Bird-lovers and conservationists waited anxiously if a colony of some 25,000 seabirds would adopt an alternative base for breeding in May 2020. The south island where they nested for years was paved over in the winter of 2019-20 for a $3.8 bn expansion of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in Tidewater Virginia. The Commonwealth government approved as a new sanctuary Fort Wool, a deserted manmade island and former naval battery. But would the birds come if they never used it before?
They did. We expect another successful year for terns, gulls and skimmers, some not so abundant as this Common Tern. Hopefully, they will continue to breed there and feed for decades to come in the rich waters not far off the shipping lane of the Norfolk naval base.
Deer came in the night to crunch the corn, a wild turkey arrived at breakfast to nibble wheat berries, and a raucous family of ravens cleared the rest. I rarely wait long for something interesting to turn up in a stone’s throw from my front step.
But I hadn’t heard baying for a long time and felt irritated at the breach of peace on Memorial weekend. I grabbed my camera and binoculars, leaving coffee to go cold on the deck, and ran into the trackless forest strewn with boulders under Middle Mountain that lately wore a green mantle.
After nearly a mile of making a beeline I slowed to approach the hullabaloo. All the while I thought about the mama bear and cubs caught in my game camera a couple of nights earlier. Did they hang around? If so, had they become quarry for West Virginia hunters?
Closing in, I spotted a pack of nine hounds jumping and howling around the base of a tall maple tree, their eyes fixed on the canopy. Each dog weighing about 40-50 pounds was colored a mixture of brown, black or white. Most too intent on their goal, a chestnut one with its tail wagging attached itself to me, jumping up to lick with a lolling tongue. It might have made a fine pet, though none of mine ever had ribs I could count when its chest expanded with deep breaths. The others were equally lean. Each had three collars, one strapping a small black box with a 9” aerial.
I leaned back to gaze fifty feet up to the first fork where a black form moved. I tried to shoo the dogs but nothing distracted their obsession. I even pushed them aside to stand with my back to the bole but they treated me as part of the tree, landing muddy paws all over me. I never saw a more frenetic scene in the woods, and clambered up a bank, sapling by sapling, to avoid the maddening noise I feared could aggravate my tinnitus.
At the top I had a clear view of the bear. It looked down, often shifting its position. I decided to wait until the hunters arrived, guided there by sound and radio transmitters. This is not the hunting season but I’ve heard that armed men are occasionally tempted to shoot. The nearest dwelling is 2-3 miles away (except ours), and only a couple of wildlife law enforcers in a vast county.
An hour later, two men arrived carrying orange dog leashes and a heavy bag. No firearms. They startled me as I didn’t hear movement through the understory. If I surprised them, it didn’t show when they found me petting the dog and watching the melee below. I wonder if they assumed I came out of curiosity to see a ‘treed’ bear and approved of hunting with dogs. Only half true. The second half I kept to myself to avoid confrontation, as in politics when I know neither I nor my opponent will concede, instead reserving expression for the ballot box or in writing to try to influence policy. Even more important when meeting rifles and crossbows in the woods. A number of states have banned hunting with dogs but the tradition persists as a fiercely defended right in parts of Appalachia.
We watched the bear for several minutes, photographing it from different angles. It had a long pale nose and glossy black coat; at around 300 pounds one of the largest I’ve seen in those woods. I thought it looked more handsome and noble than any of us standing there on two legs or four.
The men rounded up the dogs, tying them to branches. One tapped the base of the tree with a heavy branch and when broken he bashed vigorously with a rock. I asked the other what he was doing.
“It’ll bring the ‘baar’ down. Dunno why but perhaps vibrations make ‘im think the tree’s unsafe.”
After several minutes the bear slid under the bough. The man moved away. I pointed my camera half way down the long trunk, my finger ready on the trigger.
I’ve seen bears clamber down in panic when I stumble on one feeding in the canopy. It reminds me of a fireman sliding on a pole to an emergency. I only had time for two clicks before he was on the ground, galloping along the stream bed.
Relieved to see him get away safely, I asked the men how far they had to walk the dogs back. I knew they must have driven to the nearest point in a truck with a kennel in the bed, an odd vehicle on first encountering one.
“Not yet. Dogs need more training.’
That was the hardest moment to suppress an objection. The poor creature was already terrified. It had run ahead of dogs without inflicting a terrible injury on any of them, easily done by one swipe. Each dog released in turn dashed after the bear.
The woods around me fell silent again. My return journey started by losing grip on a branch to slide on my buns down the bank muddied by recent rain until stopping in the stream bed. I felt angry for being clumsy and frustrated at powerless to protect the old man of the woods. I wished him well.
Half-an hour later at the house I heard distant baying again.
At dawn in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley I had my first and only glimpse of a pack of wild grey wolves, but they always loomed large in imagination. I follow them in books and movies, read about their conservation and reintroduction, and in a more contemplative mood see their shadow in my pets.
We hold ambiguous attitudes. We created stories of them as evil predators but also learned they are faithful mates and parents. One of the enduring myths is that a pack is ruled by an alpha male and female.
The notion of a pecking order in social animals began with chickens! Such an appealing theory, the biologist Rudolf Schenkel adopted it back in 1947 to explain the hierarchy he observed among ten wolves cooped up in an enclosure at Basel Zoo.
Human societies organize vertically according to rank or class and historical upheavals trying to level differences to the horizontal never lasted long. I experienced the bottom of the pecking order in the school playground as a new boy tortured on the ‘bars’ (iron railings) by bullies who hazed/ initiated us. The great ethologist Konrad Lorenz in seeking to understand human aggression projected it forward from the behavior of animals, although I wonder if we misinterpret animals by extrapolating backwards from our behavior!
Animals, it is said, avoid inevitable conflicts of a homogeneous society by creating social ranks, disturbed occasionally by a strong rival for the alpha post. But this attractive theory fails the test of wilderness evidence in wolves, although even experts find it hard to break the habit of referring to alphas in a pack.
Dave Mech is a world expert who has studied wolves for decades. In Ellesmere Island in the Canadian high arctic he got on intimate terms with them where they are fearless of humans. He learned a wolf pack is not an assorted mix of related and unrelated animals, as in captivity. Each is a family consisting of a monogamous pair of adults and their pups, sometimes with adolescents tagging along. Since we don’t regard our parents as alpha adults, neither should we think of wolves in that way.
The dark side of the error of believing that pack leaders violently rule over subordinates is when it is applied to the training of dogs. Owners who harshly punish pets for disobedience or insubordination may achieve their goal by intimidation, but at what price? Much better and more faithful to what we now know from wolves, we should be head of the family, Mom and Pop to our pups. Likewise, professional trainers today prefer to reward dogs for being a good boy or girl through positive reinforcement (operant conditioning).
Studies in Norther America and Europe should have packed off the creaking theory. But in biology there always exceptions, and not just those unhappy creatures in a cage. Evidently, pecking orders can exist in unusually large packs and maybe I saw a spectrum from alpha to omega when the morning mist cleared over the Lamar River.