Of child murderers and disturbers of the peace
There are also some kestrels breeding in my neighbourhood. Incidentally, they are not related to birds of prey, but to parrots. Once made aware of this peculiarity, one can see some parallels between the two species, e.g. in flight, motion on the ground and beak design. But that’s not what I wanted to write about. Kestrels, like tits, lay their eggs at intervals of a few days, so that some of the children will develop further than the stragglers. As a result, the older ones beg more loudly for food and are thus attended to more quickly and grow faster. And in years of shortages, such as this year 2022, only the older ones are then fed. The younger ones starve. This is a survival strategy of birds called cainism. This behaviour is also known in storks when there is a food shortage in their breeding area.
Some birds of prey are even more consistent and extreme in how they live out this behaviour. The lesser spotted eagle, our smallest eagle, always lays two eggs and incubates them at different times, so that one chick hatches earlier. And as in the case of the cuckoo, the older and thus larger chick has the urge to attack, maltreat and push the nestling over the edge of the nest. The parents endorse this behaviour and even support the older bird in its efforts. Since this behaviour does not necessarily occur during a food shortage, ornithological experts are still puzzling over the meaning and purpose of this drastic action.
I sometimes think back to times when I was a child and was expected to play with my younger brother. Sometimes I would have liked to propel him over the edge of the nest, but my mother did not encourage me to do so.
This year, our small neighbourhood experienced a special event: a pair of long-eared owls decided to raise three little chicks right in the old trees of a tiny park behind my flat. The long-eared owl is a little smaller than the tawny owl, but still reaches a stately 30 cm in body length. They too are elegant and quiet fliers, flying impressively fast into the tree with their mouse prey, feeding and immediately disappearing again. After a short time in the nest, the little ones are pushed out by their parents when they land in their down, unharmed, on the forest floor, where they can of course become quick prey for cat, fox and sometimes even crows (who are content to gouge out their eyes). But if they are fast enough, they climb up the trunk of a tree with their already strongly developed feet and scramble up to a high branch, where they are then fed by the industrious parents on a piecework basis. To make sure the parents find them, they emit long, piercing cries. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62ggVY_ZemM )
If you’ve seen the video, you know why this story can be a wild-life horror. Not for the wood-eared owls, but for everyone else in the neighbourhood. The hooting of the owlets is so bloodcurdling that for more than 5 weeks sleeping through the night is unthinkable. Personally, I don’t mind, but my dear neighbours, whose bedroom is even closer to the the little ones‘ temporary shelter, had murderous impulses. One night, an elderly lady tramped out with her umbrella, whacked the tree with it and shouted: “That’s quite enough of this! I need my sleep!” What do you think, did the owl heed her?
It is impressive that owls, especially the big ones, have no natural enemies, but a lot of deprecators. As soon as a long-eared owl sets out to feed in broad daylight (rather than after dark), a cacophony of ornithological warning calls rings out, only to be silenced when the parents are out of sight.
For many people, therefore, the dreaded spring morning chorus begins at 4 in the morning, when the first serenaders raise their voices. You can set your watch by that! First the redstart, followed by the song thrush, then the robin, accompanied by blackbird, woodpigeon and wren. And so it goes every morning until the courtship display comes to an abrupt end at the end of May. I love the many-voiced round dance, but some other listeners clearly do not. And the beauty of the sound depends crucially on the proximity to the source of the sound. Hearing a nightingale in the immediate vicinity can be so annoying that Mark Twain claimed: “The song of the nightingale is the most hideous known to ornithology. Its diabolical shriek is still deadly at a distance of thirty yards.”
You could quite humanly acknowledge how brutal nature is after all based on the examples mentioned. But that leads nowhere. Every form of animal behaviour can be explained and makes sense if you look at the characteristics of the animals and their environment. Nature has laws that we often cannot comprehend or understand with our intellect. That is a good thing. We should observe nature much more and in more detail instead of judging or even condemning it. Whether it is the parasitic cuckoo or other species like raping mallards, fish-stealing skuas and rock-thieving penguins, they have all found their way of survival to cope with the law of the strongest. What art, almost like a Hitchcock film. Marvellous!
And if you feel like delving deeper into the subject yourself, I have some recommended reading for you:
- Kosmos Naturführer Vögel, Was fliegt denn da?
- Brehms Tierleben, several volumes on birds
- Philippe J. Dubois, Eloise Rousseau; A Short Philosophy of Birds
- Johanna Romberg, Reading Feathers
- Dominik Eulberg, Mikroorgasmen überall
- Jürgen & Thomas Roth, Kritik der Vögel
- Andreas Tjernshagen, Das verborgene Leben der Meisen
- Raping mallards, https://www.newsflare.com/video/450005/gang-of-male-mallard-ducks-raping-a-female
- Birds’ inner clock, http://www.vogelstimmen.net/vogeluhr.html
Original text: HFI
English translation: BCO