Monday, July 5, 2010

What's the difference between a magpie and a wolf?

On yesterday's walk, I found three magpies feasting on a road/car-killed ground squirrel. I think three of them could probably do the killing themselves (I saw one severely harassing a raven on the ground), but the little research I did claims they are only scavengers. I had this scene to myself and found myself wondering how many cars would be parked and cameras clicking if three wolves or a bear were eating an elk.

There's certainly no difference in the fundamental process, and I have seen lots of people here photographing magpies as well as wolves and bears. There even seemed to be a definite pecking order among the birds as among wolves. One remained eating and chasing off the others as I neared, and there seemed to be a definite ranking among the other two as well.

But it seems to me the most common reaction to the birds eating would be one of disgust or indifference rather than the fascination which causes the bear and wolf jams on roads all over the park. So what is the difference? Are we repelled by non-mammal eating mammal? Does size matter? Are we subconsciously attracted to animals we know could kill us? Or are birds and rodents simply unworthy of our attention and interest, like the chickens and pigs and cows and all the others placed in the food category by those who love their dogs and cats?

5 comments:

Terry said...

I find "lower" animals eating "higher" animals kind of repulsive; spiders eating birds, scorpions eating mice, that kind of thing. But there's nothing fundamentally different about it. No one looks there best with food on their face, I'd rather watch them doing something else.

greentangle said...

So, how about a snake eating a mouse? Who's higher on your scale--the predator or the mammal?

I was going to say something about most people enjoying watching vegetarian animals eating, but I guess that's only if they're not eating your garden.

Sonya said...

It might also have something to do with the perceived cuddliness of the prey. Elk are beautiful and majestic and all that, but they do not give the impression of being overly snuggly, whereas people could easily imagine a tame ground squirrel curling up in their laps like a kitten. I think a lot of people would be interested to watch an eagle kill a fish or snake, for instance, because fish and snakes aren't cuddly, but they would cringe a little to watch an eagle kill a bunny.

greentangle said...

Yeah, people like soft fur more than scales. It was interesting to see people's different reactions when I had a snake on my arm at the zoo.

And I was always fascinated by how enthusiastic people were about falcons eating pigeons, but if their main prey were robins everyone would hate them.

Terry said...

My higher / lower squeamishness is more based on arbitrary, inaccurate, and imaginary evolutionary rank than predator or prey roles. Intellectually I don't think one thing is "more evolved" than another. I'd put reptiles and mammals on a similar level on this nonsensical scale, so snake and mouse isn't a problem. Frog eaten by beetle, or fish eaten by jellyfish, on the other hand - unpleasant.