nature red in tooth and claw
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by KJ Hannah Greenberg



It was not  the fox barking, but rather the “klee-klee-klee” call of the slate-blue winged falcon, which always sounded to Agnes like “kill thee, kill thee, kill thee,” that startled the small passerine. She shook as she resettled herself over her sparse nest. That falcon’s constant call, coupled with the regular response of the area’s kestrel population, worried her so much that she had only managed to lay two eggs.


When her chicks hatched, they’d be blind, featherless and helpless until they fledged. That span would take roughly two weeks. In the interim, she and Barney would have to continuously cull insects and berries and then to regurgitate those meals for their young to better the odds that at least one of those hatchlings would survive. The neighborhood’s aerial predators, those avians intent on swooping down not just on mice, on moles, on adders, and on lizards, but also on songbirds, too, had young to feed.


Martha had met her end in their talons. That silly meadowlark had audaciously flapped her wings at those larger birds, hoping to draw their attention away from her nest, toward the bothersome grass snakes that had taken up residence nearby. She had succeeded.


The winged hunters had caught and eaten nearly half of a dozen of the reptilian monsters. Thereafter, those falcons had returned for Martha, for her young, and for the contents and guardians of close by partridge, dove, and yellowthroat homes. The only goodness resulting from Martha’s unintentional sacrifice was that the slithering fiends had temporarily been reduced in number.


As for the predators, kestrels have few natural enemies. Agnes believed that only larger hawks and humans hunted those near apex brutes and that while those otherwise peerless raiders preferred rabbits, squirrels, and lizards to redwings, they’d as easily feast on small birds as chomp on other creatures.


Agnes shuddered anew when the air was temporarily filled with the chatter call of several killers. She also tensed; Barney had not yet returned to the nest. They were taking turns incubating their eggs since each of them preferred the relatively safer task of feeding themselves. Not only did incubating make a parent bird susceptible to falcons, but at sunset and sunrise, crepuscular fiends such as badgers, martens, and mink also sought the taste of winged things. Only at night, when she and her brooding partner settled together for warmth and companionship did Agnes feel less anxious.


The sun sank. Mixed avian babble was replaced by the kestrels’ “klee-klee-klee” rant. Barney still had not returned. Agnes’ distress was punctuated by gurgles from her alimentary canal. She and her mate had built their twig and grass nest, she had laid their eggs, and she had warmed them Now, she was hungry.


If she flew off, she might survive, but her eggs would perish from lack of heat or because of some beast’s jaws. If she remained, she, herself, might get eaten or die of cold from lack of a stoked metabolism. Redwings tend not to build fat reserves only before migrating.


A hawk’s scream decided her. She leapt into the air toward a bower of pine. Simultaneously, a blur of bone and feather dove for her nest. There was no sound of impact, only the loud noise of crunching reverberating through the meadow.


Agnes puffed her feathers to increase her seeming size. Birds don’t cry; all she could do was to shake. She inched farther and farther into the brush. If she could have, she would have fainted.


Somehow, Agnes survived the night. Around her, tiny nubs, perhaps shoots, which were almost translucent green, sprouted. They unfurled to reveal tiny stems. Those stems, in turn, possessed small, round leaves, which were, fortunately, teeming with small insects. Agnes ate well.


All day she ate. At night, she stayed in the understory. She had no mate, no babies, and no nest to which to return. She had only beardgrass and foxtail in which to find comfort. As she fell asleep, Agnes noted the additional presence of a sparse clump of goldenseal and of a lone stand of joyweed. If she could have shrugged, she would have.




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