Thursday 12 August 2010

A Fight for Life

We people often like to think of nature as a romantic place, and that all the animals and birds in general live in harmony and peace. As mind disturbing as it is, the truth is actually quite the opposite. Except for the odd occasion of witnessing an eagle taking a fish, or a hawk eating a bird, I rarely get to see the cruelty when I am just out birding or photographing. However, when I am out doing fieldwork, I get a much more intimate version, and I often spend weeks and days going in the same area for doing nest checks, meassurements and other scientific necessities. In this way, one get very close to the every day life of the object one is studying, and often I find myself in situations where my mind is disturbed a little bit from the reason why I got interested in biology in the first place. To realize how brutal and cruel the natural world actually can be, is indeed far from the thought of purity and harmony where life is a contest about friendship, beauty and beeing preetiest.

I came across one such situation the other day, when a brünnich’s guillemot came walking on the beach. The bird was seriously wounded, and blood was dripping on its otherwise white feathers. He had been in a fight. The bird came walking straight towards us, and stopped litterealy between my legs. Nearby, there were several glaucous gulls observing it all. Glaucous gull is the top predator of the Arctic, and they immediately see if an easy meal is about to happen. The poor guillemot knew his life was ebbing out, and going towards an end. I think this otherwise quite shy bird came to us, because he wanted some protection. He knew that the gulls didn’t dare to eat it when he was close to us, and by doing this he extended his maybe already 30 year old life by an hour until we left him alone on the black sandy beach….

The Brünnich's guillemot deadly injured in a fight for life

This scenario happened close to a bird cliff on the east coast of Svalbard. Bird cliffs are places where certain species gather in high numbers to breed. At this particular bird cliff, we counted 44 000 of them together on a very limited space (yes – I did count them all – as this was one of my tasks this summer). Why they choose to breed in flocks and not one by one is complex and far beyond my understanding of how life is put together, but in short it has to at least something do with certain requirements to the geology to make potential nesting sites and that its less chance of beeing killed by a predator when you are one of many instead of alone. One hitch by nesting close together is of course that it gets crowdy, and that somebody might take the place that you actually wanted yourself. In fact, these birds nest so close to each other that if they miss their landing spot by a few centimeters they land on the neighbour’s property. They have to rely on high precision flying, but even when all precautions are made for turbulence wind or last second divertion from another of the thousands of birds in the air to avoid a collision - the final approach can be more challenging than ideal. This is indeed a fertilizer for disputes. A breeding spot, or nest site is of course a valuable thing. The more experienced and dominant the individual is, the more nesting spots you can choose from. Making the right decision and allocation of a nest can easily be the difference between life and death. A nesting site is a valuable resource – and the more individuals competing for the same resources the more likely it is that the individual has to fight for its position. The competition increases, and winners and loosers are made.

The bird knew he only had minutes left to live, desperately trying to
extend his life by seeking shelter from the glaucous gulls perching nearby
 - watching him step by step

As if this is not more than worrying when studying and realizing this in nature, I often think of what the world will be for humans in the future. When I went to college, I was told there were about 4,5 billion people on earth. Today, about 15 years later, the same population estimate has increased to about 7 billions, and the number is increasing every single hour of the day. All this people needs a place to stay, something to eat. Basically they need to live, and to live they need to use natural resources. To live is a constant fight for life, both for the humans and for wildlife.

Planet Earth is unfortunately not a renewable resource – and that is the real worrying part!


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