Archive for August, 2019

Concluding Our Predator-Prey Inquiry

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 28, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Many writers have observed that wild, naturally-behaving predators and their prey seem to communicate with each other at some level – indeed, that there is some sort of tacit agreement about who will eat whom, and when. Too, there are observations about how that respectful relationship falls apart when domesticated animals have lost what Barry Lopez calls the “conversation of death.” Dogs attack wildlife wantonly; wild predators randomly kill stock and flocks.

What of the human predator-prey relationship?  At some point, a predator is a predator. Confronted by a dangerous person, how many humans retain that conversation of death?

My some time ago, ongoing, and current, conversations with Deborah Essman always stir the mind. Her emails and current thoughts often touch on her sense of the predator-prey relationship of lions and humans.

“I’ve been thinking about body-language. ‘Calories in, calories out.’ The old adage about the sick, diseased, and crippled seems sensible. Add >young,= since so many attacks have been on children. Attacks have also been on joggers – hmmm… Running deer-like through cougar country can’t be too smart.

“I have yet to kill a cougar. Still, I have seen about a dozen lions in the wild, and the most exciting hunt of my life involved the chase Bill & I had (one) winter. To be tracking behind a big cat on tracks so hot they were >smokin= is beyond belief. I got a quick glance of him looking down at Bill, in the brush 100 yards below. Watching that cougar thrashing his tail back and forth in anger was indescribable. I’ll never forget running behind him into a brushy draw, certain that we would soon to be face to face. Even though I’d been outrun, I was not disappointed (well maybe a little).

“This morning looked perfect, it was and had been snowing. No fresh tracks. Coming out, we saw three bald eagles, ravens and black-billed magpies across the creek. We high-tailed it over and found a cougar-killed cow elk. The old tracks around it were not big – female or young tom, maybe 120# or less. Impressive that an animal that size can take such prey!

“The walk gave me a chance to think more about my previous comments. I say I’m not afraid to hunt cougars alone, but I have anxious moments – like when I move into a thick brushy draw and hear a stick snap behind me. That quickening of pulse and heightening of senses has to be a combination of fear and excitement. The tracks today were fun to look at, so distinctively roundish. A coyote track reminds me of our border collie’s prints – high strung & restless. Cougar to me sort of swaggers – that’s the best adjective. It is a predator, after all…@

Somewhere in those just-after-the-turn-of-the-Century conversations, long-time Colorado friend Dave Gershen joined our email exchange. Dave and his Colorado men=s group read the first two weeks of this early inquiry. “It,” as Dave said, “provoked some profound and interesting discussion.” Dave=s questions are those we continue to ponder: How and what do we teach young people about avoiding “prey/victim vibes?”

Deborah’s response was, and still is, “I believe that carrying myself like a predator is a clear signal that I am not to be trifled with. Police records have shown that many victims of violent crime share a profile of submissive, timid body language. The worst mistake anyone can make is not to be aware of their surroundings – in a big city or in the wild. I’ve never been afraid to hunt alone, but I always look ahead, behind and above.”

I strongly agree with this “awareness” business. Among many things, I taught my kids, and their friends, two very specific things: pay attention to things around you; and walk assertively, as if you have a purpose. In that context, I said, “Never be afraid to let someone know you see them, but don=t stare aggressively. Remember the fine line here: aggression invites aggression; assertiveness invites respect.”

“By the way, Jim,” Deborah added toward the end of our many conversations, “when I worked in Seattle, I was a uniformed Wildlife Agent. I had reports of people keeping short salmon along the waterfront, so I worked ‘plain-clothes’ one night. About 2:00 a.m., I casually approached a couple fishermen. Before I even said hello, they whipped out their licenses. Stunned, I asked how they knew I was an agent. One replied that I walked like a ‘woman with a purpose.’ Then, he added, they only saw one other type of woman that time of night and I surely didn’t look like one of them. A compliment? I’m still not sure…Yours, Deborah K. Essman”

Predator-prey relationships are found across all life forms. It is incumbent upon us, I suggest, to understand those within which we find ourselves.

