In the UK, we are having a rather odd spring after a very mild winter. It was mild right up until the end of the season, when we had two weeks of on-off rain, floods, snow, sleet and ice. The weather has settled down a bit and as I write this, it is a windy but sunny spring day.
I was having my early morning cup of tea and cigarette earlier this week and watching two crows pick all the dead wood out of my cherry tree. They were purposeful and graceful, swooping down to land on a branch, eyeing which bit of twig would be useful before plucking it and swooping back up and over the houses to their nest. Every single movement was economic, they wasted neither time nor effort and yet they were unhurried. Watched for a while, their movements became a dance of spring.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with someone about how the signs of spring were becoming more and more apparent despite the cold weather. My fellow conversationalist turned and said to me “I hate those bloody magpies and crows. They’re evil birds, they kill and eat other baby birds. I always throw stones at them when they come into my garden”. I opened my mouth to say something, closed it again and opened it again. What I wanted to say was “you complete (insert expletive here) plonker”. I couldn’t so I just managed to squeak out that it was nature and nature is not kind. Magpies and crows are simply trying to live like any other being on our planet.
My companion was unconvinced. She felt that they were evil birds and nothing would change her mind. She went so far as to explain quite sincerely that she had heard that crows peck babies’ eyes out.
I often hear similar outlandish stories. People seem to want their object of hate to be even more detestable, so they will embellish stories and repeat urban legends, despite being otherwise intelligent people. As I have said in past articles, foxes are predators but I have yet to hear a verified account of any fox eating a baby, killing a cat or dog or ganging up in a pack to attack humans. And yet these stories abound. (update on this – there have been two accounts of foxes attacking babies or children in the last year – one of these turned out to be a fabrication by the owner of the house who wanted the council to clear out his neighbour’s garden as it was affecting his ability to attract a high price for his property and the second appears to have been substantiated).
I am not sure what it is about the human psyche that makes us abhor other beings. I can understand how our survival instinct would kick in and make us avoid certain animals, but it doesn’t seem to be applied sensibly.
For instance, lions and tigers are dangerous and very few people would want to be close up at the business end of one of them. Yet you never hear people say “God, those lions give me the creeps, I can’t stand to be around them”. Most people fear them yet enjoy them as well. They acknowledge that they are predators and understand they need to kill to survive.
On the other hand, how many times have you heard someone say “I can‘t stand spiders, evil things, they trap poor insects and eat them alive”. In countries where poisonous spiders exist, you can probably relate to the fact that most people want to avoid them. However, in the UK, most native spiders are completely harmless. So this attitude just does not make sense. They don’t pose a threat to us and in most cases, whether in houses or gardens, they are beneficial, eating flies, mosquitos and moths. And yet, fear of spiders is widespread and many rational, thoughtful people think nothing less of killing them.
I am thus left with something a little less honourable. Do we fear and want to exterminate only those creatures who are smaller than us? Is our survival instinct not about survival at all, but about bullying and gaining the upper hand over an animal or bird who is too small to fight back? Is that why we “big up” the threat – to give us credibility when we throw stones, or crush underfoot or hunt with dogs those creatures we hate?
And what does that say about us as humans, supposedly intelligent, thoughtful, rational beings. It frightens and saddens me sometimes that we are in charge of looking after the world. We seem to be so incapable of doing it properly.