Consider a river bank.
It is a bank along a wild, relatively undeveloped river in the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia. Its exact identity is of no importance, for there are several rivers like it. Each has roughly the same cast of characters who are about to unveil their story here, so it makes no difference if I give it a name or not.
Along this river, the wild mallards and Canada geese nest every spring, and instead of the little huts their species is best known for, the muskrats give birth to their young in bank dens.
And their untutored offspring provide sustenance for the wily mink, the water weasel that wishes it were an otter but isn’t quite there yet.
All spring, our mink has been hunting the young ducks and muskrats, and he has unsuccessfully made a few attempts at taking out a wayward gosling, only to be repelled by one of their hissing, biting, splashing parents.
But now the young muskrats and ducks are wary to the ways of the mink, and hunting is hard. Three days have gone by without a successful kill, but he’s been able to get sustenance from some catfish offal and heads that were left behind from trot-liner’s night catch. But now the scraps are gone, and hunger is drawing on in.
A mink must eat, but for a mink to eat, it must kill.
And the prey isn’t likely to sacrifice itself.
But sometimes it messes up.
Just down stream from where our friend the mink was eating the catfish remains is a long sandbar. Sometimes migrating waterfowl stop on the sandbar to rest. Often, the resident mother mallards bring their ducklings there to rest, but this year, they have become a favorite haunt of our mink.
And they keep their distance.
But on the sandbar now, two male mallards have come to visit. It is now the torrid time in summer when the male mallards are in eclipse plumage. This is the time when they look almost identical to the hen mallards, and as if that weren’t emasculating enough, they have lost their ability to fly.
They are utterly vulnerable.
These two birds have spent the spring fighting and whoring and raping as all good male mallards do. Just weeks ago, they were mortal enemies, and now, with the majority of the hens with fuzzy ducklings following them, they are no longer engaged in such debauchery. The two birds are brothers out of the same clutch, and now, with all that wild season behind them, they cling to each other.
The mallard’s instinct is that a duck on his own is a duck that is about to be eaten, and when a duck loses its ability to fly, it is really vulnerable.
That’s why nature has selected for drake mallards to lose their ornate plumage during this period. Otherwise, they are just too conspicuous for predators.
On the surface, choosing the sandbar as a night roost makes some sense for these two comrades. The sandbar is surrounded by water on all sides, and any predator that tries to reach the bar will make a splashes that will alert the mallards to its approach.
So the two flightless brothers make the sandbar their roost. They spend the afternoon preening their drab feathers–
While the mink watches them from the bank.
The mink know that it must make its approach at night. If he makes his move too soon, the ducks will get spooked and find another place to roost.
But as the afternoon heat drags on, the mallards begin to feel steamy, and both waddle off into the current to cool their baking breasts. They begin to splash about and bathe themselves.
As they enter the main channel, the mink slides off into the water and begins his approach. Mink are weasels that are almost otters, and they aren’t above making an ambush from the depths. There is no need for a night stalk when the quarry does something this stupid.
The mink dives upon his approach to the drab mallard brothers and then surfaces but a few feet from them. One of the mallards notices the bobbing head approaching, but his eyes are all rheumy from the water baths.
The mink dives again, and the resurfaces just inches from one of the mallard’s necks. At that moment both ducks jump and try to flee, but it is too late.
The mink has now fastened his razor sharp teeth into the nearest mallard brother’s neck, and try as the mallard might, he cannot dislodge him. His brother croaks in terror, swimming around and around as if trying to figure out what is happening.
The river water bounces up white with the struggle. For ten minutes, the mink and the mallard grapple in the current. At some points it seems like the mallard might have the upper hand, and he even manages to throw the mink off four or five times.
But hunger and the endorphins released by the act of preying have made the mink plucky. He sullies forth towards the duck’s neck.
The duck begins to weaken, and the mink finally latches on one last time. Death comes to brother mallard.
But not quickly.
When it is all over, the mink drags the massive bird onto the bank. It is a Herculean effort, for the drake mallard weighs as much he does.
He plucks away some plumage from the breast and begins to feed.
Hunger is sated another day.
For the mallard, there is no other day, but the spring’s orgy means that his genes live on in some of the fuzzballs floating behind their mothers in slower currents downstream from the sandbar. Most of them won’t make it through the summer, and many of those won’t make it through the duck season.
But if this time next year there is one duck with the genes of our sacrificed mallard, then he will have lived on. By that time, that duck son or daughter should have passed its genes onto the next year’s ducklings, who will also know the harrying of river bank mink.
There is perhaps no more moving drama in nature than that between predator and prey, and on this river bank, this drama has been played out so many times with so many different casts of characters.
One hundred fifty years ago, the mighty elk would wander down from the ridgetop forests to drink from the river, but along the river bank, packs of wolves prowled, ready to burst out from the willows and river birches to give chase.
But the elk and the wolf are now gone.
And the river bank story is that of the mink and the mallard.
Bloody nature. Death sustaining life.