Worcestershire Record No. 21 April 2007 pp. 19-20
P. F. Whitehead
"They seem to enjoy the joke……….and that makes them seem very
E. A. Armstrong [on Ravens]
I spent part of 26th April 2006 in my garden at Little Comberton (SO 94). The afternoon became warm and settled, and after a generally inclement spring, bird activity was conspicuous . Two Buzzards spiralled over on thermals, to be joined by a pair of Ravens and a male Peregrine. It seemed a point of interest that three species of large mostly predatory birds should be cohorting in this way in sub-rural Worcestershire and I could not recall any previous parallels in the immediate area. As I watched the birds I spent some time trying to determine what if any their relationships were. I was interrupted when a female Hobby flew north, a spring record only pre-dated in my experience by a male that perched on cricket stumps and chased Northern Wheatears on a school playing field in Lancashire on April 19 1962. The Peregrine soon moved off to the west, but the Ravens and Buzzards continued to spiral together and I concluded that their behaviour was mutualistic and that there was interplay between the two species.
I was able to develop these observations on 6th May 2006 at the same location. In still air with fronts to the west and east, a large female Peregrine circled at about 280m height at 11.10 hrs. A Raven then appeared circling lower. This bird repeated a restrained scarcely audible 'arnk' call before being joined by a second bird; according to Snow & Perrins (1998), pairs transmit modified vocal information over long distances. After some minutes of spiralling in circles wider than a thermal, these three birds were joined by four Buzzards, repeating the association of 26th April, although the Buzzard's behaviour was different. All four Buzzards 'staked out' positions at different heights, each hanging with wings held in a deep 'V', an attitude presumably instructive to the other birds present. Eventually they also began to spiral, an exercise that continued for almost 10 minutes. Two associations of Raven, Buzzard and Peregrine at one spot would seem not to be coincidental, and it would appear that at this time of the year, these birds may require to mutualise, possibly in order to confirm their status or respective spatial interests. In short, these large aerially mobile birds use airspace for purposes of close inter-communication; the "local enhancement strategy" applies mostly to carcass-gatherers and could not apply in the present instances, although loose bonding is a possibility. Direct associations of these birds seem to be mentioned largely in passing. Coward (1975) refers to Peregrines and Ravens sparring and Bell (1962) refers to Ravens flying with Buzzards. Ryves (1948) in his admirable treatise, does provide greater detail, particularly (p. 59) of a dramatic co-exchange involving Ravens, a Buzzard, a Kestrel and a Peregrine over the sea off Cornwall. Such associations in the English Midlands would be unheard of as recently as 10 years ago, and are a measure, in avian terms, of the relative 'user-friendliness' of the regional landscape and its landowners.
This behaviour can be seen as a first step to restoring the special relationships that used to exist between birds and people, and which may take extended time periods both to obliterate and subsequently restore (Waterton, 1871, p. 285), a process that has brought Red Kites to suburban gardens and Ravens to nest on the Anglican Cathedral in urban Liverpool. Eric Hardy (1941), one of the greatest field naturalists of modern times, regarded the Raven as "a rare straggler" in that area. The playful spirit of the Raven was cited by ancient necromancers who catalogued its 65 different vocal inflexions and the beak and head of the birds were believed to have special powers; only these skeletal parts were found in Saxon pits at Pershore, Worcestershire (Whitehead and Vince, 1979). The witch Medea decapitated a bird which she believed was at least 900 years old, but nevertheless the Raven was "ruthlessly driven" from our inland shires (Palmer-Smith, 1968; Lord & Munns, 1970), especially since the advent of breech-loading firearms in the 1840s, a curiosity for a species that eats "the whorled Helix" and "the Bloody-nosed Beetle" (Coward, 1922). In the late 1700s, the Raven was so numerous in Cheshire that only a penny was paid for each corpse, interestingly, by the church (Bell, 1962). In this context it is significant that a Venetian ambassador writing of his visit to England in 1496 commented that "the raven may croak at his pleasure, for no one cares for the omen." Subsequently it lost its privileged scavenger status and the extended process of persecution began (Smith, 1768). A specimen was shot on Bredon Hill during 1968.
Myth and omen have their place in social history but one can only entrust that continued enlightenment will enable us to understand more about the position of all of these enduring birds in modern society. I cannot recall seeing a Peregrine, Raven or Buzzard killed by another animal, man excepted, although Spencer (1996) refers to a Buzzard being taken by a female Goshawk.
|BELL, T.H., 1962. The birds of Cheshire. John Sherratt & Son, Altrincham.|
|COWARD, T.A., 1922. Bird haunts and nature memories. Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, London.|
|HARDY, E., 1941. The birds of the Liverpool area. T. Buncle & Co Ltd, Arbroath.|
|LORD, J. & MUNNS, D.J. (eds), 1970. Atlas of breeding birds of the West Midlands. Collins, London.|
|PALMER-SMITH, M., 1968. Birds of the Malvern district. Published privately.|
|RYVES, B.H., 1948. Bird life in Cornwall. Collins, London.|
|SMITH, R., 1768. The universal directory for destroying rats and other kinds of four-footed and winged vermin.|
|SNOW, D.W. & PERRINS, C.M., 1998. The birds of the Western Palearctic. Volume 2. Oxford University Press.|
|SPENCER, G., 1996. A collection of country diaries 1963-1990. Published privately.|
|WATERTON, C., 1871. Essays on natural history. Frederick Warne & Co., London.|
|WHITEHEAD, P.F. & VINCE, A.G., 1979. An abandoned Flandrian river channel
at Pershore: stratigraphy, pottery and biota. Vale of Evesham Historical
Society Research Papers. 7:9-24.|
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