I watched the cock blackbird in my garden, looking skyward at the squadrons of rooks returning home to roost. What was he thinking? The low, fast flight of a bird over his head made him draw in his neck and freeze. Sparrowhawk ..! No .. he relaxed, for it was a late returning woodpigeon flashing across the garden. The blackbird was watching me too, though familiar with my presence here on my garden deck. He was enjoying his territory and I was enjoying mine. He couldn’t possibly know that I strive to protect him and his like. He will only ever know me as a threat .. for I am human. I enjoy his presence and he tolerates my intrusion. His country cousins would not allow such close proximity. They would spot me and go rocketing through the wood with a “cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep”. A continuous racket which they reserve for the presence of man. They will act entirely differently if a fox, cat or stoat is threatening their domain. Their alarm call will be much more subtle. They will circumnavigate the threat, issuing that familiar, monotone “pip-pip-pip”. A trait that gamekeepers of old used to their benefit, the first call to know when there was a poacher in the wood and the second to know that a predator was around which might threaten the poults. That tendency to fuss around a ground based mammalian threat allowed the keeper to track the culprit and stop it in it’s tracks.
The jay is one of the woods most observant sentries. She will, however, behave in a fashion almost opposite to the blackbird. She will hover, darting under cover from bough to bough around human presence, though she will remain distant. If there is a natural threat (fox, cat, mustelid, grey squirrel) she will be much closer to them (still circling, still screaming). Catch a jay in the open though and they will arrow off, screeching, to announce your presence to every creature within an acre. Your quarry will heed this warning. Whilst the browsing rabbit will mainly ignore the clatter of a woodpigeon (perhaps because they do it all the time) the coney will flatten to the ground or bolt to cover when the jay sounds her alarm.
One of the most canny watchmen is the carrion crow. Over the years, I have tried to interpret the various calls of the crow and have mostly failed miserably. I am still convinced, though, that the treble-syllable call they emit when I’m spotted with a rifle (a “graw,graw,graw”) really does mean “gun, gun, gun!”. I’m certainly in no doubt that many wild creatures can detect malice. We humans definitely don’t have the franchise on interpreting body-language and you can check this theory Yourself. The grey squirrel may sit on a bough watching you for an eternity until you raise your scope in it’s direction. Then it will flee. Once, I stepped from cover to see a hare staring back at me. My rifle was slung over my shoulder. I backed into cover and drew the camera from my bag. I stepped out and this normally wary beast allowed me to photograph it at leisure. I stepped back into cover and exchanged camera for air rifle. Not that I intended to shoot a hare with an air rifle, it was simply because I wanted to move on. As soon as I emerged with the un-slung rifle, the hares demeanour changed to panic and it bolted.
Watch the magpies reaction to your body language. A cocky, precocious bird in urban or suburban areas it is used to humans. You could argue that most would never encounter direct human threat like its rural brethren so it has no logical reason to fear us. Yet, and you can test this yourself, raise your arms in a mocking shooting stance at a feeding magpie and it will flash off in alarm. That in-bred survival mechanism recognises a threat even if it may never been shot at in its life before.
Something that I term ’habitual intelligence’ is another trend that intrigues me as a hunter. The ability of bird and beast to memorise an activity or incident and associate it with consequence or outcome. Sometimes, it works to their advantage. Often, used wisely by the hunter, it can be their downfall. A simple example of this is corvid baiting. Regular baiting (shoot rabbit, paunch rabbit, leave paunch in the same spot) gets results. The corvids associate the site with carrion and visit regularly. Once the routine is established, you can hide up and be certain of a shot or two. Shoot the spot too often, however and they will steer clear. That little memory chip in that tiny brain will now associate the location with danger. Incident, activity, consequence.
I mentioned earlier the legions of rooks that pass over my house before dusk. A wonderful spectacle. I can sit and watch the hordes pass over at leisure, their internal navigation fixed on some far flung evening roost. As soon as I raise my camera lens in their direction, they break formation and wheel away in dismay, clearly disturbed by the action. A thousand high rooks and one little dot in a garden far below, yet they know I’m looking. How do they do that?