fun, try “The Parrot’s Lament” by Eugene Linden. It gives great credence to anecdotal stories, some of which all of us seem to have. Our cats, dogs, horses, mice, birds, bear, elk and deer all give us things to amaze us and to talk about.
There was the time I tossed a dead water snake out into the horse pasture, next to an irrigation sprinkler riser. A magpie flew down, examined it, and hid behind the riser, waiting for another bird to swoop down on what it thought might be lunch. It might have been a crow, I don’t clearly remember, but whatever it was, the magpie, hiding in ambush, pounced on the unlucky bird. For a brief moment, feathers flew.
Once upon a time, I had a nice buggy horse, Little Trotter, we called him. Four white socks and a blaze face, he was a beauty. My cousin, Don Stapleton, and I had fun driving him around Owl Creek with a sleigh and kept him at Sam Stapleton’s ranch one winter.
Sam accosted me at the Elks Club one evening and asked that I remove the horse from his premises. What? During the day, it seemed, Little Trotter would get bored and push the cows he shared the corral with up against the gate until the gate popped open and the cows got out. If that didn’t work, he’d push them through the rail fence. Sam had watched him do this several times, out of disbelief, and was tired of rounding up the cows every afternoon.
Call it anyway you want, but I’m saying both events involved animal consciousness, and intelligence.
The other day, I rode by the little bird’s neighborhood again. No sign of it around, and no tiny feathers floating across the grass. My hope is it’s blessed with life’s fresh crown, flitting from aspen branch to evergreen limb, eating bugs and loving life from the air. The bird doesn’t know, but it’s a hero of mine.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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When judged by the usual metrics, the COVID-plagued 2020-21 ski season will go into the books as a horrible one for Aspen and Snowmass.