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Audubon News

Good stewardship doesn’t mean fixing imperfections

June 21, 2008
I picked a baby groundhog off the edge of the road the other day. It was really skinny and looked to be about five or six weeks old. It was tiny, it fit in one hand. I picked it up because it was in the same spot where an adult groundhog (I now presume a female) was hit by a car a few days earlier. I called a wildlife rehabilitator and gave it to the good care of her expertise and patience.

I have not captured the limping goose from Audubon’s backyard, though, despite profuse encouragement (read badgering) from people. I don’t know what hurt the goose, but I’m pretty sure it was a natural occurrence. Nature has a system that works; a series of checks and balances that, while sometimes harsh and hard to understand, keeps the world in a “utilitarian” state — it does the greatest good for the greatest number of species. I try not to let my compassion interfere with that system. There are exceptions, but I try.

When something outside that system — a car, a malicious child, a domestic pet or construction process — results in injury, illness or orphans, that’s when I do step in. In the grand scheme of the world, our implements of destruction are brand-spanking new. Predators, prey, viruses, death and parasites, however, are part of the world’s ancient story.

Whether you believe the world was created in a matter of days or over millions of years, the simple truth is the plants and animals were here before humans and we are now their stewards. Now, read that for what it is — stewards. We are not protectors of all life, but stewards. To guard the natural world and its processes, sometimes that means we have to turn away as the crow finds the robin nest in the pine tree and swallows the fledglings one by one.

Take those non-native invasive plants that conservationists despise. Words like loosestrife, honeysuckle, garlic mustard, house sparrow, and starling are akin to curses flung about in a fit of environmental outrage. The starling didn’t get here by itself, though. We brought it. It is the fault of the stewards that those “curses” have wreaked havoc. It is the epitome of contradiction that we declare these animals “pests,” when we ourselves once brought them here out of affection. I’m all for eradicating or controlling them, but let’s be careful to examine the reasons we are waging war on them in the first place.

We translate our mistakes and turn the blame to the animals that crowd out other species and compete against native plants. The plants become bad and so, too, do the animals. They’re not. Garlic mustard has no intent or maliciousness behind those petite white flowers. Starlings do not have secret rendezvous to plan the takeover of a town. The exotic residents of our towns, states, regions, and countries are following that ancient story that gave rise to all life — grow, reproduce, die. We invited them into the North American story at one point, and now malign them as bad characters for simply surviving well.

Life, in the human brain, is a complicated wonder. We constantly learn, usually from our mistakes, though we rarely admit that we’ve made them. Some things are lessons that are handed down, that must be learned through trial and error from those who came before. Some things are lessons that are brand new, that must be taught to those that taught us. It’s easy for me to point a finger and say, “What were we thinking planting that?” when I have seen firsthand the damage that non-native invasive plants can cause. That’s because that lesson was discovered after kudzu was brought over or crown vetch was made companion to the Pennsylvania highway system.

I’m sure I’m doing things that the next generation sees and says, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you know any better?” No, I don’t. But I can learn. The process of becoming a good steward is a long, hard, winding path. I’ve doubled back many times, taken shortcuts, ignored the principles of ecology, and planted non-native plants in my garden. Yet I recognize that there is an older story than mine. That’s the story I want to tell. So I rescue the orphaned groundhog, whose mother was taken away by tool of our convenience. I do not splint the leg of a limping goose because nature needs dead animals as well as live ones. I will not hand raise baby birds whose parents get eaten by a fox. I will nurse the milk snake my cats catch back to health and release it.

They are just groundhogs and geese, crows and robins. Yet even starlings and purple loosestrife are gorgeous within themselves. Life is really quite remarkable, all of it. Remember that the bully bluejays are not bad birds, and the honeysuckle is not a bad plant, and that groundhogs are not just garden pests. They are living, breathing residents of the planet, some of whom are simply doing well at the expense of others.

Humans are the most guilty of that. So before you curse under your breath as you storm out to chase the starling from your feeder, or pull the garlic mustard from your garden, remember that it isn’t their fault. Value their lives for what they are. Then pull over for the orphaned groundhog and rip out the garlic mustard with gusto.

The Audubon is open daily from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., except Sunday, when we open at 1 p.m. The trails and eagle viewing are available dawn to dusk. Visit or for more information or call 569-2345. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown.

Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at the Audubon and has a soft spot for most living things.

Article Photos

Photo by Dave Cooney
A Groundhog on Spatterdock dike at the Audubon.



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