Wakodahatchee – Red in Tooth and Claw

Dominant Chick has best access to food.

Creation’s Final Law……

Even before 1859 when Darwin’s theories of natural selection were outlined in his The Origin of Species the conflict between the concept of God’s loving creation and the callousness of nature raged. The reference ‘tooth and claw’ predated Darwin and referred to the violence of wild nature, predator and prey! If all of creation was born of God’s love then how could nature be so heartless?  Alfred Lord Tennyson’s lines of verse from In Memoriam A. H. H. in 1850 alludes to man……

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
 Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

However, survival of the fittest as a mechanism of natural selection is neither heartless nor without purpose. If the strongest live and reproduce, then that next generation is endowed with the most favorable characteristics for the survival of the species. Survival of the fittest is not a doctrine; it is simply a natural process.

Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray, while a man-made wetland, is still very much wild. There is no feeding other than what is procured by the diligence of the birds themselves..diving for fish, swishing the shallows for tidbits etc.  Other than some of the resident birds being accustomed to the presence of man (albeit with camouflaged telephoto lenses or conversely wearing brightly colored jogging outfits) the wildlife follows the age old call of the wild. Parents provide for their young and competition for access to food among siblings is intense. The nesting season of 2011 was my initiation to Wakodahatchee and close up observation of nesting birds. While it was a rough process and I’d wondered how the parents survived the voracious appetites of their chicks, I still maintained my mental and captured images of great blue heron siblings with necks entwined lovingly or seeming chatty or even perfectly patiently sitting side by side awaiting mom or dad to show up with fresh fish. Theoretically, first hatched gets fed first and from the start is stronger and bigger; dominant chicks will muscle out nest-mates during feeding time and sometimes weaker chicks will simply starve.

But, the season of 2012 was marked by violence in ways I had not seen before. My favourite nest this year consisted of a Great Blue Heron parent (I presumed Dad due to it being the larger) and a Wurdemann’s Heron (Mom). The Wurdemann’s being a mix of a Great White and a Great Blue was quite far north considering Great Whites are generally limited in range to the Keys and very southern everglades.  So I found this intriguing. At the latter part of January, they were sitting on eggs, a month later were two cute chicks. But, it was not long before this idyllic heron family image was crushed by the attacks of the dominant brother on its weaker sibling. I stood there with my camera one day in March, a reluctant witness to something I really did not want to see. Even when the weaker sibling, head down picking at leftovers on the bottom of the nest was minding its own business,  the dominant chick would go wild after the parent and then strike out viciously against the other nestling.  On the worst day I was sure Cain slew Able as the weaker brother had completely vanished from sight perhaps in a bloody heap at the bottom of the nest or driven away to fall through the branches into the jaws of an opportunistic gator below.  But, by day’s end it reappeared streaked with blood looking battered but once again took position next to its larger brother waiting while the sun descended. Thereafter, while both chicks grew bigger and survival seemed assured for both, the abused chick’s head was pitifully matted, ragged with head feathers in tattered clumps. I did not even want to document its condition!   All I could wonder was whether it would gain some glory once out of the nest and on its own. Sadly, last I saw,  it was alone in the nest waiting. Is its survival assured or has it been cowed where it cannot fend for itself?  Survival of the fittest starts at home with competition for a meal. Despite the fact that great heron parents so diligently and equitably share duties to protect their eggs and young from intruders, they appear oblivious to the struggles of their own nestlings at their feet! Creation’s final law is not love but survival!

Sibling Attack


Once again though, I invite anyone reading to visit this wonderful nesting colony for its beauty, its lessons, and its sense of continuity!! I like to think that long after I am gone the beautiful great herons will be building their nests and the air will be rich with the music of chicks calling out for their parents to bring them some fish.

Wurdemann’s brings fish to her nestlings


I invite you to use this link to see more of the Wurdemann’s nest as well as other lively activities of the Cattle Egrets, Tri-color Herons, Anhingas, and Wood Storks of the exciting 2012 nesting season!

~ by Judy on May 20, 2012.

3 Responses to “Wakodahatchee – Red in Tooth and Claw”

  1. BEAUTIFUL post! So true on the battle for survival in Nature — once the nestlings’ struggle begins, parental “love” as we know it disappears from the equation, to strict survival. Such a difficult thing to witness.

    What an amazing shot, the regurgitation of the fish — WOW!

  2. In this shot the fish appears quite whole and undigested and the heron did swallow the fish back down for further processing and regurgitation in smaller bits. Herons consume more than four times normal while feeding young and some have died swallowing things too big.

    Speaking of whole fish inside of herons…here is a brief excerpt from Audubon’s Ornithological Biography of an account of a Great Blue heron shot in Florida. Audubon was not only an artist but also a true woodsman and a scientific observer who tested in the most personal of ways.

    ” . . . While on the St. John River in East Florida, I shot one of these birds, and on opening it on board, found in its stomach a fine perch quite fresh, but of which the head had been cut off. The fish, when cooked, I found excellent, as did Lieutenant Piercy and my assistant Mr. Ward, but Mr. Lehman would not so much as taste it. . . . ”


  3. […] is first fed, and henceforth strongest with best access to parents arriving with a fresh meal. Previous posts will show that not all will survive either by direct attack by siblings or simply will starve due to […]

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