Wild Side: The complexities of dealing with nature on Martha’s Vineyard

Sharing the Island with deer can be complicated: they are beautiful and a good source of protein, but they also spread tick-borne diseases, they decimate gardens, and they like to run into moving vehicles.
File photo by Tim Johnson

Sharing the Island with deer can be complicated: they are beautiful and a good source of protein, but they also spread tick-borne diseases, they decimate gardens, and they like to run into moving vehicles.

The last Wild Side column discussed the Island’s red-tailed hawks — powerful birds, graceful and infinitely resourceful in finding food. The column’s online version, posted March 14, prompted several comments from readers who had lost chickens to red-tailed hawks. A hawk catching a chicken is no surprise; as the column mentioned, red-tails are supreme opportunists when it comes to hunting. But the comments got me thinking about the times when the natural world, which I habitually regard as a source of pleasure, bites back.

It isn’t just chickens that are at risk, of course. I’ve heard stories of ospreys, great blue herons, or even river otters camping out at artificial ponds and systematically cleaning them out of carefully raised ornamental fish. And on the horticultural front, deer eating ornamental plants and rabbits savaging vegetable gardens are virtual clichés of Island life. From my own experience, I can attest that catbirds, robins, and blue jays all like blueberries at least as much as people do; if my wife and I get to eat half the modest crop from our blueberry bushes, we feel lucky.

More seriously, property damage and sometimes injury (I mean to people) result when automobiles encounter our too-plentiful deer. Those deer, along with white-footed mice, act as reservoirs for Borrelia, the bacterium that cause Lyme disease. And the ticks that transport Lyme into human bloodstreams seem to have no purpose beyond making people miserable.

One mitigating factor for such crimes, of course, is that these criminals generally also perform valuable services. For every chicken a red-tailed hawk eats, it surely kills scores or even hundreds of small mammals, helping keep in check the populations of mice, voles, rabbits, and rats. I sometimes wonder even about Lyme disease; it apparently doesn’t kill white-footed mice (which is one reason these rodents make a good host for Borrelia). But I bet it makes mice feel crummy, and that may be enough to help control mice numbers by reducing reproduction or increasing mortality from starvation or predation.

It’s also worth keeping in mind the role that human choices play in making us vulnerable to damage from wildlife. The pattern of development that prevails on much of the Vineyard, with isolated houses set in wooded habitat, amounts to establishing little islands of humanity in a sea of wildlife habitat. On an Island where predation of deer is limited to a few weeks in late fall, we’re simply begging to have our hostas eaten, and it’s hard to blame a deer for accepting the invitation.

In other words, instances of harm from wildlife simply underscore a point that we sometimes lose sight of. The Vineyard is appealing in large measure because of its vibrant and diverse wildlife. And that wildlife makes no distinction between natural habitats and human-dominated ones — or even, sometimes, between humans themselves and animals.

For wildlife, resources are wherever you find them. Hostas or koi taste presumably as good or better than wild food sources, and they’re much easier to eat. And if you’re a tick or mosquito that requires only that its prey be mammalian – well, we’re mammals, right? Our habitats are part of the landscape, just as our bodies are sometime part of the food chain. Given this connection between the natural and the artificial, it’s inevitable that some consequences of having wildlife around will be negative ones – at least from the human perspective.

But back to the online comments about chicken-eating hawks. “Crassula” interrupted a red-tail dining on a hen too big for the hawk to fly away with, and later, tipped off by the racket of crows and agitation among the chickens, intervened to prevent another kill by her “beautiful neighbor lady.” “LizT” watched from 15 feet away as a bold red-tail snatched a hen. And Elizabeth Whelan lost two hens but has learned to respond to the alarm of the hens in time to prevent further casualties; she also noted that windy days seem to increase the chances that a hawk will attempt to raid the henhouse. “Gorgeous bird, though,” says Ms. Whelan, and she means the hawk, not the chickens.

It’s not like these folks liked losing chickens (“I’m not a fast-food facility,” notes “Crassula”). But I get the sense that they find the power, beauty, and courage of a red-tailed hawk to be worth the occasional chicken to have around. And I’m impressed by the way that two of the posters responded to the loss of hens by studying the situation and learning useful information about the behavior of both chickens and wildlife. It’s a wise reaction, showing a true understanding of how the wild world and the human one intermingle.

The Wild Side is never far away on the Vineyard; that’s a main reason most of us live here. And our relationship with nature is therefore a complex one. Under these conditions, humans aren’t always in control. Sometimes all we can control is how we react when we’re the victim.