This spring I acted as a chaperone for a second grade class visiting a park to learn about the beach ecosystem. The 7 and 8 year olds learned about Florida alligators, peered through a telescope to view a nesting osprey in the top of a dead tree, and encountered the Snowy Egret.
When I first saw the Egret, I saw nothing particularly interesting about him. He was small, an apparently young wading bird doing what Egrets do, stilting into shallow water looking for minnows.
We had just learned how tiny the brain of an alligator was, and I thought the brain of this little bird couldn’t be much larger. But what I didn’t know was that it was capable of controlling the minds of eight year old humans.
Park Rangers, never passing up a chance to educate children, wanted to show the students how fish start off life in shallow water estuaries, like that surrounding St. Andrews Park located between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Small fish grow up to be big fish, or else get eaten by bigger fish, which grow up to be eaten by us. It’s all part of the oftentimes short circle of life for fish species.
The children were then asked to identify as many of the small fish as they could using Ranger-provided identification charts.
In the meanwhile, I noticed that the bird was no longer looking towards the water for fish. The Egret started sizing up the children, and apparently decided upon a different plan of action; a mind-control plan of action. The children had a lot more fish in front of them than the bird did. How could he turn that situation around?
Perhaps he’d learned from past experience that eight-year old boys are more easily manipulated than eight-year old girls. He seemed to single out one of the older boys and locked eyes on him. Perhaps the boy’s sixth sense alerted him that he was the recipient of stares, because he turned away from the other children and stared right back at the telepathic bird. And then I heard the boy utter the words all little fish must instinctively know will bring their doom. “Let’s feed them to the bird!”
Being a biologist by training and heart, I attempted to save this sampling of the next generation of fish by saying, “No, the Rangers want the fish back in the water to grow up.”
The Rangers remained silent, perhaps having seen this scene play out before. And the children were deaf to my words, hearing only the words of the boy. What a great idea!, their young faces seemed to say. And in a matter of seconds young hands began plunging into the shallow trays, scooping up the hapless fish, carrying the youngsters in their cupped hands to toss into the water directly in front of the waiting bird.
Temporarily stunned by impact with the water, the fish lay immobile just long enough for the bird to clasp them in his beak and swallow them whole.
Admittedly, I was too stunned to capture a photograph of the slaughter. You will just have to use your imagination; it was all over for the young fish in a matter of seconds.
At the time I wondered if I should tell my grandchild that she had been manipulated by a bird with a pea-sized brain, but I’m sure those words would have been wasted, just as had been my plea to stop the slaughter.
Biologists spend careers studying interspecies communication, verbal and non-verbal. Well, this may well be an example of non-verbal communications between animals and humans.
Which leaves me to wonder: should the normally derogatory term “bird brained” really be a compliment?