Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bird Life (And Death)

Driving to Swaffham last night I came across a very touching sight. Those of you who have never lived in the countryside will no doubt snigger at what I am about to write, but who cares.

By the side of the road lay a dead hen pheasant, which had clearly been hit by a car. But by its side, was a cock pheasant pushing at it with its head, trying to revive it, clearly distressed by the loss of its partner.

I had never really thought about birds having emotions. I wouldn't have thought their brains were big enough. But when I drove back later that evening the cock pheasant was still there, apparently grieving.

So, come on then, who can educate me on bird emotions?

PS Yes, I do realise there's an election on, but a change is as good as a rest.

49 comments:

Wyrdtimes said...

After sorrow - revenge.

http://tinyurl.com/y786egb

DocRichard said...

My friend is a parrot psychiatrist, and he tells me that a properly trained parrot can, when asked verbally, select a blue paper triangle with significant accuracy from a table covered with differently coloured paper and plastic shapes. So they are well smart. Oh, and birds have chosen not to develop weapons of mass destruction. So they are smarter than us.

Grand_Inquisitor said...

Iain, you would be suprised about just how many animals have emotions. Just because we humans cannot easily recognise their emotional signals does not mean that they do not exist.

Dan Brusca said...

I was at Long Eaton station in Derbyshire last week to catch a train to London.

As I arrived on the platform, a pigeon flew into the path of a passing thru-train and, needless to say, was killed instantly. It hit the platform in a blood-splattered bounce before coming to rest. There were feathers blowing around everywhere.

A train pulled in from another direction and woman got off with a wheelie suitcase. Not seeing the pigeon she inadvertantly dragged it away under her case, down the embankment from the platform.

While all this was going on there was another pigeon flying around, clearly in some distress about what had happened. It was all very sad.

I'm no bird expert, but as far as pigeons go, I'm sure they form couples. There's a pair who I see all day through my office window here. They play, chasing eachother back and forth along the apex of the roof opposite, pecking at eachother and as far as I can tell, have raised several generations of offspring.

I don't know if birds feel emotions that are comparable to ours, but they clearly form attachments and when they're disrupted, it does upset them.

Antisthenes said...

I believe that it has long been understood that other animals have emotions and grieving for a dead family member is one of them. Normally it is observable that the grieving is short lived in demonstrable terms but how long it perseveres in the consciousness is unknown. I could of course be writing a total load of b******s as I have no training biology.

troymolloy said...

The ability to experience 'emotions' will depend on the species; a parrot can feel things deeply, where a sparrow will dust himself off and move on. What's interesting about this case is that pheasants always seem particularly stupid birds, but evidently they do have some brain capacity after all.

Please though Iain - mate rather than 'partner'.

John said...

David Cameron's battle bus hit it.

Jabba the Cat said...

Should of grabbed both birds and stuffed them in the oven...

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I have been keeping chickens for seven years. At one point, I had over twenty.

They all had individual behaviours and tastes. They mostly all had friends who they would stick with for life. Some would go crazy for bananas, others hated them and preferred apples. They get to understand humans easily. They know when its time for bed and hang back and procrastinate by drinking water or wandering away, but they do know it is time for bed and where they must go in order to be safe.

When it comes to egg laying, they are very canny. They seek out somewhere quiet and do not like to be observed.

I have nursed many hens in their final hours; some with illness, but mostly with the effects of a fox attack. Only one chicken survived a fight with a fox and she lives today to tell the tale.

Foxes are a menace in the countryside. The idea that they should be protected from culling is absurd. If you have seen the carnage they leave behind, the dying livestock, you would not be sentimental about foxes. As for chickens..

If of life, you should sicken, go and get yourself a chicken!

Paul Burgin said...

Have heard of swans being very attached. I do know that when my pet cat, Dora, was run over eight years ago, her sister moped for weeks and seemed to be looking for her

JuliaM said...

Isn't it mating season? Probably just checking to see if she was 'in the mood'...

Kevin said...

to be honest it doesn't surprise me that iain would think like that. he seems a very compassionate person

and i do hope jabba the cat was making a remark in jest - because otherwise i think their remarks rather nasty

John MacLeod said...

I saw a similar scene with greylag geese on Lewis some years ago, Iain - one dead by the roadside and the other, evidently distressed, refusing to leave. Geese, like swans, ravens and certain other birds,mate for life. Pheasants don't, as far as I know, breed in the wild in Britain - they're pretty domesticated things, bred in hatcheries and corn-fed against the day when the gentry step out with the twelve-bores to conserve some wildlife...