Continuing the Predator-Prey Inquiry

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 21, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

You recall that Martha Heyneman, in her story “The Never-Ceasing Dance,” (published in the summer 1991 issue of “Parabola” magazine) was concluding her note of what she saw between the cat and the young cardinal:

“Cat and bird have taken on a great dignity, as if two masked gods, supposing themselves unobserved, revealed for a moment their true nature. There is no sign of fear in the bird. He no longer flutters or tries to escape. He knows it is his death he is looking at, his death looking back at him. What passes between the two antagonists in this timeless instant is not fear, or hatred, or murderous triumph, or even, as with the flamenco dancers, the magnetism of sex – though there is something of all these in it. What passes between them is love.”

Martha saw no fear or anger or triumph in that real-life predator-prey relationship: she saw love.

She was certainly not the only one –or first – to have made such observation. Maybe, in the souls of all natural predators and those on which they feed, there is a relationship of love. Maybe it is respect – fundamental to life in the natural order of things. Maybe, as writer Barry Lopez has often said, nature deals a different kind of death than the one men know.

Lopez also had a piece in that 1991 issue. “The Moment of Encounter” speaks of the wolf and his food. To Lopez, the most fascinating moment of the hunt is the initial encounter.

“Wolves and prey may remain absolutely still while staring at each other. Immediately after, a moose may simply walk away; or the wolves turn and run; or the wolves may charge and kill the animal in less than a minute…  I think what transpires in those moments of staring is an exchange of information between predator and prey that either triggers a chase or defuses the hunt right there. The moment of eye contact between wolf and prey seems to be visibly decisive.

“I called this exchange…the conversation of death. It is a ceremonial exchange, the flesh of the hunted in exchange for respect for its spirit… There is, at least, a sacred order in this. There is nobility… It produces, for the wolf, sacred meat.

“When the wolf ‘asks’ for the life of another animal he is responding to something in that animal that says, ‘My life is strong. It is worth asking for.’ A moose may be biologically constrained to die because he is old or injured, but the choice is there. The death is not tragic. It has dignity.”

So much of what Lopez describes is true also of the relationship between the true hunter and the animal he or she will take for sacred food. But what happens to the predator-prey relationship when the conversation of death has been bred out of domestic animals? What about the predator? Lopez considered that, too.

“What happens when a wolf wanders into a flock of sheep and kills twenty or thirty of them in apparent compulsion is perhaps not so much slaughter as a failure on the part of the sheep to communicate anything at all – resistance, mutual respect, appropriateness – to the wolf. The wolf has initiated a sacred ritual and met with ignorance.”

And what of humans who’ve lost the ability to carry on the conversation of death? What implications lie in this for our fears for ourselves and our friends? How do we protect ourselves and our families if we cannot deal with our predators in a clear honest way?

These are the kinds of questions which have filled my mind since Deborah Essman and I started this conversation nearly two decades ago. Deborah has hunted mountain lions – on foot – with husband Bill. Or alone. Friends have often expressed concern for her safety, and she always, and still, patiently assures them she is not “prey.”

She knows a little about the concept. She was commissioned as a wildlife officer in 1983, after surviving the Washington State Patrol Training Academy and being accredited by the Criminal Justice Training Center. She has spent countless hours afield, watching wildlife and people, thinking about how they interact with each other and among themselves. I once asked her to put down some of her thoughts about all this stuff, and have recently reviewed them with her.

In my writing about humans and predators, I have often repeated Theodore Roosevelt’s view of the mountain lion as a cowardly predator. She had a different way to think of lion behavior. And maybe something more along the lines of Lopez’ “conversation of death.”

“Re: T.R. and his cougars… I revere the man… but… experience leads me to think of these cats as arrogant, confidant, and maybe even blasé towards humans – certainly not cowardly. Their mantra might be better summed up as ‘discretion is the better part of valor.’ (A) predator does not want to expend any more calories than it has to, to procure a meal.”

