Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Nature in its Raw Majesty

The Best of Times......

Several weeks ago I came across an unusual opportunity on our property. In the field where we keep our alpacas, I noticed a tree stump about four feet in height, next to a stand of gum trees and adjacent to a 'lean to' that I had constructed for the alpacas to shelter from the worst of the weather. To be honest, the little buggers don't access the fruits of my labours. As they hail from the Andes in South America they are genetically programmed to withstand harsh environments and rain and wind bother them, not a jot.

Anyway, upon the stump, I espied a bird's nest in resplendent glory and contained therein was three eggs. While I am not an ornithologist I did recognise the dappled powder blue eggs as belonging to the Starling species. As I understand it, the common Starling is an introduced species and not native to New Zealand. As I had unprecedented access to the nest I thought it would be a great photographic project for my 11-year-old granddaughter. As mentioned previously, my daughter, her partner, and two kids are living with us at present and have been with us for the past two years- tis a long story. Currently, my daughter's partner is converting an old school bus for them to live in. Once the project is completed, around Christmastide, they hope to move the bus to the local caravan park where they will reside in idyllic seclusion. While this is not an ideal living situation it does solve an urgent problem. When we retired three years ago, it was hoped that we would live alone with occasional visits from our two kids. Circumstances have dictated otherwise. It is virtually impossible for my daughter and family to access affordable accommodation within New Zealand. House prices preclude the possibility of buying a home. House prices in New Zealand have increased incredibly over the past few years making homeownership virtually impossible for the average Kiwi. In addition, average house rental prices in New Zealand are about $450 per week for a modest three property. This excludes the Auckland area where the average rental is about $650 per week. The government bemoans these facts, but of course, are at the mercy of economic factors beyond their control. The truth is that there is a dearth of both rental and affordable homes for sale.

I've digressed (no shit Flaxen), as is my wont. The plan was for my grandfruit to take a succession of photos documenting the development of the nestlings and indeed a couple of days later our patience was rewarded when two of the eggs hatched. From then on we took a photo per day being careful to cause minimum disruption. Now, the situation was interesting for two reasons: Firstly, the site of the nest was not optimal. Due to its position, it could easily be accessed by the huge rats that inhabit the region. Luckily, the canopy of the nearby trees prevented detection from ariel predators. We have a hawk that actively patrols our land and the baby Starlings would be a tasty titbit for the ever-vigilant sky-borne predator. Secondly, this occurred in mid-October which equates to early spring in New Zealand. Spring in this region is notoriously unsettled. While Summers are very hot and dry, Spring weather tends to be wet and the temperature can vary markedly from being relatively cold to temperatures in the low 20s (Celcius). The unpredictable temperature combined with the exposed position lends for a risky situation for the nest. It appeared, to me, as a biologist, that the adult birds were first-time parents and therefore inexperienced and naive. More on this latter.

We faithfully photographed the development of the nestlings over the next few days and the babies were developing well and had started to develop feathers. Sadly, the inevitable cold front hit the region and the temperature plummeted to low single figures. The next day I went to check the nest and both chicks had succumbed to the rigours of New Zealand's unpredictable spring climate. My poor grandfruit was considerably upset however, I hope she learned a few valuable lessons about the vicissitudes of Nature. It cannot be denied that Nature is a harsh and cruel mistress. It is also prodigiously wasteful. Of all the 'creatures' conceived or set seed, very few will reach maturity. The degree of wastage is clearly dependant upon a host of factors and variables too numerous to count and related to the species under consideration. With reference to our starlings: they made a grave mistake when it came to the furtherance of their species. The cost-benefit equation is worth a visit. As a biologist, I can analyse the scenario with a dispassionate, and critical eye. Reproduction and the raising of chicks to a stage compatible with independent existence are costly in terms of energy expenditure. It places a considerable strain on the parents, often to the detriment of their health. It is unlikely that the parents will be able to muster the resources for a second attempt of parenthood during the current season. In the great game of natural selection, they have failed to propagate their genes into the next generation. In terms of evolution, tis a numbers game. Reproductive fitness is to be measured as the total number of offspring delivered for the furtherance of the gene pool. Failure to do so will result in the reduction or loss of 'parental traits' not conducive to the survival of the organism in a given environment milieu. Nuff said.                         

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