Paul C said...

Actually it's nice that you have this on your blog and I don't think you're crazy or whatever.

It took me over 15 years to get from that realisation you just had to becoming a vegetarian. Please do better than I did, it's good for your health and your soul.

BTW, it's not just birds - it's all mammals, and even fish have emotions like loyalty and sadness. Humans just aren't very good at recognising them - or are, and are very good at deceiving themselves.

Dorian Smith said...

Iain, I know Swaffham well, I used to drive through the country lanes to go to the Saturday market.

It's is a shame that a pheasant died, but I used to find despite the thousand of hectares of fields to run about in, they almost timed to perfection running in front of a car in a little used country lane.

MikeyP said...

Should HAVE grabbed them.....

John R said...

Should of grabbed them/Should have grabbed them.

Has the blog been visited by a bird brain perchance?

Thorpe said...

Pheasants are quite canny. There's a cock bird near where I live who spends most of his time with his 4 hens in a small wood and along some hedgerows. But on shooting days, oh no. They're off to the golf course on the other side of the woods. We think he's about 4 years old, and looking set for a grand old life before dying of natural causes.

lacewing said...

I have never lived in the country but I saw the very same thing some years ago near Walsingham. It struck a chord with me at the time, although I didn't - and still don't - know how to tell a cock pheasant from his mate. Nature is indeed a strange and wonderful thing.

Thank you for something worth reading about - the election most surely isn't.

Paddy Briggs said...

Sad story. I wonder if the green welly brigade can assure us that when they shoot pheasants they always ensure that they take out both in a the male/female pair to avoid such distressing bereavements...?

(I'm a townie too!)

Letterman said...

Similar to what David Cameron's doing with his hopes of a parliamentary majority at the moment?

moorlandhunter said...

When I am out shooting Geese or Duck in the shooting season I always shoot the young ones (at the back of the V) as I know that they have not paired up yet or if I see two flying on their own I shoot both as I know that if I shot just the one, the other would be flying around the area looking for its mate for a couple of days.
A true countryman will treat the animals he shoots with respect, not shooting if he knows there is a likelihood of a miss, if the range is too far, and eating what you shoot, unless the quarry happens to be rats.
As for Pheasants I think you will find the Cock will have a little Harem so to speak of females and he probably was trying to move her along to join the others.

Anna said...

A bit of election relief is most welcome! Shame about the nature of it. But I agree that you may have witnessed grief. I have two cats and dear to me though they are, I could wish they were less efficient at bird massacre. I've seen many a bird dive-bombing them trying to rescue its chick, or keeping up endless tweeting because the chick was no more. I do try to rescue them, and often I succeed and they get restored to their doting parents, but sometimes I fail and have a quite horrible guilt trip.

ahs benton said...

A dead hen is a good metaphor for the moribund state of this blog.

Stepney said...

They do form bonds and often the reason why you get so many dead birds in one small area of the roadside is that once one snuffs it the rest of the family pop along to pay their respects and this often creates carnage. I know this sounds flippant but as one who used to live next to Blenheim I can assure you it's true.

Strongly suggest you have a weekly nature notes section. I'm a country boy uprooted to the city too and the metropolitian liberal elite would be much happier if the countryside just disappeared.

Get your own back; write about it and let the buggers know it still exists...

Ruth@VS said...

A welcome change of topic from the election/volcano disaster, Iain! Animals and birds do form strong bonds, and are affected when one of them died. One of my cats has only just recovered from losing her brother six months ago.

Round here we have pheasants which roam free and breed each year, road deaths are very rare round here as the birds sensibly stick to the fields and woods. It is nice to see a pheasant family trooping through the undergrowth and I'm not surprised they grieve when one of them dies.

Stephen said...

@ Anna

Perhaps it's time to put your cats down. It is unfortunately more your fault than theirs that these baby birds are being massacred.

Imagine the distress your cats are causing to your bird-loving neighbours.

It's also your fault that your cats crap in your neighbours garden. You might as well shimmy over the fence and do it yourself.

Owning a cat is tantamount to announcing in the local paper that you have no respect or care for your neighbours or for your neighbourhood.

Tom Paine said...

You haven't really changed the subject have you? You are always writing sympathetically about birdbrains here. It's just this one isn't running for office.

Future History of England said...

Poor Bird...

parrot psychiatrist?

Only in the UK!

Education, Education, Education.....

Tim Worstall said...

True bit this. If you hit a pheasant and pick it up to take home to eat then you're poaching. But if someone else has hit it and you pick it up then you're just picking up roadkill.

