Brooklyn nature, red in tooth and claw

Marathon training has put a serious damper on my birding habit. Last year, I tried to finesse the conflict by incorporating what I called “birding jogs” (which involved far more walking and standing than jogging) into my easy mileage. This year, I’ve called bullshit on that practice and erected a firewall between my two hobbies.

So far, it’s holding reasonably well.

But today was a rest day on my training schedule. Naturally, I spent it unrestfully, tromping through Prospect Park with binoculars around my neck. I saw some great birds – the rarest a worm-eating warbler, the prettiest a male redstart, the most arresting a chestnut-sided warbler in fall plumage, lacking the namesake chestnut sides but seemingly dusted with greenish-yellow glitter on its back, so that it shimmered when it moved.

That’s not what I want to write about, though. What I want to write about is nature’s brutal, seamy underside. It’s not all pretty flowers and birdsongs out there, you know. Sometimes it’s the stuff of horror movies.

Killer wasps

I did not take this picture, because I don't do giant wasps. (Photo credit to Chuck Holliday.)

Not my picture, and certainly not my hand.  (Photo credit and award for courage go instead to Chuck Holliday.)

Several times over the past month, while running through the park (or even down tree-lined brownstone streets), I’ve been startled by ginormous wasps. By “ginormous,” I mean “larger than any insect that’s not a butterfly or moth should be.” We are talking about something that looks like a yellow jacket on steroids – an inch and a half, maybe two inches long, and proportionately wide.

Thanks to Matthew Wills and his excellent blog, Backyard and Beyond, I’ve learned that these beasts are cicada killer wasps (sometimes also called cicada hawks). I have also learned that they are harmless.

Harmless to humans, that is. If you are a cicada and you see one, you should scream and run away.

Ambling by the Prospect Park picnic house this morning, I half-saw, half-heard a whirring of wings followed by a rustling in the grass. I thought perhaps it was a small bird, and so I took a closer look. Not a bird: it was a cicada killer wasp grasping an immobilized cicada (the cicada was even larger than the wasp), and dragging it to its underground lair.

That is what female cicada killer wasps do. They find a cicada, inject it with venom from the formidable stinger on their tail, and then transport it – paralyzed, but still alive – to their burrow, where they lay an egg on it so that the larva will have something to eat when it emerges a few days later.

Did I mention the cicada is still alive? Yeah.

Brood parasitism

Moving on from Alien to The Bad Seed . . . as I sat and ate lunch* in the spot local birders call “the back of the Lily Pond,” I heard a commotion in the foliage overhead. Something was cheeping loudly and insistently and, even to this bird-lover, annoyingly; something else was flying to and fro and fro and to, in what appeared to be a frantic effort to satiate the cheeping something.

I spotted the cheeping something first, a streaky, brownish-grayish fledgling. The to-and-fro something was harder to get a bead on because, well, it was moving to and fro. I finally identified it as a red-eyed vireo, a slim, unobtrusive bird with an olive back and rather elegant black and white striping above its (red) eye.

The fledgling the adult vireo was working so hard to feed was roughly twice its size. And it wasn’t a vireo.

“Brood parasitism” refers to the phenomenon of birds laying eggs in the nests of other birds, relying on an unwitting host to incubate the eggs and feed their young when they hatch. Sometimes, the intruders destroy the host’s own eggs. Even if they don’t, the offspring of the intruder – larger and more aggressive – often outcompetes the offspring of the host. The host babies succumb to hunger, while the intruder baby thrives.

Brown-headed cowbirds are notorious brood parasites, so much so that as they’ve evolved, they’ve lost the ability to construct their own nests. (You can take that as a reminder that evolution isn’t necessarily about improvement. It’s about what works – and sometimes, stupidity and venality work. Consider, for example, the way the Republican Party has evolved . . . )

I knew about cowbirds and parasitism, of course, and I’d never held it against them. But I’d never actually seen it in practice until today. As much as I try not to anthropomorphize, after watching that vireo struggle to feed that hulking fledgling, I came away feeling that cowbirds are real assholes.

*Lunch, just in case you’re interested, was an aluminum pie plate bending under the weight of rice and peas and various Trini veggie sides (callaloo, channa, plantains). One of many things I love about Brooklyn is the fact that only a few blocks separate some of the most secluded sections of its largest park from some of the best West Indian food around.


1 thought on “Brooklyn nature, red in tooth and claw

  1. Love it! I thought for a minute you were creating a spin off of the “Survival” reality show. Vicious, cold, brutal, manipulative, and cunning animal kingdom. Of course you needed some comfort food!


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