To be concluded…


A Three-Week Inquiry into the Predator-Prey Relationship

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 14, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

The moment Homey introduced himself, I knew this was going to be one of those phone calls. “Look,” he said, “I have an idea for something you should write about – or maybe revisit, if my dad is right.” Once we got a bit centered, he explained. “We have been talking with our son and daughter – 11 and 13 – about bullying and abuse and violence and all those things we tell each other to talk with our kids about, and how to respond or not respond, and who to talk to if there’s trouble, and all that business. They’re great kids and there’s just so much we want them to know. At some point, my dad said ‘Well, we are all outdoor and wildlife nuts, maybe you should help them understand how the natural world of predators and prey works. Might help them with their own decisions.’ Then he said that, like maybe 15 or 20 years ago, you and that bird whisperer woman, Deborah, wrote something that he used when he was talking with me and my brothers. Do you think you guys might do something like that again?”

I told him I would think about it. As I did, I realized that, with the #metoo movement, the news and media filled with stories, advice and whatever, the subject of the predator-prey relationship is as relevant now – if not more so – than it was in when we first discussed this in 2003. I called Deborah Essman, and a couple others who concurred with our (and Homey’s) thinking. Thus, for this week and two more, we shall consider the predator-prey relationship.

Somehow, nearly three decades ago, I stumbled across the summer 1991 issue of “Parabola – The Magazine of Myth and Tradition.” Still published quarterly – each issue on some particular topic – Parabola ( is currently using the byline “The Search for Meaning.” At any rate, the issue I found was titled “The Hunter.” The 100-plus pages of 20 ancient and new writings on my favorite activity were delicious. Two of the writings, however, haunted me.

As a kid, I wondered about robins eating worms, people eating animals, and critters eating other critters. I’ve spent days of my life watching coyotes and cats catch and play with food. Often, when hunting (being a predator) I have found myself deep in thought about the relationships involved. At odd moments throughout my life, I have pondered the intricacies of this prey-predator relationship. Deborah and Bill Essman and countless others have, as well.

It is not just about wildlife, either. We’ve seen the TV dramas. We’ve watched abusers and sexual predators talk about how they recognize a victim – prey – the moment they see him or her. I coached my young sons and daughters on important, related, life skills, teaching them to carefully observe their surroundings, to pay attention to how they were moving and interacting in public, finding options if something seemed “off,” and so forth. I always acknowledged that there are, indeed, a few evil people in the world so focused on their intentions that no amount of preparation could protect their prey. “If somehow you become a victim, don’t waste time blaming yourself,” I would tell them, “focus on being a survivor.”

The two Parabola articles to which I alluded, above, were about the truth lived by predators and their natural prey – animals and beings with an innate understanding of their roles on the planet. The authors had thoughts, also, about humans and the sacred understanding of such relationships.

The first article in that summer issue was “The Never-Ceasing Dance,” by Martha Heyneman. Martha wrote of being in struggle dressing an unruly toddler when a flurry of red and a streak of white suddenly caught her eye…

“Across the hall is the baby’s room, and in it the diapering table – turquoise blue. A low beam of morning sunshine lies across the table and illuminates the stacks of neatly folded diapers so they give off a vaporous white light. Against this background and in this light an astonishing drama is being enacted.

“A strange white cat has got in through the small door in the basement through which our own cats come and go at will. The flurry of red was a young male cardinal. He has taken refuge on the turquoise table, and now the cat has leapt up heavily and joined him. They are face to face, inches apart, looking into each other’s eyes. Neither one moves.

“Never have I witnessed, as I am witnessing now, the moment before the kill. The two are unaware of my presence. I feel like a country bumpkin who has stumbled into the sacred precinct of a great mystery. In the brilliant light the white cat and the red bird on the turquoise table are like a pair of flamenco dancers when the spotlight suddenly flashes on to reveal them motionless in its cone of swirling smoke, eye to eye, he erect and defiant in a red dress, she in a skin-tight white suit, taut as a coiled snake ready to strike, the air around them full of the accelerating rattle of castanets…

To be continued…

All About Black-Billed Magpies

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 7, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Magpies are all around the town and country of our Central Washington Paradise this summer. Few creatures are as striking as these black and white, long-tailed, black-billed birds. Flashy, big, boisterous and loud, their black plumage shimmers with bronze and blue or green and purple in the sun. So formal and straight-laced looking, it couldn’t possibly be guilty of all those bad things people say.

