Today’s post was prompted by my reading this article, this morning, about the cunning way killer-whales have learnt to lure seagulls to their deaths. (http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/060202_whale_traps.html) Apparantly, one innovative Orca in Ontario (Canadian Marineland) has take to spitting fish up to the surface of the sea to attract seagulls to come and feast on them. Then the waiting orca will lunge at the seagull and gobble it up. His brother watched him doing this a few times and started to set his own seagull traps. Then their mum joined in.
The point of the article was to illustrate science’s new understanding that immitation and learning are part of many species’ behaviour repertoire, as opposed to the previously widely-held belief that they operate on instinct alone. That’s interesting in itself, but I was mostly just delighted to hear that the seagulls, those filthy, pooey rats of the sky, were getting some of their own bad karma back, finally.
In Lewis, which is the Scottish island I come from, it’s all about the seagulls. People cower as their shadows cross them, afeared of the 50% chance they have of getting evacuated on, and oh, look! They just did:
“Jolly good aim, Bombardier Whitestreak, hehehe , right down the back of her biannac!”
“It was a pleasure, sir. Here comes another one and she’s got an ice-cream cone, I’ll aim for that.”
Seagulls peck out the eyes of new-born lambs, will pinch the chips right out of your poke and eat drunken-people’s vomit for Sunday breakfast. Seagulls are vicious. We have lived under their collective despotism for too long now. As far as I’m concerned, becoming whale lunch is too good for ’em, rhubarb, rhubarb, etc. … fade to uncharitable muttering. Hooray for the Orcas!
The Story Preamble – Look, I’m getting to it, honest.
We have a good view of the valley behind our house from out of the upstairs windows. Sometimes, my girls and I sometimes watch this one red-tailed hawk and a crow from there. The hawk appears to be doing nothing more than enjoying a stretching of the wings when the crow starts to dive-bomb it, apparantly trying to knock it out of the air. These air-assaults are frequent and can often last for 20 minutes, or more.
The Real Story
One day, we received a note by pigeon that we were to appear as witnesses in a case coming before the Avian Sky Traffic Court. Surprised, but not a little interested, I told the pigeon our presence was assured.
The following week, I dressed the girls in their Sunday best, donned a pair of rather fine kid gloves and a black feather boa, and we made our way to the Court, which was located in a disused barn down by Lake Casitas. 15 minutes later we returned to the house to deposit the feather boa, which, upon reflection, I thought might be insensitive, given the occasion so, by the time we arrived, the court was in full swing and the case of The Birds versus Colonel Horace Smythe-Smithers (Red-tailed bachelor hawk of this parish of Ojai) had already been called. An officious little court-sparrow flapped us to our assigned aisle and we took our seats.
In the dock, a large, russet and rather middle-aged looking hawk had just finished taking the oath. I say middle-aged because he wore a monocle, and a beige cardigan. It was clear he was single too because his collar feathers were a bit rumpled, and he had egg down his front (a clue; more of which later).
An imposing turkey vulture,(http://www.northislandwildliferecoverycenter.org/Turkey%20Vulture%202.JPG), whose name the court circular revealed to be Judge Wattles, peered from behind a pair of round, wire spectacles and intoned,
“In your own words, please tell the court what happened on the morning of March 25th 200000000006” (birds use a different dating system called The Contravian Calender).
“Well there I was, just nobly trying to have a bit of a majestic fly, Your Honour, soaring regally on the thermals and such, and doing a bit of on-the-spot PR work for the species as there was a pale woman and her two small girls watching with some binoculars. I see them in the court today, your honour”. He indicated us.
(Note: red-tailed hawks around here will pretend to have received pronunciation, but after a few up at ‘The Aerie and Budgie’ (licensed public nest) apparantly, they fall right back into an Essex accent).
He continued, “When out of the blue this dashed crow started dive-bombing me. Let me tell you, it’s jolly difficult to scan the ground with an impressive piercing gaze when you’ve got the likes of Harry Crowsfeet (jerks wing towards crow) attacking you for no reason other than idle hooliganism.”
“Oi! That’s bang outta ordah, m’lud” cried Harry.
“It’s speciesist tha’ is, or my old mum,- Gawd rest ‘er soul – was a Siamese sparrah. Us crows can’t ‘elp our crows-feet and do the best as we can with retinol creams and Oil of Olay. Besides, the Council on Bird Relations says we oughta embrace ’em as signs of our natural good ‘umour an’ that. That poker-arsed ole fing in the dock never ‘ad a larf in ‘is life. ‘E’s got his mangy ole flight fevvers up his bum ‘e does!”
