Birds at play
I had a thoughtful walk around the bird garden at Lotherton Hall near Leeds, worrying about whether I was being too anthropomorphic in worrying about whether the birds, many of them from the tropics, were being made as miserable by the cold, wet weather as I was.
Birds, because of their inexpressive eyes and inability (even if they’re Laughing Kookaburras) to smile are difficult to read. Vultures, for example, never look less than funereal, although, like other birds with a talent for soaring, they seem to take great pleasure in swooping around in their thermals.
Konrad Lorenz, who won the Nobel prize for his studies of animal behaviour, writes in his very accessible book King Solomon’s Ring about jackdaws around his house in Austria playing in the wind; repeatedly doing bold and complex manoeuvres just for the hell of it. (And, incidentally, it’s worth Googling around to discover how very, very clever members of the crow family are).
One of the bird species at Lotherton Hall (I forget which) likes, says one of the very informative bird profiles posted on each enclosure, to play with its food before it eats it, dropping it and then trying to catch it before it hits the ground. The idea that this must have some survival value and therefore can’t count as play won’t wash because children’s play, like that of the birds, is equally about learning both for survival and sheer enjoyment – and if infants could fly, think what a time they’d have!
Anyway, on this gloomy March afternoon, none of the birds seemed in a playful mood. Nothing dripping (except a dog just out of the water) can look like fun and birds, despite their fixed expressions, do look particularly depressed when they’re being rained on. Even the Splendid Starling, a blue-green African bird of such iridescence it makes you gasp, couldn’t be bothered preening itself and brilliantly-coloured pheasants and partridges, instead of busying themselves by pecking for food on the ground, were huddling under bushes looking abject. The White-faced Singing Duck, although presumably used to the wet, wasn’t singing.
But it’s a human interpretation to assume the birds were miserable. It rains harder in the tropics than it does around Leeds and birds are too well-insulated to be troubled by a mild English winter.
I’m always slightly disturbed (or think I should be, which is different thing) by the sight of a bird in a cage, but we don’t know that birds feel the same way. Most animals, if distressed, make protest noises but the Lotherton Hall birds were generally rather subdued; after all, unlike almost every other creature on the planet, they were safe from predators and had free lunches every day.
The only Lotherton Hall birds I really worried about were the magnificent condors, which have a very spacious enclosure that can’t begin to compare to the endless skies above the Andes. Still, the condors are in a breeding programme, so I suppose that even if they’d rather be soaring majestically thousand of feet above the ground, they can take comfort from the fact that they’re serving the common good.
Near Eilat, Israel, I once visited a dolphin enclosure inhabited by former-KGB dolphins who had once worked undercover on top-secret Soviet submarine programmes but were sold off cheaply when the regime collapsed.
In a huge circular cage built into the Red Sea as a tourist attraction, we swam with young dolphins dropping their food and catching it again, exactly like the playful birds at Lotherton Hall, and here we learned that on one occasion, somebody had left the gate to the enclosure open, so that all the dolphins were free to roam the oceans wide.
Which, being curious creatures, they did before voluntarily returning to the enclosure, presumably on the grounds that it was a very safe area with free food. The point is that, although we think of bird-like freedom as a supreme good, security and a sense of home can sometimes be achieved only at the expense of liberty. After all, the freest people in the world, the ones least dependent on free housing or hand-outs from public organisations such as Leeds City Council, which runs Lotherton Hall, are likely to be aristocrats or vagrants on the verge of starvation.