The lesson of which is that when you're going pheasant poaching in the lanes around the back of the Duke of Somerset's estate make sure you go in two cars.

Not that I ever did that, oh no, of course not.

BTW, the reason they come to the roadside is to eat grit to prime their digestive systems.

Grand_Inquisitor said...

I echo Dorian Smith's observation concerning the ability of Pheasants to time the crossing of an infrequently used lane to (kamakaze)perfection!

Glynne said...

We have a rookery in the trees backing on to our garden.
For the last few years among the usual cluster of smaller nests, there had been one very large nest which the rooks maintained over the winters.

In spring last year, one afternoon the normal busy noisy rookery was silent and a single bird was perched above the large nest, over the next few days other rooks came in silently and dismantled the nest a twig at a time.
For about a week after the nest had gone the rookery was quiet but always with a single rook (the same one?) perched over where the nest had been.
That year instead of the usual 5 or 6 nests, there were only 3.

I'm NOT Aussie Pete! said...

Minds me of Sarah propping up our Great Leader (my hero) at the conference.

Back in Sydney, we had a pair of wild lorikeets who dropped in and snaffled what we'd put out for them. We knew they were ours because one had only one leg.

He showed up by himself one day, and a few times more, then he was never seen again. This, after more than a year of daily visits. Where was his bird?

Mind you, some of them used to have intercourse on the tree outside our window. Dirty little buzzards.

Have you considered tweeting this?

Sorry.

killemallletgodsortemout said...

The cock pheasant was probably a member of the bird equivalent of the Labour party, metaphorically searching the hen pheasant for rings, watches, wallets - that sort of thing.

Anna said...

Stephen,

Maybe you should explore the real world some time. The neighbourhood in which I live is surrounded by woods and National Trust heathland, with substantial deer & fox populations and a goodly proportion of feral cats. Occasionally the Cats' Protection League turns up to try and trap the latter, to sterilse them, but mostly they're much too smart to get trapped. Needless to say, none of these animals respects artificial garden borders and believe me, their visiting cards are rather more noticeable than anything my cats are likely to leave. Does anyone complain? Of course not, we just don't try growing roses or keeping hens. There isn't one person here who'd hurt any of those animals for the sake of a neat & tidy garden, it's a joy to share our little corner of the Earth with them. A lot of us have moggies, too!

Johnny Norfolk said...

Driving around Norfolk I find pheasants the most stupid of all birds. I can understand where the phrase " bird brained" comes from. They make good eating though from October when they are in season.

You are going soft like the Tory party in your " ld" age".

Sandy said...

Utter sentimental tripe written here. Cock pheasants have a harem of hens. He was just trying to shag it. Honestly.
Rooks, parrots etc have shown intelligence. Bar the basic survival instinct of avoiding predators pheasants have none!
Oh, and they do breed in the wild, but not terribly successfully as they are too thick to avoid predation by foxes etc.
And, if there was no shooting they wouldn't exist in Britain.
Hope this clarifies things!

Houdini said...

The cock was picking at the carcass for food and nothing else. Pheasants aren't bright enough to form partnerships and the cocks have a harem not a single partner.

Anna said...

Poor Iain, an innocent post meant as a diversion from election boredom stirs up a real can of birds!

Tachybaptus said...

Some birds do form strong, lifelong pairs. I have seen both a female farmyard goose and a female swan stop eating when they lost their mate, and die -- technically -- of hunger. But a broken heart would be nearer the mark.

Or look at great crested grebes. The sexes look identical, even to other grebes, so a first pairing is quite likely to be homosexual, and will be abandoned if it doesn't produce fertile eggs. But once a pair is well mated, they are together for life. They share the duties of sitting on the eggs, and carrying the young on their back while the other bird finds food for their ravenous, carnivorous babies. To stick together during this demanding time, strong bonding is required. Mates constantly greet each other with a head-shaking ritual, even when one returns to the nest after ten minutes' fishing. They have several complex dance routines which, while the basics are hardwired, have to be perfected by practice together. There can be no adultery, as they have to build a nest on which to mate. Imagine if humans had to build a bed from scratch every time they felt like a casual fling. We could learn from these affectionate, ceremonious creatures.

None of this applies to pheasants.

jojoko said...

Some birds act as a sentry and when a cat is spotted, they give a warning cry. Blackbirds are very good at this. Sometimes there will be 5-8 different species of bird giving a cat warning call. Please consider that without cats, there would be far more rats about who eat the eggs and young of numerous birds, far more than cats do as there are far more of them. The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats for their keeping down of vermin. Men who hate cats are quite often misogynists, I hope this is not true of Stephen.

denverthen said...

