Thursday, August 13, 2015

When Compassion and Biology Collide

With a flash of annoyance, I drove up behind a car stopped in the middle of a suburban street. Then I noticed that facing me was another car in the opposite lane. Between the two cars a mom duck was crossing followed by her string of ducklings. A lot of ducklings, maybe a dozen.

Ducklings in Lower Street, Willoughby - - 1395991
They all crossed. As the cars started up, the mom duck jumped the curb. Her ducklings followed one by one.

The second smallest duckling jumped at the curb--and missed. The smallest also failed to make the jump. The two ducklings flapped their nascent wings, jumping at the curb again and again.

No luck.

They stumbled along the gutter, jumping and flapping, while the mom duck hunkered down on the sidewalk surrounded by the rest of her brood. A crow flew down to stand in the grass over the struggling ducklings. The ducklings would make a nice feast once they'd exhausted themselves.

Unaware of the ducklings that I was still watching, another suburbanite drove up behind me and honked. I had to go. I put my car in gear.

It’s just biology, I thought as I drove slowly away. What duck fledges a dozen ducklings? There is nothing to do except let nature take its course. After all, crows deserve to eat, too.

I drove a couple of blocks, then stopped. I couldn’t just leave. I had to try and help.

By the time I returned, the stranded ducklings had gotten pretty far from where the mom duck still crouched--the crow keeping pace over them.

I parked and got out.

Now I’ve lived with mammalogists and ornithologists. I know how to grasp a small wild thing: firmly, wrapping my hand around its body just behind the head. Hold it firmly, and it won’t hurt itself or you.

I know what to do. That doesn’t mean I can do it. My socialized fear of hurting interferes.

I scooped up the second smallest duckling. Although I held it too loosely, so it flailed in my hand, I managed to set it down near the mom duck. It ran to safety, tucking itself into the mass of ducklings. I felt the rush of warmth that philanthropy brings.

Mother and chicks - - 1375741Then I went after the smallest duckling. It was way down the street, having run in total panic from my hand descending on its sibling. I was able to scoop it up, but couldn’t bring myself to grasp it firmly enough. It wriggled hard. I held it against my breast. It wriggled harder, falling from my fingers to the sidewalk. I didn’t hear it land, but imagined a sickening thumb.

Still, a moment later it ran to its mother. I smiled benevolently at it.

Only, something was wrong. This smallest duckling didn’t wiggle into the brood, but huddled into a small ball, separate from the others. Like it wasn’t sure of its welcome. Like it knew that that was as close as it could come and not be pecked.

No question: the smallest duckling was crow food. And although it was saved for now, how long did the second smallest have? It’d be an extraordinary year when a duck could fledge a dozen ducklings.

I went back to my car and my errands. I didn’t want to see the painful end to the smallest duckling’s story. I didn’t want to see biology at work.

Laying eggs is relatively cheap, and predators go for the weakest first. Perhaps the sole purpose of smaller siblings is to be a dangling bribe, insurance for those with a better chance of reaching adulthood.

If so, what price an act of compassion? Did I actually save one duck and give another a chance? Or did I just make myself feel good, while leaving those small ducklings to go through the same suffering all over again, later?

I don’t know.

But life is complicated and mysterious. If the value of helping is only measured by results, it means nothing when we don’t save the way we intended. But what if there is meaning in simply extending a hand, in trying?

AMERICAN CROW (7143675301)If the purpose of the smallest ducklings is to protect the others by dying, then perhaps I did ok, even if my interference was naive. The thing is, my heart would not let me drive away. Of that I am sure.

Let nature go on clipping the string of ducklings, life by tiny life. I still had to put my hand in, all justifications aside.

That is also biology.

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