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Fans of Disney movies everywhere may be dismayed to find that our cute, cuddly, furred and feathered friends don’t always get along. There’s more pushing, shoving and threatening going on out there than singing and dancing; in fact, most of the wildlife behavior we think is so cute is designed to intimidate, dominate or rebuff other individuals or species. For some reason this year I’ve seen more negative exchanges than ever, and the combative displays include raging chickadees to bullying black bears. Fur and feathers often fly and in some cases blood is shed – it’s a mean-spirited world out there!
Perhaps the most shocking example of animal discord I observed this year was while bear hunting in Canada. Alberta is known for its aggressive black bears, which are neither as shy nor retiring as our reclusive Maine bears. Those Alberta bruins are bold, assertive, aggressive and downright arrogant by comparison.
In one situation I was able to watch five different bears coming in to a bait. None of them were “big” by my standards so I was content to observe their actions as they jostled for position, chased each other around and otherwise provided some much-needed entertainment during my 10-hour stints in the stand.
I was not surprised to see that every bear had scars, parts of ears missing and even some more serious wounds, but I was surprised to see that every bear that was bigger than another would viciously assault the smaller bear, even yearlings and cubs. When it got to the bigger bears (200 pounds and more) the fights were much more serious – bloody, even.
One big bear I saw had an ear missing, with angry red claw marks across his nose and a large, open wound on his shoulder. Another bear had two broken canines and both ears were slashed down the middle. Still another bear was missing his tail – that had to hurt!
In five days I did not see a single bear that was whole and uninjured, and I hunted different stands every night and saw anywhere from three to nine bears each time. No roly-poly, fat and happy Yogi Bear clones out there in the real world. These bears did not like each other and would likely have killed each other if the smaller bear in a given conflict didn’t have the sense to run away. No doubt some are not smart or fast enough to avoid the bigger, dominant bruins and they end up being seriously injured, killed and eaten as a result. Disney must have missed that part!
Then, come deer season, I had a chance to see several different deer, mostly bucks, which had bloody wounds, scarred ears and broken antlers that were most likely caused by fights with other bucks. Twice I saw bucks with four-point antlers on one side and nothing on the other, just a broken stub, and during one hunt I saw two small 6-pointers fighting so hard that the end of one buck’s antler broke off with a loud snap.
It’s not just the bigger bucks that fight with each other. I saw some diminutive spike bucks (one small point on each side) sparring with each other and twice the larger buck managed to shred his opponent’s ear during the encounter. Whitetails lock antlers every year and end up dying on their feet as a result, and many times a large buck will gore a subordinate buck so badly that the smaller deer dies from its wounds. Nothing Hollywood about that!
What really amazes me, however, is that even the smallest birds and animals in the woods don’t seem to get along, either. For most critters it’s a push-and-shove world where the bigger, faster species wins, at least for the moment, but the conflicts over food continue throughout the day with no real winner or loser.
Where I hunt there is a steady parade of birds that come by on their feeding rounds, and while the smaller species (chickadees, nuthatches and titmice) seem to tolerate each other the bigger birds (cardinals, blue jays, black birds, crows and ravens) tend to chase everyone else away when they arrive, hoarding the food and blocking anyone else from getting their share. Individual birds seem to be more accepting of others but when a flock of blue jays, cardinals or crows come along everyone else has to move aside, outnumbered and out-maneuvered till the bigger birds’ hunger is sated.
And then, here comes the squirrels. At first, one or two squirrels can get along at opposite ends of a food source, but when three, four or more bushytails show up it is suddenly a battle for supremacy. At times the squirrels will spend more time and energy chasing each other away than they do eating, which does not seem particularly energy-effective. It appears that the larger squirrels win out over the younger specimens, who move in only after the big boys have eaten their fill and moved on.
In some areas where I hunt there are two or three species of squirrels in the area – reds, grays and fox squirrels. This is where the real fun comes in! The smaller, quicker red squirrels show up first and eat fast, because once the bigger grays move in the fighting starts in earnest. Let a big, buttery fox squirrel appear and no one gets to eat – everyone is chasing everyone else and no one seems to be interested in stuffing their pouches with acorns, corn or hickory nuts. These mini-battles can last for hours, often from sunrise till noon, and then resume in late afternoon till sunset. I don’t see any of these creatures lining up shoulder-to-shoulder while singing happy woodland tunes – quite the opposite.
These days when the news is all about human conflict and misery the question often comes up: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Well, in nature nothing does; it’s all very territorial and selfish. Humans may be higher on the food chain but deep down inside we’re all alike. Disney definitely missed the mark on that one!
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