Nature red in tooth and claw (part deux)

My blog today is not much – well, nothing, actually – to do with writing historical fiction, or with medieval history. Instead it is a bit of an addendum to my post last month, Nature red in tooth and claw. If you follow my posts, you have probably realised by now that, as well as writing novels set in the fourteenth century, I am also pretty keen on observing the natural world, and especially birds…

So, today, I am offering a relatively short blog, and one that is not only short but also, I’m afraid, not very “sweet”. So you might want to look away now if you’re squeamish…

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Bésayes, Drôme, France. View towards the Vercors mountains. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

How very tranquil the countryside seems as we sit here on the terrace of our gîte in Drôme, south-eastern France, looking across the fields towards the Vercors mountains, watching a tractor trundle up and down the rows of corn or sunflowers in the distance, listening to the crickets chirruping, thrilling to the sight of the locally-nesting bee-eaters swooping and gliding, noticing the lengthening of the evening shadows… With a glass of rosé at one’s elbow, and the barbecue coals burning nicely in anticipation of pork and aubergines and fat red peppers, it’s all quite relaxing and delightful.

Well, yes, I am putting a shamelessly romantic spin upon it all, but only really to point up the contrast between what we see out there with our rose-tinted eyes, and what we know is actually going on…

For, of course, at the micro level, the countryside is anything but tranquil, and you can be sure that, each day, many creatures, small and larger, meet their – often gruesome – ends, mostly in the service of another creature’s belly (or, at this time of year especially, those of their growing young).

It’s not often one has the opportunity to observe this playing out of nature – perhaps indeed you wouldn’t want to? But, yesterday evening, we did observe it, and admittedly it wasn’t pretty. However, what we saw was not just a death but, more intriguingly, a display of social interaction between different species of bird, which was grimly fascinating to watch, and yet we felt somehow privileged to be doing so.

Unfortunately (or, you might think, fortunately) I can’t show you photos of what we actually saw, for the scene was played out just a little too far away, even for a bird-watcher’s excellent long lens camera. But here are the actors in this everyday drama of French country life…

(Images courtesy of the RSPB website)

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carcr_tcm9-18253      magpie_tcm9-17626

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Photo © Chris Shields for RSPB

It was early evening and dinner preparation was under way – apéritif, barbecue and so on –  when we suddenly heard the raucous squawks of crows and the harsh rasp of magpies, somewhere not all that far away. Looking from the terrace across to the fields just beyond the hedge, a gaggle of birds – four magpies and six carrion crows – was flapping and hopping noisily around a buzzard, clearly safeguarding its recently captured prey. It seemed clear that the poor thing – from its size and colouring, a rabbit – had been recently captured from the continued jerking of its hind legs. This might have been its death throes, but the movements were vigorous enough to suggest an, albeit hopeless, attempt to escape its grisly fate.

Horribly voyeuristic as it might seem, I’m afraid that we set up the tripod and telescope for a better view. Because what was happening was not just “nature red…” but also a stand-off between the buzzard and the would-be purloiners of its dinner, and we were intrigued to know which of them would win the day. Ten to one seemed poor odds against the buzzard, but the other birds (and I’m going anthropomorphic here!) seemed to be all talk and no trousers, as they flapped and swooped and barked at the buzzard, but most definitely kept their distance.

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© Spencer Wright, North Walsham, England (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

They were undoubtedly safe enough from the raptor’s talons, which were keeping tight hold of the hapless rabbit. But one imagines that just one peck from that vicious beak could do a huge amount of damage to a magpie, or even a crow.
 

Buzzards are a good deal bigger than crows and magpies. The smaller birds are similar to each other in length, approximately 45cm, although the carrion crow has a wingspan half as much again as the magpie, and is twice its weight, at about half a kilo. But the buzzard – and I think the one we had here was a fairly large example – is more than a quarter longer than the others, with an additional 20cm or so of wingspan than the crow, but it weighs twice as much as the crow and four times as much as the magpie. And it’s got that scimitar of a beak!

So it’s hardly a surprise that, despite the greater numbers of their posse, the aspiring thieves were exceedingly cautious about getting too close to their target.

Nonetheless, they didn’t stop their harassment. The buzzard might have been the big kid on the block, but perhaps the crows and magpies knew that, precious as its meal was, it wouldn’t risk a physical confrontation with them.

Buzzard and Carrion Crows, Bough Beech
Photo RSPB

You see this also in the air, where it’s very common to see crows mobbing a buzzard, presumably because the buzzard got too close to their nest or had simply invaded their territory, although I think it’s rare that physical contact is ever made, as it could be very damaging to all involved. Usually the buzzard just seems to fly off, presumably to look elsewhere for easier, less taxing, pickings.

So crows – and magpies – are brave, but presumably know from experience that, if they keep up the pressure long enough, they stand a good chance of winning.

And that is actually what happened, although not for a good fifteen or twenty minutes…

The poor rabbit struggled on a while, and the buzzard tried to eat a little something of its dinner. But, with the constant interruptions from its tormentors and its own failed attempts to see them off – we could see quite clearly that, beak open, it was shouting at them, telling them to scram – it didn’t seem to be enjoying its meal very much, and was perhaps already thinking better of bothering to defend it.

In fact, some of the crows and magpies did scram, but there remained a persistent few of both species that weren’t going to let this potential free meal go.

I thought the buzzard might try taking off with whatever was left of its dinner in its talons, but the rabbit might well have weighed as much as its captor, or even more – it did look quite big – so maybe that wasn’t a practical possibility.

And, in the end, leaving the remains behind, the buzzard did simply fly away, with a parting bark at the victorious corvids, who then pounced upon their prize and tucked in.

So, for them – the crows and magpies – there was such a thing as a free lunch (dinner). All they had to do was have a degree of courage and a fair amount of patience, and be really, really irritating for long enough to force their bigger rival to feel the effort of the fight was greater than the reward.

Thus, in this case, the underdog(bird)s won out over the top dog(bird). But I imagine it doesn’t always work out that way…

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