Friday, 16 August 2013

Red in beak and claw

I received an email the other day from a lady who had witnessed a jackdaw catch and kill an adult chaffinch in her garden. Like many other members of the crow family, jackdaws are somewhat opportunistic in their feeding habits, taking mostly invertebrates but with fruits, seeds, scraps and carrion added to the diet when available. Very occasionally they will take eggs and young birds or other small vertebrates but they are not really equipped to tackle adult songbirds, which are generally considered to be too agile and too difficult to catch. This is a behaviour that I have seen just once, during a particular cold winter, when two jackdaws harassed and finally caught a chaffinch.

Such murderous behaviour has been reported for carrion crow, magpie and even rook but it remains rare. What interests me about such reports is just how often the behaviour is regarded as unnatural and, therefore, ‘wrong’. In fact, I have even come across cases where the reporter portrays the would-be predator as acting with evil intent; it is as if the act of predation was, in this instance, deliberately malicious. Rather than saying anything about the predator, such statements and responses say more about us and the prejudices that we hold with regard to the natural world. I have noted before how many observers will not tolerate the act of a predatory sparrowhawk killing a blackbird but remain indifferent to a predatory blackbird killing an earthworm.

Such double standards come from deeply rooted prejudices, which favour fluffy or feathered creatures above those that are cold-blooded. We have created a hierarchy of favourites, an unpleasant form of species-ism whereby some species are branded as unwelcome and their acts not tolerated. When a favoured species, such as jackdaw or great spotted woodpecker, takes another bird, the act is seen as all the more shocking because it falls outside of the image we have created for that bird. Yet, most creatures show some degree of opportunism in their diet: great tits have been known to feed on roosting bats and deer to take the chicks of ground-nesting birds, so maybe it’s time that we came to terms with the fact that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw.’

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