Traveling a highway of predator and prey

Traveling a highway of predator and prey
John C. Lorson

Delivering dinner to the den, a long-tailed weasel races back to its burrow with the spoils of a wetland nest raid. Its prey, the newly hatched chick of a Virginia rail, was one of three that the weasel delivered in the short few moments of our encounter.


Upon reading my recent column about finally capturing a photo of an American mink on the Holmes County Trail, a longtime friend and fellow student of all things wild (who also happens to be a retired state wildlife officer) delivered a comment I’ve been thinking about for days.

“A trail like that is a predator highway,” he said. “Mink, fox, coyote — just about anything that hunts for its supper — can get from one place to another quickly and silently on a trail.”

I figured he’d seen his share of two-legged game-stalkers using such a trail for easy access to places where they had no business being as well, but we didn’t get into that. Instead, I really got to thinking about the concept of the “predator highway” in both a “macro” sense and “micro” sense.

On the macro level, the trails, roads and railroad corridors created as humans settled North America changed everything for native wildlife. Not only did it move people within easy striking distance of previously uncontacted wildlife, but it also changed the way natural predators could move about within their own ecosystem. What self-respecting wolf wouldn’t choose to trot the paw-deep hard-pack of a railroad line over muscling its way through 3 feet of fresh powder to move swiftly from one elk wintering ground to the next?

On the micro scale, the idea is easily observed locally, and it’s not even necessary to encounter one of the many predators that live in our area to notice how something like a bicycle trail affects the food-gathering habits of wildlife.

For a simple example, travel a trail on any given day and you are almost certain to encounter an eastern chipmunk or two (or 10 or 20 for that matter). Chipmunks have essentially two activities that direct their entire day: find food and avoid becoming food. The reason you are almost certain to see chipmunks going about their business is they’ve learned to exploit the trail for both purposes.

The seeds, nuts and berries that fall on the trail are plentiful and easy to find. After spotting a nibble and scoping the vicinity, chipmunks race out from the edge quietly, grab their snack and go. It may seem they are opening themselves up to an easy attack, but the truth is the chipmunk is actually balancing the risk of “grabbing and running” in areas where it can see danger approaching — this, over foraging noisily in the brush where hidden dangers like snakes, weasels, mink and the occasional fox may be lurking. Sure, the chipmunk opens itself up to aerial attack by venturing into the open, but again, the more imminent threat lies in the underbrush.

Most certainly a fair number of chipmunks perish on the trail, by both predation and the occasional run-in with a bicycle, but the chipmunk is a prey species (like the wild turkey) that plays the quantity over quality game in regard to reproduction. Chipmunks raise two litters of kits each year — one as early as March, the other typically in June — and average about five kittens per litter.

For many predators the chipmunk is like a “feeder goldfish” in an aquarium — an abundant, reliable source of protein. So by merit of its own successful exploitation of the trail, the chipmunk as a species inadvertently attracts more predators to the vicinity to partake of an abundance of individual chipmunks. (No one ever said understanding the interrelated behavior of different species was easy.)

My frequent encounters with mink and a recent and rare meet-up with a long-tailed weasel confirm the observation that predators do indeed use the trail to great advantage. On a recent ride home, I almost fell off my bike when a weasel “popped” out right in front of me. It was carrying something, much the same as the mink had been when I’d photographed it the previous week, and was traveling directly across the trail from the “water” side to the “land” side.

Thinking it might return, I jumped off the bike, dug out my long lens and set up a stakeout. The weasel crossed the trail three more times in the next 10 minutes, each time carrying another young hatchling, which I later identified as the chicks of a Virginia rail.

Life in the wild can seem cruel, but everything has its place in the food web — even a rail-gobbling weasel. Head out to the “highway” and watch nature’s drama unfold.

Loading next article...

End of content

No more pages to load