I was reminded of one of the first poems I can recall from nearly 40 years ago recently. Its called Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes. One of the memorable lines in it is ‘ There is no sophistry in my body, My manners are tearing off heads…’ A celebration of the deep animal instinct of the hawk and it’s purpose and skill in controlling the skies and sealing the fate of its victims. With a taste for small birds and mammals the hawk has the technical ability with the weaponry to achieve its goal.
In the animal kingdom there are some strange creatures around with unusual tastes in prey; like bat eating snakes (see previous post) and spiders which feed on bats (recent Springwatch 1st). Perhaps the strangest scene I’ve come across in the course of nearly 30 years of ecological surveying in Scotland are red squirrels…yes Mr and Mrs Nutkins...feasting on a nest of bird chicks. We saw this on a survey near Inverness when the adult chaffinch went frantic as her chicks were consumed one by one by a cute, cuddly red squirrel. Who would have thought that these playful charming creatures would turn carnivore when the opportunity arose. I guess a diet of seeds and nuts supplemented by protein helps them to raise their own young during the short summer season in the north. Red deer too have been seen foraging on carcasses, a fact that may explain why they have incisors when, lets face it, we assumed they just ate grass.
Pine marten are also a classic omnivore switching from fruits and berries in the winter to adept hunters in the spring and summer when feeding hungry kits. They are also not averse to raiding chicken coups as our friends here on the Black Isle will testify to having lost 6 laying hens. The previous hens were had by badgers, a creature that can make short work of busting even the most secure fencing.
Before casting aspersions on the activities of our native fauna perhaps we should reflect on our own strange tastes; from sea slugs to rotten sharks, poisonous fish to grubs, ants to whales, cows’ milk to fish eggs… is there nothing off limits? It would seem that we, as a species like many others in the natural world, have traded our taste buds for a need for survival over millennia. Often in our case this has been at the expense of the survival of native fauna and more often by its replacement with commercial species that we can corral, breed, genetically modify and control. This is often to the detriment of native species and habitat with less cache.
Ultimately, lets be honest, we are even with all our modern ‘sophistication’, still hard wired like the red squirrel or the hawk. We have, the evidence suggests, a neanderthal hunter gatherer brain able to exploit our fellow creatures. Unfortunately, we have developed modern and more efficient tools to exploit the natural world. These activities are driven by profits and in many cases around the planet the evidence suggests with limited checks and balances.
Ted Hughes’s poem finishes ‘The sun is behind me. Nothing has changed since I began. My eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this.’ The hawk like the red squirrel has no moral compass but instead is focused solely on survival.
The 2022 WWF report tracks the shocking demise of our global fauna and the evidence collated is bad - 69% losses in global fauna on average since 1970 (see https://livingplanet.panda.org/en-GB/ ). Are we approaching a tipping point? With most of the loss attributed directly or indirectly to human activity, it has to be hoped that we will engage our moral compass for the sake of our global fauna sooner rather than later.