Friday 26 April 2013

Badger Mysteries

Today I went up to one of my patches, Farley Mount, where there's a path that runs along next to some farmland. In the winter the field was covered in flocks of Chaffinches, Yellowhammers, Skylarks and Fieldfares, but now spring is finally underway the flocks have gone, though a couple of chaffinches were calling and a lark was singing. There weren't many birds around, but I went down to check on the badger's sett I found on my last visit.

When I originally found the sett I was following a trail of feathers- I'd found some Red-Legged Partridge body feathers at the edge of the path, probably the remains of a kill, and followed the trail into the bushes where I found a couple of tail feathers from the partridge. But then I noticed that the whole area was completely strewn with feathers from a male pheasant, which are very recognisable because the body feathers are so bright and colourful, and the tail feathers so long. The feathers were strewn over the many entrances of a badger set, with some of the tail feathers leading down into the entrances, and the wings, still intact, were lying next to each other nearby.

I was baffled because I just couldn't imagine a badger being able to catch and kill a pheasant. I had always understood that badgers mostly eat invertebrates, roots, berries and small mammals, and a quick google search of what they eat also mentions reptiles and amphibians, but not birds. I wondered if the pheasant had been injured, been found dead by the badger or just been unlucky enough to walk into its mouth (seeing as pheasants aren't very clever). I also wondered if another animal, like a fox, had killed the pheasant and eaten it, and it just happened to be over the badger's set, or maybe a badger had stolen the kill from a fox. The feathers were all snapped off at the ends as if a mammal had removed them, so I ruled out a bird of prey kill.

When I returned today there was the scattered feathers of another pheasant, this time a female, on top of the set, and it seemed just too unlikely that any of those explanations could have happened twice. Now I’m sure a badger must have been the one to eat the bird, as the set is definitely occupied- there are various signs of this, like little hollows in the earth which badgers make with their snouts when they forage, some dung in a little scraping of earth, and a place where a lot of white hairs lay around, where I imagine the animal might have had a good scratch. But the question is, could a badger catch and kill a pheasant? They may not be great flyers, but they are large for an animal that usually only hunts small mammals, and fast runners too.

Wikipedia, that oracle of not-properly-moderated information, says: ‘Badgers typically eat prey on the spot, and rarely transport it to their setts’, so that adds another confusing element, and suggests the birds must have been caught or found right above the sett. Wikipedia also says ‘Surplus killing has been observed in chicken coops’, which I hadn’t heard of, but if badgers can kill poultry that suggests they could kill pheasants, which are about the same size, though the pheasant would still need to be caught first.

But perhaps another element needs to be taken into account in this puzzle. Near the remains of the pheasant were shotgun cartridge cases. The shooting season for pheasants is closed, and anyway people shooting pheasants would usually take the body, but...if someone was shooting illegally, just for the hell of it, would they bother? Maybe they didn’t have a dog to retrieve the body, and couldn’t find it in the bushes? Maybe the pheasants were shot very near the sett, and the abandoned kills were found by the badger? That’s one explanation I could think of. It may be incredibly far off, but the shotgun cartridges did make me wonder.

If anyone knows anything about badgers killing or eating gamebirds, please do let me know! I really don’t know much about badgers, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen an occupied sett, and I’ve never seen a badger in the wild. I’m hoping to find a badger footprint in the area- it’s hard to see any in the loose earth around the sett, but I will keep looking because badgers have really interesting pawmarks, according to my book of animal tracks and signs (it’s a kids one- I really have only just got back into looking for signs of animals recently, so I haven’t thought much about this type of wildlife watching since I was really young. But the book is still useful for simple stuff like this. Not so useful for finding out Who Killed the Pheasant!).

I took a few of the female pheasant feathers for my collection, and I’m starting to get a good idea of what female pheasant body feathers look like, which will help for future IDing- it’s always good to be able to rule out pheasant when you’re looking at body feathers! Also the wing and tail feathers are so, so beautiful with their 3 tone barring- might be tempted to do a painting!

I also found a couple of vertebrae in the area. I have no idea at all whether these belonged to the pheasant, or something completely different, and I don’t know how I would ever find out, but they were very clean bones and I happened to have a plastic sandwich bag on me (in case of finding feathers! I go prepared when I go out these days. I used to put found feathers in my wallet ^^) so I took them home, and they are now the first ever bones in what I’m sure will be a small and hopefully not too disgusting collection! I’d love to collect bones more but I rarely ever find them, and when I do I never have a bag on me and I don’t really like carrying them around without using bags. Mind you from now on I will keep my eyes open for more, though I will probably stick to clean bones only for the time being. I didn’t see any other bones in the area that might provide ID clues, but the vertebra are I’d guess about 1cm in length, not counting the two pointy bits that goddammit I can’t remember the name for! What on earth was biology A-level for again? Anyway the ‘pointy parts’ are about 1cm long themselves. And there’s a lovely hole for the spinal cord. (vain attempt to sound technical again- seriously if anyone knows what the pointy parts are called let me know! One of my aims in making this blog is to learn things from more knowledgeable people. Also if I make a natural history mistake please do let me know!) I will take a photo soon and upload it, if I remember.

The field next to the path, where all the birds were feeding in winter, held a couple of Red-Legged Partridges, and it's also very good for hares- I’ve only visited this area three times counting today, but there have been hares there every time and today did not disappoint, with a single big brown hare all hunched up in that classic hare pose, with the ears over the back. They always seem to be sitting like that when I see them in this field, right out in the open and they never have the nervous, alert twitchiness rabbits always seem to have. Though I’m sure, like all wild animals, they are fully aware of any predators that might come from any direction. On my way back up the path I looked for the hare again, but it and the partridges had disappeared, no doubt because of a Buzzard that was soaring overhead!

One last thing of interest: a flock of at least 6 Jays flew over while I was walking back. Flocks of Jays are not something I usually ever see, but I did once see at least 7 together last October, when there was an influx of Jays from the Continent. Maybe the same thing is happening but in reverse?

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