I live just down the road from one of our many lakes and ponds here in western Maine. Almost every morning I hear the haunting call of the loons as they fly over the house. Although I cherish the symphony I have never figured out why some of these birds making this early morning flight from one lake to another. I have never seen any research that supports my experience – but obviously, for unknown reasons some loons move routinely from pond to pond. Why remains a mystery.
I used to have a woodsman friend who once commented that he didn’t understand why everyone loved loons so much because they were fierce predators who speared their hapless fish, duck, or goslings to death before devouring them. At the time I found Don’s statement ironic (and irritating!) because this man was an excellent brook trout fisherman and deer hunter. In his defense I must add that I had to acknowledge that he also loved all animals; after deer hunting season ended he fed his deer all winter.
I want to digress a moment to tell a story about Don. The year before his death one buck left him a complete set of antlers on the night of the winter solstice; the next year on solstice night Don died. At the time of his death (I didn’t know this until the next day) an antler he gave me clattered to the floor.
Although we never spoke of it I understood that Don’s relationship with wild animals was as intimate as my own. Acknowledging this truth created enormous ambivalence in me because I loved and studied wild animals. I did not kill them. I wanted to separate myself from Don. But at the same time I ate fish and chicken so how could I really make a distinction between him and me? And what about all the plants I ate? Wasn’t I a predator too? I carried this contradiction with great discomfort for years before finally being able to accept it. All life feeds on the lives of others…like it or not. Life, death, and renewal, as Carol Christ believed.
To return to my original story, Don’s remark about the loons stayed with me because up until then I had never thought of loons as predators… I had grown up falling asleep to the sound of loons calling on the lake, watched them raise their young ones at a time before speedboats became a summer reality. Whippoorwills, loons, frogs, and lightening bugs brought in our joyous summer nights. Who could imagine that all of these animals would become so endangered?
Loons are iconic water birds and once they began dying Audubon, followed by many other groups, attempted to bring back the loons, many of which were dead from lead poisoning. As most people know this effort was successful. Today loons once again grace summer ponds…
Eagles also became threatened but through tireless conservation efforts these birds returned to our waters too. On the pond closest to me eagles abound, often plucking loon chicks for dinner. Initially, I took sides with the loons, especially after witnessing a lone chick being snatched up by deadly hooked talons to be swept away, perhaps to feed one of the two eaglets. For years now we have had a giant eagle’s nest on one of our islands that attracts enormous attention from people in boats every summer, people who hope to get a glimpse of one. And everyone I know covets an eagle feather except me.
On our lake we also have a whole gaggle of wild geese who are shot (- illegally in summer – during the fall migration there is an open hunting season on geese as well as other water fowl -) by the people who live here because they don’t like geese fertilizing their lawns. I happen to love geese. They are birds that live in genuine community. As vegetarians they munch away at wild grasses and raise their young with great tenderness gathering in large groups to surround the fuzzy goslings as they mature. There is always a papa goose who acts as protector keeping a sharp eye on all of the others. Geese are shy of humans because they have been treated so badly. Whenever I am paddling in the pond I talk to them hoping they will allow me to kayak close by, but they make no exceptions. In the fall, one of sounds I love the most is listening to the geese as they gather in large V’s to migrate south – a perilous journey. At dusk the skies overflow with their poignant goodbyes. Often, as these birds take flight above me, Mother Goose tales come to mind, because as most feminists on FAR know, geese are associated with the Great Mother. I think it was my love of geese that also helped me to answer a question I had.
I wondered why saving predators of all kinds, loons, eagles, raptors, wolves, wild cats etc. was a priority for the American people (true for other countries too). It is only now, for example, after we have lost 2.9 billion birds, that songbirds like nightingales and warblers, are finally getting some attention. Other birds like geese are perceived to be nothing but a nuisance – an expendable one at that.
What is it about predators that humans find so attractive?
I think predators reflect the patriarchal structure that humans have adopted for the last five thousand years. Patriarchy supports a hierarchal society where some people – mostly middle class white men have all the power. I think our love of predators is a mirror in which men and many women see themselves, one that reflects the power over model, while peaceful matriarchal egalitarian societies like the ones Carol Christ studied, as well as other Indigenous peoples, animals and birds are ignored or hunted, often to extinction.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist (a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.