Tag Archives: corvids

Zoos are for Children

23 Feb

We were recently introduced to Five Sisters Zoo by Lisa and Andrea, an animal-loving couple we’re very good friends with. The zoo is significant for its focus on animal rescue. Its latest rescues are two bears who had been saved from a life of circus performance, and a lynx who had been living in a small enclosure at a rescue centre that could no longer provide for him. The zoo had gone to enormous trouble to build spacious naturalistic habitats for these animals. I approved of its sense of priority: it provides proper hiding places for every creature, and visitor visibility be damned.

Thus the bears were out of sight, hibernating in underground hollows among the trees. Buster the lynx was wide awake, though. Here he is, looking a bit unsure of himself in his new surroundings. He had climbed to the top of one of his climbing frames in his woodland enclosure. The zoo owner told us he likes to watch the comings and goings in the car park from this vantage point. I blinked at him in the slow way that cats do to smile at each other, and he blinked slowly back.


The more long-term zoo inhabitants were busy, happy and curious. They enjoyed looking at the visitors and trying to poke us through the bars. Various species of lemur tried to lick my camera lens, and this one succeeded.

Lens snogger

Some of the birds spoke to us with such charm, it was difficult to walk away from them.


I loved the scents of the different animals: the foxy meerkats, the goaty-horsey reindeer, the lemony raven. The skunk was, sadly, snoozing in a hole, so I didn’t get to satisfy my curiosity on that score.

Andrea adored the monkey house, particularly the tamarins who all crowded up to her, some of them hanging upside down, to scrutinize her closely. Lisa was immensely popular with all the animals, because she happened to be carrying a crackly bag. Animals have a special affinity for crackly bags. One otter went berzerk, rushed around squeaking, then climbed to the top of a tree and loudly berated her for not sharing her tuna sandwiches. Until then, I hadn’t realised that otters could climb trees.

Tree otter

Major renovations were being carried out at the zoo during our visit. New and better enclosures were going up, but in the interim some animals were unavailable to view, and a lot of  the housing had incongruous signage.


We had each paid a little extra for a “handling session”, because who would pass up an opportunity like that? At the appointed time we made our way to the reptile house, and presently the head keeper appeared and began setting out chairs. The chairs were very, very small. As more visitors entered the building, we realised that everyone else waiting to handle the animals was half our height and a tenth of our age. A cluster of parents looked on proudly from behind a barrier as the four of us squatted on the tiny chairs among their infants.

Head Keeper Lynn introduced us all to a python, a tortoise, and a giant hissing cockroach. She gave a talk about each one – where it came from, its habitat and body structure, and how to hold it safely. We listened meekly and did as we were told.

Head Keeper Lynn

The looks of wonder on the children’s faces was a joy to behold. We loved that they had been given this experience, but we couldn’t imagine why their parents had chosen not to take part too. Nor could we understand why the zoo (with its tiny chairs) expected this. We thought about other people we knew, and realised that, for most people, animals are a form of children’s entertainment. If an adult buys a pet, then it’s a dog or a cat or a fish. All other pets are bought for children. Even when adults go to feed ducks, it’s generally because they have kids with them. This delight in animals displayed by Lisa and Andrea somehow gets lost  when people reach adulthood:

Animal people

Happily for the future of conservation and this blog, there are still many people who don’t grow out of it. For Bunty and me, the best part of visiting the zoo was that it didn’t have to end. We arrived home to our own zoo, which welcomed us back with a crescendo of squeaks and meows and grunts and binkies, the moment Bunty crackled a bag.


Spring! And Can You Identify these Birds?

10 Feb

The sun was not just bright today: there was actual warmth in it too.  Buds were appearing on trees that had not yet shaken off all of their Autumn leaves, and the birds were in a state of high excitement. Tits, treecreepers, finches, robins, blackbirds, rooks – all were chirping their heads off and flitting from tree to tree as though preparations for a royal wedding were under way.

In the distance in one of the fields, a glossy flock of starlings was rooting among the grasses for delicacies. Among them was a flock of other birds. These are the ones I’m not sure of. A little smaller than doves, they preferred running to flying: they would stand up very tall and then run like the wind for several yards to a new browsing-patch. I half-expected to hear them going “meep-meep!” like the cartoon Roadrunner.

I set my lens to full zoom and tried to use the hedge as a makeshift tripod, but it kept swaying. This was the clearest picture I got (click it for the full-sized version). Are they some kind of thrush?

I thought about climbing into the field to get a closer look, but there was an extensive flood between me and them, and I wasn’t wearing wellies. As I assessed the expanse of water, I noticed this robin enjoying himself: he hopped in and out of the shallows for a good ten minutes.

I was surprised to also spot a very young squirrel. Already! These squirrels don’t hang about. I suppose it could have been a midget squirrel, but it seemed rather callow. This is how it hid from me:

UPDATE: I now have it on good authority that the mystery birds are fieldfares.



Looking for Something to Kill

2 Feb

“There’s a murder in the back field,” said Bunty. I knew what he was referring to, and grabbed my camera on the way to view the spectacle. We get a lot of murders around here. When the visibility is good, and there has been rain the day before, we’ll see one out there: a murder of crows, gathered in the field and on the trees and the garden wall, and all over the roof of the cottage. They are looking for worms, but it’s a very Hitchcockian sight. However, they have a sixth sense about cameras: all I have to do to make the whole kaboodle take to the air is contemplate taking a picture. I snapped this one by hiding behind the garden wall and then popping up and clicking with blind hope.

At our local shopping centre, there lives a rook with a broken wing. I call him Hopalong. He can’t fly but he can jump quite high, and he lives by scavenging bins around the car parks. I don’t know where he goes at night, but the place is surrounded by trees and thick shrubbery, and the shops have awnings that keep the weather off. When the snows came, and everything froze iron-hard, Bunty and I went looking for him a few times. We didn’t find him, and thought he had perished. But one afternoon, there he was again, hopping between thawing snow-patches, looking sprightly as ever. I love the adaptability of crows.

It’s odd that the collective noun for them is a “murder”, considering that they feed on Chinese takeaways and small invertebrates. I suppose their black feathers and wicked-looking beaks do little for their image. Perhaps this is the real reason behind the proposed nationwide crow cull discussed on Ninjameys’ zoology blog. They are being blamed for a drop in songbird population, because crows apparently feed on other birds’ eggs. The songbirds around our cottage nest in dense hedgerows or hollows that crows are too big to reach into, wheareas invertebrates are abundant and easy to catch; but crows are opportunists, and I am sure they would eat eggs, given the right circumstances.

I think about our rooks in the spring, playing chasing games across the lawn among the bluetits and finches and robins; scavenging for muesli scattered by the guinea pigs, and splashing each other with puddle-water. These are playful, sapient birds. They belong to the same family as jays and bee eaters, whose appearance fills people with joy. Nobody views jays with the suspicion allotted to their black-clad cousins, and I am sure that, though they are also crows, they will not be included in the cull.

Scotland and my mountainous Welsh homeland are both full of hunters. Sometimes they do it to put food on their tables; but sometimes, it feels as though people are just looking for something to kill.