Curlew’s End

A sorry sight: the remains of a curlew.
A sorry sight: the remains of a curlew.

It so happened this evening while driving off the hill that I noticed a tuft of feathers sticking out of the molinia on the roadside. Slamming on the breaks and sending the dog slithering into the passenger footwell, I leaped out of the car and went over for a closer look. It turned out that the feathers I had seen were the tips of an extremely long wing, and it quickly became obvious that I was looking at the remains of a heron. It wasn’t very clear how the bird had met his end, but there was no question that a fox had been involved in the later stages, since the legs had been chewed and some of the feathers from one of the wings had been “nipped”. All this had taken place several weeks ago, and the wing must have been turned by the wind so that it had suddenly become conspicuous after some time lying on its side in the molinia.

As I walked back to the car through some rushes, I came across something far more emotive and depressing. The remains of a curlew which had been very recently killed by a bird of prey. The venerable old head had been pulled off the body and left to one side, while the wings and guts had been picked almost clean. One of the legs only had two toes, and it reminded me of the antiquity of many of these fantastic old wanderers, many of whom follow their noses up to the same breeding grounds for twenty or thirty consecutive years. This year has been an odd one for the curlews on the Chayne, and there is a definite shortage of birds in 2014.

Some of these absences can be explained by last year’s late winter, when many birds returned only to be pushed off again by the snow. When it was finally spring enough to come back again, only a few obliged, and I consoled myself with the thought that they may have found milder grounds further downhill. It seems that they still haven’t had their confidence in the Chayne restored, since this year only a scattering of birds has returned. Of these, one well-known cock bird has come back with a leg down, and this deformity is very obvious when he loops up into a display flight.

Curlews are very long lived, and I am told that the young birds often don’t return to breed until they are three years old. This makes studying their conservation a very difficult business, and it is possible to have curlews on a piece of ground for decades after they have stopped breeding successfully. The last chick I saw on the Chayne was being pulled to bits by a sparrowhawk, a kite and a buzzard, and before that, the only evidence I found of breeding was part of an egg which a badger had mashed.

I knew this bird in life and saw it every day, and I wonder at how easy it would have been to have unknowingly walked straight past the site of its death without ever knowing what had happened to it. The most accurate interpretation of the evidence that I can muster is that a sparrowhawk delivered the death blow – there is a nest above the farm buildings nearby, and only these birds could have been so bold as to hunt within two hundred yards of the farm house. While a curlew looks big in the field, I was surprised by how small its remains were in the hand, and I felt sure that if a sparrowhawk can tackle a woodpigeon (as I have seen countless times), then there is little doubt that it could knock off an adult curlew.

I’d happily stand corrected on this, and should mention that I didn’t have my camera when I found the remains and moved them in order to take this picture. There were a great deal of plucked feathers nearby on the original site, so while this is beyond question a raptor kill, I’d be keen to hear more thoughts from those better informed than I am.

If nothing else, it is an unusual situation in which the predator is anonymous. Such is the regular bias towards predators that the action of being slain can make an animal lose its identity altogether – it becomes “prey” – it is not even a victim; merely a indifferent participant. We are used to seeing photographs and paintings entitled  “goshawk with prey”, or “cock sparrowhawk feeding chicks” – the killer is lauded while the killed has become a simple prop. By comparison, in this situation on the Chayne, a picture of the wader’s last moments would have been called “curlew with predator” – an equally descriptive means of assessing the situation without this recurring tendency to glorify the subject at the expense of the object.

Further, to study the nomenclature, the sparrowhawk acquired its name from its reputed habit of eating sparrows. Sparrowhawks have dozens of distinguishing features which mark them out from other raptors, yet we decided to name this species after the animals it kills. So when a sparrowhawk kills a sparrow, it is actively satsifying our expectations. Why shouldn’t this be reversed and sparrows instead be known by their part in the same relationship? Why should sparrows deserve a unique name which does not have to lean on another in order to define itself? We could call them “hawkmeat”, so that when they died, they would fulfill their predestined role as predator fuel, rather than vice versa. Or is a sparrowhawk so called because it is too nebulous to warrant its own name, and is defined only by its dull dependence on a faceless, unclassified stream of sparrowflesh. Perhaps we were more accurate than we thought when we came to name them.

I have kept the skull of this poor curlew (which is quite a noble article) and will bury the rest, not only to stop the dog rolling in it, but also because I feel like there is some ceremony required.


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