“Well really, I must protest!” protested Colonel Smythe-Smithers,
“If we’re going to get personal, may I point out that humans consider the crows to be one of the lower classes of bird entirely, on account of their being scavengers, and Mr. Crowsfeet here is clearly the type who possesses precisely that kind of sleazy low-cunning his species are infamous for. His sort drag us all down. The bird can’t even talk properly. Bring back National Service I say! Get them polishing their own beaks and eating simple seeds, milletery-style. That’ll put the backbone back into this once great valley. They do it over in Santa Barbara”.
A couple of well-groomed owls and a dapper road-runner at the back of the court, har-harumphed their agreement to this outburst.
“That’s enough! Order in court! If you two gentlebirds can not conduct yourselves civily I shall hold you both in contempt. And, if you’d read todays issue of “The Daily Peregrinations”, you would know, Colonel Smythe-Smithers, that a crow has just won the world chess championship. And scavenging” (long peer over his spectacles) “is an important ecological niche-lifestyle. Why, I’m a scavenger myself, or had you forgotten? Anything else you’d like to add? No? I rather thought not.
Turning to Harry, Judge Wattles continued. “But you will allow, will you not, that Mr. Harold Crowsfeet is indeed your legal name?”
“Oh, yes, m’lud, it is, but I’m not ‘aving the snooty ‘awk casting h-aspersions as to my sterling character. We all know wot ‘e meant by bringing up crows-feet. Next it’ll be the colour of my fevvers and wever or not I says ‘couch’ or ‘sofa’. It’s a bloomin’ class war, an’ I’m not afraid to say it. And besides I was provoked” said Harry.
As the volume of the spectators rose I could hear some pigeons in the court saying “Coo, he’s right you know!”,
And “What did he mean ‘provoked?’
And ‘Oo doos that blimmin’ hawk think he is his? Everyone knows, he’s right off a council nesting project in Minnow End. His parents weren’t Smythe and Smithers at all! They was Myrtle Smiff and Reggie Smiff. Cousins, apparantly. ‘Course you can tell: ‘e’s got no chin to speak of and have you counted his talons? ”
Being one of the only species present with any kind of an identifiable chin-area at all, I thought this last was going a feather too far. But they were talking in pidgin English, so I wasn’t sure I caught everything correctly.
The cooing and head-bobbing at the back became more enthusiastic as the assembled birdage started to identify who they were rooting for in the case. Feathers were clearly being ruffled.
“Silence!” roared Judge Wattles, his own shiny red ones wobbling magnificently.
“The court will come to ohrdahr!”
It did. Nobody wanted to see those wattles wobble more than they had to.
“Now, what do you have to say about Mr. Crowsfeet’s charge that you did, on the 25th day of March, in the year 200000000006, and in direct contravention of the very clear rules set out in “When Is It OK to Eat Another Species?”, enter his rookery and pinch an egg which you took to your own nest and then proceeded to boil and did consume with toast soldiers?”.
There was a collective gasp, as the court heard the words “boil” and “toast soldiers”.
“Scurrilous boiler!” Yelled an aged crow, from the back.
“I don’t deny it!” declared Colonel Smythe-Smithers flushing furiously under his plumage.
“These crows are a boil that needs to be lanced, and I didn’t have a lance so I just went ahead with the boiling. They’re a scourge on our culture and society. Everyone knows it but I’m the only one with the guts to say it. I love guts, and I catch ’em myself, fresh. I don’t have to eat somebirdy else’s leavings off the road! With respect to Your Honour.
But it’s about more than just scavenging. It’s about breeding and what these lower classes of birds are doing to Ojai. Nobody reads the ‘Ojai Valley News’ or the ‘Peregrine’ any more. Nonononono! More and more birds are reading “Squawk!” and looking at tarty chicks lewdly parting their breast-fevvers, I mean feathers, on page 3 of the ‘National Cheep’. More like ‘National Cheap’, I say! And what’s it doing to the fledgings, eh? Who’s looking out for the yoof … I mean, youth? I’m glad I et (sic) the bloody egg, so I am. It’s one less of’em, innit?”
As the Colonel grew more agitated, the latent accent of his chick-hood started to reveal itself. The court, formerly raucous and energized, was hushed now, staring at the quivering, blood-shot-eyed hawk. One of the owls who had supported him earlier, shifted uncomfortably and the road-runner shook his head gently, eyes on the floor.
“I don’t think we need hear any further witnesses” said Judge Wattles, breaking the silence.
