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NATURE The perils of winged prey

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Darius is a woodpigeon. Born in the dark shade of Leyland cypress beneath the magpie’s nest, his life had a precarious beginning. Somehow, though, Darius and his sibling had escaped the attention of those greedy predators and have today left home for the big wide world in which they must make a living.
To tell the truth we had forgotten they were there on that thin platform of twigs, and it was only when we arrived home from food shopping and saw Darius sitting in a puddle that we remembered him. He is still a squab, half beautiful and half ugly, his feathers dull from laying around in the nest all his life. And now he sits in a puddle as if longing to take a bath but not knowing quite how to go about it.
We threw him a small handful of the grain we have left over from last winter and he flew off. Although cumbersome and rather wobbly on his wings he managed to reach a low branch on the big beech tree, from where he sat to wonder at our existence. His whole world is new and he must learn quickly, for predators abound.
If he imagines it safe to sleep on the ground a fox will find him, and if not a fox then a marten, and if not a fox or a marten then a mink or a cat, or a rat or even the dog, which has decided that birds, or biggish ones at any rate, have brought evil into the world and are to be eliminated. When she looks with eager intent at the pheasant in the field or ducks on the lake we tell her ‘NO!’, yet when the magpies come to raid the bin we encourage her to send them packing. We forget she is colour-blind. No wonder the poor thing is confused.
So Darius is in danger. If he sleeps in the tree the hawk might knock him from his perch. The hawk knows no compassion. He cares not that Darius is a simpleton; that he wants nothing more than what he has, a simple life with warm feathers and food. The hawk sees nothing but a rent breast and red flesh.
An albino starling, the first I ever saw, appeared in the growing flock that roosts in the reedbed. When the birds were flying back and forth before going to roost, the white one glowed brightly among the black thousands. Being a prey animal must be bad enough for the ego; being so highly visible really compounds one’s problems.
When the hawk comes to attack the flock, as it does each and every evening, it must pick from the multitude the one small bird it will eat for supper, and the white one must have caught its attention, for it has disappeared as unexpectedly and as suddenly as it arrived in the first place.
Despite their numbers, starlings are not easy to catch. Some evenings we watch the hawk make several attempts to snatch one from the flock, although I never saw chasing them like that result in a kill. Rather, the predatory hawk eventually retires to one of a row of alder trees to watch and wait. Then, when the starlings drop into their roost, which they tend to do en masse, it drifts low and slow over their heads, sending them all into panic. They try to flee but are in two minds; Safety lies in the air. No, in the reeds! Up they go as one, then down, and in the confusion another life is lost, the hawk is fed and the rest of the starling flock shuffle about, squabble and murmur.
Later in the evening Darius came back to bathe in his puddle, although he still didn’t appear to know quite what to do with water. He sat in it and pecked at the surface in bewilderment. He lay down in it and spread his wings wide to let them soak. He fluffed himself out to his fullest size and all but rolled over, luxuriating in the coolness it offered.
Last winter we lost a good many of our pigeons to some kind of disease. Nature has a way of bouncing back and rich feeding abounds at present. Darius can fatten for the leaner times ahead and his parents can think about another brood. Already his father is crooning as if it were only spring.