Your blog Mr D. You can do what you like with it.

I enjoyed this post very much, not least because of the entertaining comments it's generated.

There is life beyond politics after all. Now what does that tell us?

The Lakelander said...

The pheasant is not a native species to Britain.

It was brought into Britain as an alternative quarry to the indigeneous partridge.

They do breed in the wild but hen pheasants aren't the greatest of mothers...they frequently forget where they have laid their eggs.

Most shoots end their season with a "Cocks Only Day." (Stop sniggering at the back, Dale.)

This allows hen pheasants an opportunity to escape being shot at the end of the shooting season in January and to breed for the following season.

Anna said...

jojoko,

>>Men who hate cats are quite often misogynists, I hope this is not true of Stephen.<<

I was brought up to believe that only the intelligent can appreciate cats!

Just to set the record straight a bit, I do realise I can be exceedingly anthropomorphic. But much as I love to see the foxes around here, I wouldn't feed them and I know that if they stray onto neighbouring farmland they're liable to get shot. I don't have any problem with that, farmers have genuine reason to consider foxes to be vermin. Stephen quite clearly missed the gentle self-mockery in my original post. Yes, I feel guilty when my cats catch a bird, and indeed when they catch a frog or a moth or a spider, all of which I will try to rescue, but basically it's nature - red in tooth & claw. By his logic, we should put down all those endangered big & beautiful cats that are so nasty to their prey!

The Innocent Mandrel said...

Studies of animal behaviour increasingly show intelligence and the capacity for emotion to not be uniquely 'human' attributes, but to be part of a continuum found across the animal kingdom. Intelligence is something that's been found in many animals, though its extent can vary quite widely (just as it also varies between humans). The same appears to be true of emotion. Empathy, fear, grief, and even philosophy of mind and - according to research mentioned in this week's New Scientist - self doubt, and more, have all been recorded in various animals.

This may seem surprising at first, but it needn't, considering that we're animals ourselves, a product of the same evolutionary processes as every other living thing with us today. Successful structures recur in nature - eyes, hearts, brains etc. are present in many, many species, even though, say, a mammal's eye will not be the same as a fish's eye. By the same token, animal emotions may not be exactly the same as our own, but there's a lot of research to suggest that they do have them.

Stephen said...

Oh how revealing this "misunderstanding" is.

Of course I don't hate the cats. I made that clear. In a high rat/ mouse environment e.g. a farm or ship or theatre then a cat is a good worker.

I don't blame the cats. I blame the owners who are oblivious to their selfishness.

I do love my birds and I regularly have to watch as blue tits or sparrows get tortured in my garden by neighbourhood cats. My plants also get destroyed and my lawn is a toilet which then makes us worried about letting my nieces and nephews out there.

0wning a cat in a built- up area seems to me to be the epitome of clueless, anti-social, selfish behaviour.

So what are my options realistically? A dog which I couldn't look after properly, a bigger cat to compound the problem for all the other decent neighbours, a gun or maybe just poison?

Have you actually checked on the misery your cat causes to other people? Not a nice situation to be in is it?

Suggesting that the victims of cat-owners are mysogynists is absurd; easily disproved by one man with a cat.

It's more that cat owners are anti-social, irresponsible misanthropes, as bad as people who don't clear up after their dogs.

jojoko said...

There are far more rats in built-up urban areas than in the countryside as there are now more foxes in the city than in the country. There is more food for them due to humans throwing out huge quantities of leftovers and wheelie bins that overflow. Cats are needed to control urban vermin just as much as country vermin. It seems to me that there are people who wish to control all aspects of nature. Perhaps you have never seen a sparrowhawk with a songbird. It's not a pretty sight. Would you have all sparrowhawks destroyed because your sensibilites are offended? The reality is that nature is cruel, life is cruel. We are born and die as do all creatures and many deaths are horrific. A magic wand cannot be waved to Disneyfy nature. Animals will kill and defecate in ways and places that some humans will object to because it is out of their control. Perhaps those with control problems should reconsider their outlook on life in general and animals in particular.

Alvin said...

There have been a couple of things on this recently. The Breaved but brawling squirrel defends his fallen friend from feasting crows HERE

And Chimpanzees grieve for loved ones HERE

Alvin said...

There have been a couple of things on this recently. The Breaved but brawling squirrel defends his fallen friend from feasting crows HERE

And Chimpanzees grieve for loved ones HERE