A time to be born and a time to die - Take on Nature

Reflections on the cycle of life

The pygmy shrew is Ireland's smallest mammal shrews. It must feed constantly to maintain body temperature (phototrip/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Agitated bird calls from outside alerted me to a roguish magpie and several recently fledged starlings. As the noise intensified, I realised the magpie had taken a young starling as prey, prompting outrage among its siblings, which tried to harass the corvid and rescue the young bird.

Unfortunately, their attempts failed, and the young bird succumbed to the ravages of the predatory magpie which soon began plucking at the dead bird, sending feathers from the spruce tree, to drift slowly in the quiet, calm air. This brutal end to the young bird’s life brought sustenance to another.

Days later while walking along Co Sligo’s Mermaid’s Cove, or Bunduff, as I remember it, I came upon a dead starfish in a rockpool and wondering how it met its end. I suspected that, isolated in the shallow water, it had been exposed to the hot sun for too long.

The following day on a woodland path I encountered the tiny, lifeless, frame of Ireland’s smallest mammal, a pygmy shrew. The cause of death probably starvation, as shrews must feed constantly to maintain body temperature, meaning if eating is interrupted for any length of time, they perish.

Meanwhile adult blue tits frantically carry food to their hungry chicks in one of my nest boxes, live caterpillars and insect prey, soon to be killed and consumed to nourish new life.

A cute shot of a blue tit perching on the outside of a bird box.
Adult blue tits are busy feeding their young (Nigel Harris /Getty Images/iStockphoto)

These examples reveal how death in the natural world occurs from unsentimental predatory-prey relationships or sometimes just random events. Either way, as Ecclesiastes says, there is “a time to be born and a time to die”, no matter the species.

At the end of April, my father-in-law passed away from repeated infections and advanced years. He had said himself in recent times “the miles are there” and, as the line from Timothy, read at his funeral, says, he “fought the good fight” and “finished the race”.

Seamus was a highly regarded car mechanic back in the day when cars, less reliant on electronics, required regular fixing and servicing. With no diagnostic computer to help, he engaged his problem-solving traits to locate the source of trouble, then used his hands and tools to repair the faults.

Like many of his generation, Seamus had a great interest and understanding of the cycles of the natural world, greeting each season with anticipation, especially spring, when he watched for the first sign of snowdrops and other flowers in his garden.

He kept a watchful eye too for the earliest sign of nest building from the rooks and jackdaws on nearby beech trees and looked out for the smaller songbirds flitting through the hedges in his garden. Frolicking spring lambs under a warm sun were also a welcome sight as he traversed the local rural roads.

His analytical mind brought a curiosity to things he observed; how a tiny seedling from a tree could sprout in his garden or why one of two plants positioned side by side grew better than the other.

Some years ago, the design and structure of a wasp’s nest in the eaves of his outside porch fascinated him and after watching nature programmes, he would recount how a bird, mammal or insect performed a certain activity, amazed at both the strategy and achievement.

Being familiar with natural and rural life cycles, Seamus knew in recent months that his own journey was nearing an end. When it came, under the care of a dedicated team from the South West Acute Hospital, Enniskillen, and with those he wanted close by, he did it quietly, as he did most things in life. Rest easy Seamus.