OPINION: May the death on my deck not be in vain

I live in a neighborhood south of Potter Marsh. Black bear, brown bear and moose visit our yards, stroll our street, climb our trees, and investigate the infrequently left open garage. A text from my neighbor last week alerted me to a two-year-old black bear hanging out in my backyard. At the time, I was on the nearby Potter Creek trailhead for my morning walk with my dog. We were interrupted by a moose on the trail who decided she owned it. We didn’t argue.

My home office looks out two French doors onto our upper deck, and, on a clear day, a view of Sleeping Lady and the Alaska Range. Clear days have been in short supply during this record-setting, rainy summer since June. So, I’ve been especially drawn to closer views. They include a clear plastic bird feeder mounted on the outside of one of the French doors not two feet from where I sit at my computer, and a deck rail-mounted steel arm with a suet basket hanging from it about four feet beyond the feeder.

I first took up bird-feeding during the pandemic. Being visited by nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, Steller’s jays and magpies broke up the isolation. Now that I’m experiencing less isolation, I often prefer feathered companions over the hominid variety. I can watch intently without have to keep up my end of any conversation — a practice both engaging and relaxing.

That practice was shattered a couple of days ago. A red-breasted nuthatch, a tiny bundle of energy, flew into the French door. It fell to the deck, where it convulsed. I thought of rushing out to pick it up, but had no idea how I might help it.

I’ve seen birds recover from such impacts — seen them flap about, then fly away. I’ve also seen them not, like the spruce grouse that hit an upstairs window a few years back. I just heard the loud thud, but guessing it was a bird, I walked into the backyard. It lay lifeless on the yellow aspen leaves that had started to fall. I picked it up still warm, took it into our garage and breasted it out. It was dinner that evening.

I hunt birds — waterfowl and upland game. I’m passionate about the hunting. I’m ambivalent about the killing. I’ve discovered room in the outdoors for my ambivalence. I do not waste, which is why I don’t hunt without a dog. If I wing a bird, I am quick to wring its neck. The suffering, however brief, distresses me. Yet such experience also enabled me to stop next to Westchester Lagoon one June day, while others drove by, and end the suffering of two ducks who’d been hit by a car. They did not become dinner. Too many witnesses. But it seemed a shame to waste the grouse in my wooded backyard.

The concussed nuthatch was the first bird strike I’d had on the deck. I found myself silently wishing, c’mon, shake it off, you can do it. Just as I drew hope from the tiny bird starting to right itself, a magpie swooped down, snatched the nuthatch in its claws and flew away to a stand of trees.


“No! No! No!” I shouted. “What?” my husband yelled from the living room. I dashed by him on my way out to the deck, where I stood — helpless, sad for the nuthatch, ruing that I hadn’t sheltered it, then furious with the magpie. Back in the house I ranted, “I hate those damn magpies!” Forgotten were the times they’d made me laugh at their tuxedoed antics.

My husband replied softly, “It’s just nature.” I didn’t want to be soothed. “They’re bullies — squawking, strutting bullies!” I grumbled. Later, I told my brother during our weekly FaceTime. He said quietly, “I think the magpie was trying to help. I think he carried the nuthatch to safety in a tree and took care of it.” I stared at him in disbelief. He couldn’t keep a straight face and started laughing. If I could have, I would’ve smacked him.

I don’t know why I was so sad and angry. The magpie didn’t do anything I hadn’t done. But it had seemed unfair. Like shooting a sitting duck — an act sportsmanship disdains. Such line-drawing is, of course, lost on the nuthatch or duck. And it was a small tick on the wildlife meter — such a little life, such a quiet taking. Not like watching a brown bear claw a bleating calf moose away from its roaring mother. But to the nuthatch, I told my husband, it was everything.

I still feel ambivalent — about my own killing and nature’s. But I don’t feel ambivalent about living among wildlife, about having it all around me, even close to home.

I also feel responsible for the death of the nuthatch. My feeding lured it. So, I researched online. I’ll be buying some paracord and making “All Paracord” Acopian BirdSavers with my 8-year-old granddaughter. They’re easy, inexpensive, don’t interfere with my outdoor aesthetic, and they promise to prevent anymore birds from flying into my French doors so I can go on feeding — and observing.

The tale of the nuthatch and the magpie will make for an interesting discussion with my granddaughter. Wise beyond her years, she’ll likely have some pithy observation about life, death, and the way of nature — including our own.

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes nationally on criminal justice and other topics. She lives in Anchorage.

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Val Van Brocklin

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.