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NatureSpeak Articles

Thieves, Panhandlers, and Con Artists: The nature of petty crime

The rock that someone used to gain entry to my cabin still sits on the sill of the new window. The worst part of getting ripped off is the flood of black emotion that follows. The indignation, outrage and dark fantasies of revenge do more damage to the body and soul than the loss itself.

I got thinking about the way other creatures deal with the problem as I watched a pair of nuthatches, working ceaselessly in their topsy-turvy world, gathering bits of suet from the feeder and caching them in the rough bark of a big Douglas fir. As they shuttled back and forth a brown creeper repeatedly hitched up the tree, scoffed the suet and dropped down to the base for another pass. Both the victims and the perpetrator were too preoccupied to even notice that a robbery was in progress.

For the nitidulid beetle petty theft is a way of life. The ultimate con artist of the insect world, it preys on the gullibility of ants which have evolved a food-sharing reflex. A hungry ant, by tapping a food-laden buddy on the head, is offered a drop of sustenance – rather like sharing your mountain-mix with another hiker along the trail. The unscrupulous nitidulid beetle exploits this innate generosity by skulking beside an ant trail, tapping a startled ant on the head, receiving an offering of food and then tucking in its legs and head just in case the witless ant realizes it has been had.

Other creatures deal with theft by simply turning the other cheek. In the Galapagos, boobies and frigate birds nest side by side. The boobies wooing their mates with a slow shuffling display of their sexy blue feet while nearby frigate birds court their ladies by inflating bright red, balloon-like throat pouches. All the outward appearance of two different species living in close-knit harmony. But all is not as it seems.

The booby, with its compact, torpedo-shaped body, short wings and stiletto bill, is a superb diver. It fishes by dropping from great heights, wings folded, spearing its catch by plunging beak-first into the sea. In contrast the frigate bird, with its long slender wings and deeply forked tail is a master of aerobatics but lacks the ability to land and take off on either water or flat ground – requiring a jump-start from a tree or ledge to get airborne. It gathers food in flight, snapping up flying fish in mid-air or hatchling turtles from beaches or the ocean surface. But most of its food is acquired by harassing homeward-bound boobies until they drop their catch then swooping down and snatching the falling fish before it hits the sea. Yet back at the rookery the two are again congenial neighbours – the day's act of piracy either forgiven or forgotten.

But I'm only human. I still hope the guy broke at least one leg on my stolen skis.

Upcoming Events :

Saturday, November 3rd — Monthly Bird Walk. Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 8 a.m. (please note new time). Everyone welcome.

Written by: Jack Souther


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