The Crow and the Turtle

At lunchtime I went out to give the farm a checkup, and as I passed the small pond I saw a crow partially submerged in the water.  It seemed in distress, flailing its wings but not making progress toward the shore.  It wasn’t squawking, just opening its beak periodically without vocalizing.

I made a decision to intervene.  It wasn’t a studied decision, just a spur of the moment action.  I don’t try to interfere with every wounded animal, but I hate to see protracted suffering if it can be prevented with a little intervention.

I grabbed two plastic fence posts and slurp-slopped my way through the mudflat around the pond until I could get one post under the crow and the other over it, chopstick style.  I pulled on the crow, but it didn’t come easily.  So I gave a heave and the crow came out, along with about 20 pounds of snapping turtle attached to one leg.  This presented a philosophical dilemma.  The turtle was still attached, just below the water line, and the crow was still in the water.  I could let the frying pan sized turtle have its way with the crow.  Nature, red in tooth and claw (and beak), would proceed in its innocent remorselessness.  But I’d still feel bad about the crow having to take the long way out.  I could rescue the crow and feel self satisfied about rescuing it, but then feel guilty for stealing a well-earned meal from the turtle.  I didn’t have long to act because the turtle was tugging the crow back down.  How does one reconcile pity for suffering and respect for the natural order?

I won’t pretend to have arrived at an ideal solution, but in the few seconds I watched, I decided to pull the crow.  If the crow still had a good leg left, and if it still had a spark of life, I would release it.  If the crow was missing a leg or if it seemed beyond hope, I would kill it instantly by cervical dislocation and toss it back to the turtle.

I don’t suppose we can ever pass through the world without changing it.  At some point our sensibilities require modification, alteration, intervention.  And when we intervene, we choose one thing over something else.  A morality that adheres strictly to principals of nature seems like an appropriate and noble (albeit austere) standard.  But before we get too self-congratulatory about painting with every color of the wind, we probably should question, “what is nature?”  The turtle eating the crow is natural.  But the pond where this drama unfolded is a feature I dug six years ago.  I scooped out a small amount of dirt on a low-lying spot, using the excavated material to build up a nearby lane.  The pond quickly filled with water and has remained full since.  It now supports a population of turtles, frogs, muskrats,  minnows, crayfish, leeches, and innumerable water bugs.  Mice, deer, racoons, bees, killdeer, sandpipers, and other animals use it as a watering hole.  Herons and ducks forage in it.  The animals are all natural to my environment, but I’ve created this little micro-environment, so it remains in one sense an unnatural impostition.

Did I chose well between the crow and the turtle?  I don’t know.

Crow in Grass
The crow flopped away from me and collapsed a short distance away in the grass, exhausted.  Its leg was cut but did not look broken.  Apparently the turtle didn’t use its famous snapper bite, rather it modulated its grip to hold onto the crow to wear it out in hopes of drowning it.

When I came back after finishing my round of chores, the crow had recovered and flown away.  The turtle was deep in the mud, thinking turtlish thoughts, maybe wondering what strange predator stole its prey.  Tomorrow, or the next day, the turtle will clamp something else in its beak and pull it under.  And next spring, the crow will search for turtle eggs in the weeds on the bank, and eat them without ever considering the strange revolutions of the wheel of life.  And I’ll still be baffled, unsure when to choose between intervention and acceptance, between pity and pragmatism.

15 thoughts on “The Crow and the Turtle”

  1. I’ve read books about how smart crows are, what their memories are like, and how they are able to recognize humans. I wouldn’t be surprised if that crow remembers you and appreciates your efforts on his or her behalf.

  2. Melanie Justice

    I sympathize with your dilemma. I would have struggled with the same questions you did, had I been there. Your article was very thought provoking!

  3. Well, as creator and administrator of the pond, I believe it was quite inside your authority to decided which animal to have pity on…kind of like…”I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion”.

    1. I don’t argue that from a legal perspective I had administrative authority, and I don’t want to make a mountain out of an anecdote that is just a story-worthy molehill, but I find questions of rights to be less interesting than questions of rightness. “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”

    1. Thanks Matthew. Tell Jen that and my nephews will be banned from the farm in perpetuity…
      But seriously, yes I was surprised that a turtle could take on a moderate sized bird. You mentioned in the past that you appreciate the way that farming lets you be there at the right place and at the right time to see special instants (I think your story was about a goshawk). I wholeheartedly agree.

    1. Thanks Deb. We’ve been running flat out and the website has been neglected for a few weeks, but I felt like there was a story here that just needed telling, so I decided to sit down and write it out. Fixing the feeder trailer could wait for the next day…

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