A Time to Rest

by Rex Burress

Down along the riverside at Bedrock Lagoon, a Pied-billed Grebe had crawled out of the water to rest on a protruding snag. You seldom get to see those immense lobed feet set back at the end of the body as grebes hardly ever leave the water, but those pretty paddles stood out sharply as the little diver reared back to preen. Perhaps it was tuckered out from juggling a huge crayfish I had earlier observed it trying to swallow. (Succeeding!!)

Diving waterfowl are usually either flying or sitting on the water, or diving for food. Rest for them is floating on the surface and sometimes tucking their head under the wing ... if you can call it rest to be positioned on cold water often rippling with rapids or wind. Even then they take a look frequently to see if anything dangerous is approaching. For a wild animal, to live is to be eternally vigilant, and you wonder if they know sleep like most humans who snuggle on a soft bed, free from fear, unless you’re anxious about a burglar breaking in, or a disease trying to gain entrance, or a tornado blowing your house away, or a runaway car smashing into your house!

The line between life and death is sometimes very narrow for all living things. At any moment, a plant vine can be nipped at the base killing the entire assemblage, a mushroom can be attacked by maggots even before the spores fly away, a car can crash, or any small animal can be caught by a predator in the flash of an eye.

You see the winter sparrows, kinglets, and warblers flitting around the foliage, twisting their heads constantly, and behaving in such a nervous manner you wonder if they ever truly relax. I think of them when the winter storms are raging. How could they get any rest clinging to a branch whipping to and fro in the midst of howling winds? It must be a frightful experience, and yet, next day when the storm has passed and the sun shines, there they are, hopping around on the ground as if nothing ever happened.

The sparrow-junco-goldfinch-warbler group are prime targets for predators just as rabbits and mice provide that essential nourishment for larger animals. And targets they are! One time I was rock hunting in the Warner Mountains, climbing out of the shrubs onto a open flat, and exploding right before my eyes, with a noticeable "pop" of talons striking feathers, was a Cooper’s Hawk impaling a luckless junco. All that would be left was a few puffs of feathers drifting away in the breeze.

It would seem that birds of prey could rest without fear of being hit by other than a bullet, but in December I saw the unlikely encounter of a sparrow hawk up high swooping onto a vulture! Maybe the vulture soared into claimed territory that the kestrel had picked out for a spring maiden, but there was unrest in the sky. There are numerous conflicts when the nesting actually begins, when even the hummingbird will pester a pesky hawk until it leaves its territory, and Brewer’s Blackbirds are especially notorious for swooping on anything in its nesting vicinity, including the head of man.

The formidable Great Horned Owl often has its daytime rest disturbed by a bunch of jays or crows screaming at it to get out of there. Usually the owl will glide away to another resting place, hoping it can slip into a dense tree without being spotted. By night it will be a different story for perching birds, mice, rabbits, and even skunks as that tiger of the night will exert its deadly hunting expertise.

What is rest for a nest of robins as the parents labor to get the juveniles to the flying stage? Perhaps one of the parents will hover over the fledglings at night while the other will hold on to a perch until the faint light of dawn when there will be another day of constant food gathering while also watching out for danger.

What is rest for a family of Killdeer out in the open fields where the rapid runner guides the diminutive mimics into maturity. To sit out there in the pebbles, hoping they won’t be found, listening to the sounds of the night, maybe hunched near the family, must be a time of restlessness. By day, the parent Killdeer puts its life on the line in luring a hunter away from the babes. Do wild birds get enough sleep, or do they need much sleep?

Some people evidently need less sleep than others, and I am reminded that artist Salvador Dali once said the only sleep he needed was in a chair and the time it took a palette knife to drop from his hand to the floor. Most people are dependent on more than that; in fact, there is an eagerness to get into that sleep/dream mode and escape the persistent problems of society.

Sleep is a bit different out there in the forest with other wild things, bundled into a sleeping bag in a thin-walled tent, listening to the concert of the crickets or for things that go bump in the night. Some succumb to the fear of the unknown and get little rest, but for the seasoned outdoors man, it is a time of reassuring sounds and peaceful sleep.

To awaken in the hour before dawn on a summer day is to hear the rhapsody of the bird choir tuning up for a day of adventure. Even at the peril of giving away their hideaway, they are so flushed with the joy of making it through the night that they break out into song. That is one viewpoint, but the song may be partly to redefine their territories.

Donald Culross Peattie said: "The time to hear bird music is between four and six in the morning. Seven o’clock is not too late, but by eight the fine rapture is over, due, I suspect, to the contentment of the inner man that comes with breakfast; a poet should always be hungry or have a lost love." Perhaps most birds are always hungry. You seldom see Bushtits resting as they relentlessly troop through the thickets minutely examining each stem and leaf surface for a lingering aphid or snoozing spider.

Oh that I had the wings of a dove! For then would I fly away and be at rest.
--Psalm 55:6

© 2003 Rex Burress
December 10, 2003