Jul 10, 2018

Head: Outdoor Dilemmas

Sub: When creatures need assistance, is it best to lend a helping hand or allow nature to take its course

By Tony Blando


The other day, my wife called to ask for my opinion on something. We’ve been married almost 30 years and it’s not often she seeks my counsel, so I figured it had to be really important.

She told me about a bird that was stuck in a rain gutter 30 feet above the ground on my mother-in-law’s beach house in Corolla, N.C. She wanted to know if I had any ideas about how to save the bird. It does wonders for my ego to be consulted on matters of such importance.

After determining the likelihood of this particular bird’s imminent demise, I said to my wife, “Sometimes you just have to let nature take its course. This is one of those times.”

That got me thinking about nature in general and, particularly, when we should intervene and alter the natural course of events.

Charles Darwin would probably say never. Mr. Darwin is known for his 1859 book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.”  Natural selection – better know through the phrase “survival of the fittest” – is defined by a species’ ability to reproduce copies of itself, thus ensuring that species long-term survival. 

Smart, strong copies usually reproduce. Dumb, weak copies do not. In the case of the young starling, Darwin might have said, “If the thing is stupid enough to get caught in a rain gutter, then it’s best it stay there so it doesn’t find a mate, reproduce, and mess up the gene pool.”


Sub: Intervention conundrums

Every spring we are confronted with the “baby bird falling out of the nest” dilemma. Do we pick it up and return it to the nest? Or do we let it flounder on the ground as it strengthens its wings, knowing that a feral cat or other predator might add the bird to its diet – so the cat remains strong enough to find a mate, reproduce and extend its gene pool and species.

Although it’s never happened to me, I’ve heard many stories of hunters or hikers finding a pair of whitetail bucks in the fall with interlocked antlers, too exhausted to fight much further. Without human intervention these majestic creatures would most certainly die. In every case, the Samaritans go to great lengths to free the otherwise doomed bucks.

One of the more common examples that generally happens in late May or early June is the story of the hiker who finds a young fawn hidden in the grass. Novices sometimes believe the fawn has been “abandoned” by its mother. Experienced folks know the mother is hidden nearby. The experienced person will take a picture and walk away. The novice will pick up the fawn and take it home or to the humane society.

I’ve certainly fiddled with nature on occasion. I recall many times as a boy returning a baby bird to its nest or a young rabbit to its burrow. One time I stupidly intervened in a row between a cottonmouth snake and a small catfish. I was fishing off a riverbank in Georgia when I came upon the snake with his mouth wrapped around the head of the flailing fish. The smart thing would have been to look the other away. Instead, I kicked, poked and otherwise harangued the snake until he dropped the fish. I thought I’d done a really noble deed as I’m sure losing that one catfish would have significantly affected the long-term health of the channel cat population in the South. Perhaps the rednecks there now celebrate a special Tony Blando Appreciation Day each year.


Sub: Crawler copulation

As I think back, though, my greatest outdoor dilemma occurred almost every rainy night while growing up in West Allis.

Anyone who fished as a kid participated in the nighttime ritual of “picking crawlers.” Those who didn’t fish still picked crawlers because you could sell them for a penny apiece and it didn’t take long to pick 100. Back then, a dollar bought 10 packs of football or baseball cards, so the return on investment was pretty good since overhead was minimal. All you needed was an empty coffee can, a flashlight, a raincoat and a strong back.

Me, Dad, and my three brothers spent countless hours during stormy summer nights – bent at the waist in search of those valuable little hermaphrodites. This is why we all have lower back problems.

As I mentioned above, night crawlers, and most other worms, are hermaphrodites. That is, each individual worm contains both male and female reproductive organs. Weird, eh?

So I guess this is how it works if you’re a worm: One night, you’re just chilling underground in a pile of dirt. It starts to rain and you look at your bud and say, “Dude, getting a little damp down here. Maybe we should crawl up and see what’s shaking above. We could crawl around for a couple feet and if we’re lucky, we might find some other worms to hook up with. If we don’t find any others, then we could just, ummm, you know, make a few more worms ourselves.”

Other worm says, “Great idea, bro. Watcha gonna be tonight, the male or the female?”

“Oh, I don’t know, guess it really doesn’t matter,” says the first worm.

And it doesn’t, since after mating they both will lay a few little capsules that contain a few little worm eggs.

The minimum goal each night was always 100 crawlers. Some we kept for fishing, but many we sold to a distant uncle who lived at the end of our block. Everyone I knew sold crawlers to him. I always wondered what he did with them, but I was pretty sure he never went fishing. Years later, I learned that the old scoundrel was selling them to the baker up the street for two cents apiece. I thought I was doing well making a buck, but he was the smarter businessman because he made a buck and never had to get wet.

To catch 100 crawlers, you had to find 100 crawlers. It could take 30 minutes or it could take three hours. You could cut that time significantly if you could find some “doubles.”

“Doubles” was a term we used for two crawlers caught in the act of mating on dreary, rainy nights. Some nights we’d only find a few doubles but other nights there would be lots of them. I have no idea what made the difference. Perhaps some rainy nights are just more romantic for night crawlers than other rainy nights.

This is where my big dilemma arose. Each time I found a double, I’d ask myself, “Do I intervene now, get two crawlers in one grab while they are distracted doing the dirty deed? Or do I let them finish their business, wait for them to separate, and then go for the double? Or do I walk away, letting them lay their egg capsules and ensuring future generations of bluegill and walleye bait?”

Life was sure full of difficult choices back then.


Sub: Taking the Darwinian approach

Each of you has to make your own decision when faced with these outdoor dilemmas that might tilt the odds in the “survival of the fittest” game. Based on the example of the snake, I might not be the right one to give advice on when anyone else should intervene in nature. Each of you has to decide that for yourself.

But, after 50-plus years of experiencing nature, here is what I’d tell my wife. I wouldn’t try to save a young starling if it was stuck in a gutter 30 feet up on a house.

I’d take the Darwinian approach for birds, rabbits and fawns and let “survival of the fittest” reign supreme.

I’d probably try to separate the entangled bucks, but I would never again mess with a cottonmouth to save a catfish.

And when it comes to interrupting the mating ritual of two squirmy little hermaphrodites, I’d go for the double immediately while they are “locked up,” thus cutting down on the time needed to catch a hundred crawlers to make a buck.

Had I done that as a kid – without hesitating to ponder the morality of it all – I’d probably be a zillionaire today and my back would feel like a million bucks.

Life is full of dilemmas. Fortunately, this one I no longer have to ponder. Today I just go to the bait shop and buy overpriced crawlers that some poor kid picked in the rain and sold to an old guy on his street, who in turn sold them to the bait shop.

I just hope the kid never hesitated and always went for the double.