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It’s in your nature: Predators, good or bad?

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    Many people enjoy seeing bluebirds, like this female, in their yards. Did you know they are predators of insects or grubs. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    This garter snake displays its engorged body after eating a meadow vole. This predator can also be prey for a larger predator, a broad-winged hawk.

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    The praying mantis is an important small predator and is well-received (and protected) by most of us.

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    The black rat snake eats many mice and small rodents. If they were eliminated, how much damage would the “uneaten mice” cause to farmers’ crops?

Published May 03. 2019 02:36PM

As a youngster I remember watching old Westerns on the black-and-white TV (when the antenna was adjusted properly). The “good guys” wore white cowboy hats and the “bad guys” wore the black ones. As scripted, the good guys usually won.

Unfortunately, many of us still cast this “good guy, bad guy” in animals’ roles in nature. Predators are very important in nature’s food chains, and in most cases, to us, too. Predators in the Times News area range in size from spiders and insects to as large as a black bear. When a predator kills to survive, too often we judge it as a terrible “bad guy.”

Think about our view of bats. Picture this. A bat gets into your house, and any object that you could pick up and swing is used to try to kill it.

Let’s flip the switch. A Carolina wren somehow enters your house and soon every window/door gets opened and every effort is made to “shoo” it safely from the room. If it flew into a window and died, most would “grieve” for the poor little bird. But both the wren and bat are predators, albeit small ones.

To add a twist here, almost all of our cave bats (most of the bats we used to see here) are in deep trouble. White-nose syndrome has “wiped out” nearly 99% of them. Can we overcome the loss of these important nocturnal insect eaters? Time will tell.

Snakes get a bad rap, too. Too many of us are repulsed by snakes and most, if they have a chance, will grab what they have to kill it. Then, since of course they are so “bad,” the dead snake gets swatted a few more times to make sure it is dead. A black rat snake could eat eight to 12 mice a year. Imagine the mouse population, minus the snakes, knowing that a mouse can breed every three to four weeks during the summer.

It is a bit ironic. I don’t know of anyone who would intentionally kill a praying mantis. After all, they catch so many bad bugs. Yet, most don’t know that about half of their prey is the honeybee. The praying mantis eats both the “good and bad bugs.” You were probably taught by your neighbor, or more likely, your elementary teachers, to never kill a praying mantis. Your impression of that predator is positive.

However, a garter snake that eats large insects and mice regularly was not presented to you as a good predator.

Remember that predators are part of nature’s checks and balances. Prior to the United States being “invaded” by Europeans, the deer in Pennsylvania were kept in check by wolves, bears and bobcats. Wolves were eliminated, and bobcats and bears were pushed back into the remotest areas.

Today, the coyote has filled the niche of the absent wolves. As a deer hunter I too have a hard time accepting them as a competitor for the deer that hunter’s prize.

Remember, predators are necessary and critical in nature’s food chains and scheme of things.

Test your outdoor knowledge: A phoebe, a common local flycatcher, is one of about ____ species of flycatchers seen in the Times News area. A. 4, B. 10, C. 20, D. 30

Last Week’s trivia answer: Surprisingly, a screech owl will even eat small brook trout, but does not eat mushrooms.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

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