“I think I have all the facts I need to make my judgement. The court shall proceed directly to sentencing, but first I want to say a few words to the court at large.”
Then, the old judge, squinting as he removed his glasses, stood, leaning on a large burnished oak-twig topped with a brass knob in the likeness of a turkey-vulture, resplendently scavenging at a rabbit. The sun, glancing through a crack in the slanted barn roof, caught the brass buzzard’s bald pate, and danced on the rabbit’s spilled brass innards, momentarily blinding me. Dazzled and hot in the stuffy courtroom, everything seemed suddenly ultra-real to me. Dust sparkled in the sun-beams, probing their way into the court, and the unmistakable smell of pigeon guano filled my nostrils. I felt privy to an important moment in Ojai valley bird-lore.
Judge Wattles began (and I’ve itallicised it ‘cos it’s historical, like, and destined to becoame one of the Great Wattle Speeches),
“We birds are an ancient and great wing of evolution. We descended from the dinosaurs and at one time or another have inhabited every rocky cliff-shelf, every imaginable kind of tropical tree, every hedgerow and the eaves of every non-spiked public building. We regularly sit atop the statues men raise to their ‘great’ ones and often poo on them too, just to show we can.
We birds have no need to be eating toast, or reading tabloids. We need not submit to human ideas about our relative worth, one to the other. I once knew a Golden Yodelling Finch (finchus ullulus) of the South Sea islands. Last of her species, she was. Beautiful but dumb as a chip. She met her end gruesomely, flying into a human lady’s mirror after admiring the beautiful bird she saw in there. It’s birds like her that human’s invented their detested phrase “bird-brained” for. Let’s not give them any more ammunition, my friends. Let’s stop trying to imitate their ideas and ways. Lets join wings and unite in one harmonious bird-song that will ring across the earth and lets finally, truly, become birds of a feather and flock together!”
A great roar rose from all the birds in the barn. Squawkings, and cheepings and chirpings and chaffings – more cacophonous than harmonious to be honest, but still, a splendant moment. Jolted from my wondering reverie by an off-key chicken beside me who couldn’t hold a note for toffee, I realized that the girls and I were witnessing a private bird moment and there was no place for we humans there, any more. Rising to go, we began to sidle out of the barn, trying to slip away unnoticed.
“You! Pale woman!” We turned to face Judge Wattles and silence fell once more.
“Today, in this court-room, you have seen the damage your kind have done to ours. We wished you no harm, but you DDTed us. We want to live happily, side-by-side with you, yet you breed us in huge sheds and eat some kinds of us. Your Alfred Hitchcock produced an outrageous piece of propoganda against us, and you quit feeding us your sandwich crumbs in Trafalgar Square. Go! Go now and tell the world, via your internet thingy, what you have seen. Carry this message with you. Don’t poo on us, mankind, and we won’t poo on you!”
“OK, will do.” I said.
“Mummy, I need a poo”, said Child-Of-Mine #1
“I need a piddle” added Child-Of-Mine #2 (#s indicate exit order from the womb – there are no ‘favourites’ here)
The words “Don’t poo on us, mankind, and we won’t poo on you!” still ringing in my ears, I blanched and froze, hoping none of the feather-muffled ears had picked up my children’s reedy pipings. But of course they had.
“Tush and nonsense, pale lady, what are they holding it in for?” asked the judge. “Let them poo freely, over there in the dust. It’s the bird way. I myself have had several poos right here this morning, at my bench. Mrs. Wattles has been giving me extra fibre with my breakfast. There’s no shame in pooing, amongst the feathered folk”.
“B…b…but you said not to poo” I stammered, unsure of how birds performed executions.
“I was talking figuratively, my dear. Goodness, don’t they teach you anything at these ‘schools’ of yours?”
There was some unpleasant snickering from the chickens, who were also taking advantage of the moment to give us some quite nippy pecks.
“Just have your children drop their drawers and ‘go’. There’ll be a seagull along to clear it up, in a minute.”
Later, at home, I looked at the pecked and tattered copy of “When Is It OK To Eat Another Species” that Childofmine # 2 had nicked from a hen in the courthouse. I learned that, a bird may only eat another bird under the following circumstances, and I quote:
1) Other nourishment is not available
2) No eggs must ever be eaten, ever, under any circumstances. Ever!
3) The above two conditions are mooted if either David Attenborough or a wildlife television crew are watching you. Then you must confuse them with baffling behaviours. If they can’t understand us, they can’t destroy us, because of their peculiar (but we’re not complaining, mind) idea of wanting to preserve us. They think we’re neat.