Minnesota Outdoors: In appreciation of the cycle of life, and baby animals who make it
To be a baby animal born into a harsh environment full of predators, inclement weather, disease and parasites, is the definition of vulnerability. Indeed, whether that baby animal is an avian nestling of any and all kinds, a white-tailed deer fawn, a baby cottontail rabbit, or frogs and toads having just left their natal ponds after surviving their tadpole transitions, it’s a miracle that any infant creature makes it to adulthood at all.
Once again the resident trumpeter swan pair commenced to courting and nesting on Assawa Lake in early spring. The pair, now a little more experienced, were second nesters, although last year their five cygnets perished one by one, the last two dying inexplicably a month and half after hatching.
The trumpeters even used the same nest as last year—the female also laying the same number of eggs as last season, too. Although when this year’s cygnets hatched, I only observed four, surmising that one egg was unviable. Or was it? Did one cygnet quickly succumb to a predator? I couldn’t be sure. Yet there the proud parents were, leading their four hungry cygnets around the lake, teaching them how to feed on various aquatic greens and insects. All was well.
Not even one full month had passed when, one-by-one, all four cygnets vanished. The foursome was born June 2nd, and the last of the four was gone on June 20th. One of the cygnets was discovered dead, floating in the water near the nest-site, albeit headless, which is often the sign of a mink. Regardless of how or by what that each of the cygnets died wasn’t important I suppose, given the fact that Nature was being Nature, though admittedly a tough pill to swallow.
Years ago while assisting DNR bear biologists with capturing a hibernating radio collared sow bear with cubs along with helping a group of Bemidji high school biology students learn and participate in the experience, Karen Noyce, one of the bear biologists and now retired, fielded questions that were being peppered at her by curious students while she handled the anesthetized sow. One student asked, “What do bears eat!”
Karen answered, “Mostly plant material—fruits and nuts—but in the spring, mostly fawns.” For certain, fawns and moose and elk calves are targeted by bears and wolves each spring until the young ungulates can run faster and escape easier. Until that time arrives, however, these young newborns are vulnerable to predation.
A few years ago in early June while driving back roads in northern Kittson County not far from the Manitoba border searching the area for elk and deer, I saw a black bear cross the road about 100 yards ahead of the truck. Speeding up to the spot where the bear had crossed, I peered into the aspen woodland to see if I could see the bear. In seconds I spotted the large black animal running, then suddenly stop, followed by the piercing sound of a shrieking fawn. As quickly as the bear had stopped, it was now carrying a newborn fawn in its jaws.
This year’s resident American robins nested in the white spruce tree next to my house. Normally making excellent nesting trees, spruce trees provide concealment from predators and protection from weather. After I discovered the newly made nest about waist high in the boughs, I periodically checked the nest for progress. Soon there was one blue-green egg, then another, and another until there were four.
One morning I awoke to the sound of a screeching blue jay, followed by a commotion of wings beating against spruce branches and the cries of a distressed robin. “Uh-oh”, I thought, “a nest robber blue jay is up to its old tricks.” And sure enough, one egg was missing and another was cracked. And now that the nest was discovered, I thought some more, I was fairly confident that the surviving nestlings might not live to fledge.
A couple weeks later, two birds hatched, but a week after hatching, both birds disappeared. Was it blue jays that took the nestlings? Maybe. It could’ve also been a red squirrel or a chipmunk, too. But who knows for sure.
Though in Nature the loss of life is a part of life, this necessary part of the cycle is offset by the many that are born . . . and survive and reproduce . . . to perpetuate new generations as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane likes your feedback and to hear your stories from Minnesota's outdoors. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.