Death, anger and grief in the world of nature


(Photo from the outstanding Canadian wildlife-photo blog

Recently Raymond and I were looking after some cats for Queensborough friends who were away on a trip. Not catsitting or anything; just checking in on the cats every day at their home, making sure their food and water supply was good, cleaning the littterbox when needed, and giving them some quality human-affection time. (Since they are lovely and friendly cats, and we love cats anyway, this was a very pleasant chore. Okay, except maybe for the litterbox part.)

Anyway, this evening I want to tell you a little story about something that happened on one of those cat-tending days. It was a poignant little interlude, and one that really opened my eyes about how things can be in the natural world. And also something that, I am sure, would never have happened to us in our previous big-city life.

Raymond was doing the cat-visiting duties on that particular evening, and the first order of business was to put back into the house for the night the one cat who spends his days out of doors. (Don’t worry! His shots are up to date and he, like the other cats in the household, has been neutered. So he doesn’t risk either rabies or progeny on his outdoor visits.)

This normally routine and brief task was seriously interrupted by a loud cacophony of birds. As Raymond looked up during his walk from the driveway to the front door, he saw two robins who were looking directly and him and shrieking. Non-stop. And looking down, he saw … a dead robin. Not a baby, but not too big. And clearly the robin had only just been killed – by Mr. Outdoor Cat himself, who doubtless (being innately a hunter, as all cats are) was feeling pretty proud of himself, though his air was matter-of-fact.

Suddenly the robins, clearly enraged at their loss, started dive-bombing both the cat and his minder. Seriously! Still shrieking at top volume! Raymond hurriedly put the cat inside, and grabbed a broom for protection on his way back out of the house. And that’s when he noticed that one of the birds, which had been holding a worm in its mouth when he went into the house, was still holding the worm in its mouth, even as it shrieked and dived. It seemed a pretty clear message:

“I was just about to feed my little one – and that monster killed it!
Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!”

How often do we stop and think that creatures in the world around us might have feelings, just like we do? That for every raccoon or chipmunk or turtle killed by cars on the roadway, for every bird killed by a cat or stolen from the nest by a predator bird, there are family members – mates, parents, maybe offspring – who, in their own way, feel the anger and sadness that we humans do when suddenly bereft?

Interestingly, the robin incident happened on a Sunday evening. That same morning, the gospel reading in church at St. Andrew’s United was Matthew 10:24-39, which contains the verse “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” It’s the text on which the old children’s hymn that you might have sung in Sunday school is based: “God sees the little sparrow fall;/it meets his tender view./If God so loves the little birds/I know he loves me too.”

The very visible and audible grief of the robins made me think of that verse and that hymn; and Raymond and I joined them in mourning for their poor fallen little bird.

6 thoughts on “Death, anger and grief in the world of nature

  1. The poor mother robin — you’re right that they care and have feelings, as any mother has. I can imagine that the incident stayed with you for some time, especially when you joined in mourning the next morning. I, too, join in mourning, because anybody who knows love animals (and receives that love in return) will understand your feelings. Thanks for sharing this, Katherine.

  2. For a few years, I used to have a family of robins that would make their nest in a big Boston fern plant which I usually bought just for that purpose. They would build the nest facing the entrance door to the house because they’re less scared of people than they are of predators. The greenery gave them protection, kept them in the cool shade and also provided a supply of insects. Because there had been many generations, the parents never worried when I opened the door to get out or came in the house with bags after my errands. One day, as I was in the house, I heard a terrible racket outside, ran out and saw the mother and father whirling about, screaming at the top of their lungs. I looked on the floor of the veranda and saw that a baby had fallen from the nest. The parents wouldn’t stop screaming. I ran back inside, took my gardening gloves and ran back out with a little step, took the baby, got up on the step and the motion stopped. As they saw me put the baby back in the nest, pushing the other two to make some room for it, they flew about but became very silent. Once the baby was back in, I took my step and got back in the house to let them get back to their babies and I like to think that they were happy that this large being had gotten them their baby back ;o) – they made new nests every summer (sometimes twice and once even three times in the same summer) for about 10 years and then, they moved on… I kinda miss them but though I’ve put up another fern, they never came back.

    • Johanne, what an absolutely lovely story. Thank you so much for sharing it! It’s interesting that the parent robins trusted you enough (probably thanks to all those years of being neighbours) to try to help them (and their baby) in their distress. And a happy ending – how great is that?

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