A Common Death

Brown-headed Cowbird

Spend enough time in the woods and sooner or later you’ll find yourself among remnants of the dead. A skull here, a pile of feathers there—the last remains of some unfortunate creature, a shard of the life that was. This is death as a state of being—sad, of course, but static, disconnected, a few steps removed from the vital force that gave those remains shape and motion.

Coming upon a predator devouring a fresh kill is a step closer, but there the act is done, the prey inert, a lifeless form converted into a package of protein and fat, minerals and vitamins, whose consumption powers the life engine of another. A few years ago, I discovered a Peregrine Falcon making a meal of a Northern Pintail, and though I couldn’t help but have sympathy for the duck (while also allowing that I’d feel terrible if the falcon starved), it still lacked a certain emotional resonance.

Seeing an animal die is another story all together. It strikes at something fundamental and profound, and cuts to the core of your humanity. Sharing the last moments of another living being is at once the most intimate and heartbreaking of experiences.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

This spring, I watched a Sharp-shinned Hawk take a female Brown-headed Cowbird in our back yard. A group of them were feeding on the ground, and the raptor struck like lightning, scattering all but the target bird now clutched firmly in its talons, struggling in a desperate attempt to escape. Wing outstretched, the hawk paused for a moment, letting its prey quiet, then flew off to a secluded spot to eat.

There are many who believe that most—if not all—animals are driven purely by instinct, and lack emotions, self-awareness, or anything resembling inner lives. From a detached, intellectual perspective I suppose this is plausible. But get out and open your eyes to the world around you, your heart to the lives of those with whom we share it, and your mind to the breadth and depth of a non-human experience of it, and you’ll begin to appreciate that the scope of life is greater than our narrow human understanding of it.

When you watch a doomed songbird struggle in a raptor’s grasp, hear her cries as she fights for life, it changes your perspective. You’re bearing witness to something primal and deeply connecting: we all want to live, and in that moment, you recognize that you and the bird are the same—that bird knows that she is dying, will cease to exist as an individual. This has nothing to do with the survival of the species. Intellectually, each one of us knows that our death will not affect the future of our species as a whole; in such terms, a single human is insignificant. We know this, yet somehow it matters to us if we live or die. Animals know this as well. A zebra caught in a lion’s jaws, a sea lion snared by a killer whale, a cowbird trapped in the talons of a Sharp-shinned hawk—on some level, they all recognize that their deaths don’t spell the end of the species, yet each one still struggles to break free, to get away. To live. Why?

You can, if you’d like, argue that they’re simply obeying instinct. I disagree. They struggle because they all realize something fundamental: If I don’t escape, I am going to die. In the drama that unfolded in our backyard, the cowbird fought not out of some pre-programmed instinct, but because the bird didn’t want her life to end. Put another way, the bird recognized that she was unique, a discrete individual unlike any other member of her species. Far from a living machine bound solely by instinct, this little bird was driven by the same fears and desires within us all: I don’t want to die. I want to live.

Why is this important? It means that we have to rethink our approach to the world around us, change the nature of our relationship to it. If other animals do have emotions, do on some level experience loss, pain, joy, love, sorrow, then it’s no longer possible to see them as shallow, unfeeling creatures and treat them as callously as we do. We can no longer visit wanton death and destruction upon them or their homes. We must consider their lives as equal to our own.

It also means, though, that we, as a species, are not alone. There are threads that connect us with all life on Earth; beyond shared biology or genetics, we have commonalities of emotion and experience. We may not understand the emotions or inner lives of other animals, but we can be sure they have them. And though their experiences of the world may be different than ours, they are no less rich for it.

We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to remove ourselves from the province of Nature, but we, like all animals, are inextricably caught in Her grasp, subject to the same laws and bound for the same fate. We can rail against it all we want, but it will come to naught. And in the attempt, we cheapen ourselves, breaking connections that have historically sustained and nourished us. With these links gone, we inflict horrors upon our environment in the name of progress, failing to recognize that the damage we do only hastens our own demise.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when we understood our connection to the Earth, and appreciated our dependence on its bounty. In these times of ecological crisis, perhaps the way forward lies in looking back, in mining our collective cultural memory and returning this knowledge to the surface. If we, as a species, can find the will to do this, then I believe there is still time. If we can learn to walk more gently upon the planet, we may yet avert the worst of things.

If the cowbird’s death reminds us of our links to the world around us, and fires in us a desire to protect and nurture our common home, perhaps she would be content. Perhaps then she would know that, beyond sustaining the life of a single bird, she helped to save us all.

Carl Safina has written extensively on the emotions and inner lives of animals, most notably in his recent work, Beyond Words: What Animals Think And FeelI highly recommend it.