Its habits of attacking the eyes of injured or sick animals, raiding other birds’ nests, and picking at sores of cattle and horses have not endeared it to us. The first written report of a sighting was by Zebulon Pike in 1806. On November first, according to Pike’s journal, magpies “alighted on [our horses], and in defiance of their wincing and kicking, picked many places quite raw.” Magpie’s name is said to be short for “maggot pie,” for its eating of maggots off decaying meat, although some insist it is short for Margaret, or is an old term for “chattering female.”

Into the 1930s, periodic contests were held around the West to exterminate magpies. Thousands more died from poisoned baits placed for predators. Very few birds have been so reviled.

Yet, this is a very intelligent bird. The Earthfire Institute ( reports research showing that the brain size and cognitive abilities of corvids (crows and magpies) are relatively similar to those of the great apes. The birds may be among the most intelligent of all animals. Corvids’ brains are built very dif­fer­ently from ours, and they use portions of their brains with no counterpart to human brains. Their intelligence evolved quite differently than hours, yet they plan, they remember, they learn.

Magpies can, and do, learn to talk; google “black-billed magpie talking” and dazzle your kids and family with the videos you find. (No, it does not have a split tongue, and splitting its tongue does not help it talk.) My up-the-Little-Chumstick-Creek-out-of Leavenworth, Washington, Uncle Ed Palmquist, often told of rearing a magpie in Wenatchee in the 1920s and teaching it to talk. At the age of two, it was trapped and killed outside its entry and exit window which had been absentmindedly closed by his mother. The culprit, he said, was a “f#$%!* cat.” His mother reported hearing what sounded like the bird’s voice calling “Help! Cat! Help! Help!” but did not respond quickly enough.

While magpie makes a variety of whistling, cackling, and trilling sounds, its primary call has been described as a series of “jack jack jack!” notes with a rising “Maayg?” It is highly adaptable, with a perfect bill for its varied diet. It caches food when it has an excess, and eats more insects (including grasshoppers and ticks) than any of the other jays, ravens and crows in its family.

Were it not a bird, the magpie would probably be an architect. Nests, often easily seen perched in brush and trees, are constructed of sticks, with a mud cup, and sometimes look like small adobe houses lined with horse hair, fur or fine grasses. The nest will generally be used year after year, and may be two feet or more in diameter and several feet from top to bottom. It is not unusual for this mud and stick home to have a domed roof and two side doors (one likely for the long tail).

Black-billed magpies form long-term pair bonds, often staying together throughout the year. The pair will rear one brood from seven to ten greenish gray eggs, heavily spotted with brown. The female incubates for 16-21 days, and the male feeds her during that time. Both parents bring food (nearly always animal flesh) to nestlings, who leave the nest within 30 days.

Other birds quickly take over abandoned magpie “homes.” Some cavity nesters, such as the American kestrel, will move right in. Great horned and long-eared owls have been observed building their own nests atop the sturdy foundation provided by the magpies.

In keeping with the wishes of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. Magpie is in the crow and jay family and its scientific name is Pica pica. It is a broad-winged bird to 22 inches long (with tail). It is highly adaptable, with a perfect bill for its varied diet of insects, carrion, baby birds and small vertebrates, with some fruit and seeds. Communal and protective birds, groups of magpies will often mob hawks and other predators. Find more in “The Birder’s Handbook” by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, any good field guide, at  or google them.

Magpie is a favorite among birdwatchers in the state, and can be easily found in our east-of-the-Cascades countryside and towns. Forget its reputation; where would we be without scavengers such as the magpie, to clean up dead critters?