We don’t always discover things in the order that they have happened. The wilderness is too vast and detailed to have an all-encompassing experience of the events of life out here. Chance encounters and evidence collect, in a random sequence, and link in our mind to form a story. It is not the mind that made the story but the story that made the mind. It’s called neuroplasticity, the formation of mental pathways and linkages: our thoughts and experiences literally build the physical matter of our own brain.
If storytelling is a uniquely and deeply human form of communication, then it is the wilderness that has made us human (of which there is no doubt). By the way, I can think of at least one other creature that tells stories.
It is the out of the ordinary that catches one’s attention in the wild. This week when out on foot, an African Hawk Eagle took off from under a gardenia bush that we were passing. The ground is not a safe place to be at night and a bird has the option of being high up in a tree. This magnificent raptor must have had a reason for being on the ground and hiding under a thick bush, early in the morning. Though I had a strong sense of the significance of this, I was fascinated to investigate the reality.
There is feeling of familiarity when everything is behaving just as one expects. We see it and can appreciate it, but if it fits in its place then it requires no further mental investigation. But when something is out of the ordinary and it is not yet resolved in our neural interpretation of the surroundings, our seeking, inquisitive brain circuit is stimulated. All animals are the same in this way. Given the vast and diverse degree of behavior and interaction in the wilderness, it is a stimulating and fascinating place to call home.
As I suspected, the African Hawk Eagle had stashed a kill: a clean plucked and partially eaten guineafowl (their most common prey), hidden from the keen eyes of other raptors and scavengers, under a gardenia bush.
African Hawk Eagles pair up for life and are co-operative hunters. One bird will fly in and flush a flock of guineafowl and as they scatter into the air, the second Hawk Eagle flies in, from close behind, to snatch their shared prey.
I scanned around for a second Hawk Eagle but could not see one. The single raptor was up in the tree waiting for us to depart so that it could return to its meal; and so we did.
The following day, while out walking, we came across a pile of guineafowl feathers. I knelt down to investigate the method used to de-feather the bird (whereas mongoose, genets and cats will often use their carnassial shear to swiftly cut away the wing feathers, raptors only have the apparatus to pluck the feathers.) These wing feathers had been plucked.
It was only in that moment that it dawned on me that the location was not far from the Hawk Eagle’s stashed fowl. I looked over and that same bush was a mere hundred meters away. This must have been the kill site! The guineafowl was deliberately flown from here - once dead, plucked, and probably partially eaten - to the thick gardenia bush over there. I wonder what stimulated the feeling of vulnerability, providing enough concern to spend the energy to move the kill?
Threat could have come from the sky or from the ground. All carnivores will scavenge a kill from a creature that they can overpower. Amongst many others, a pirate could arrive in the form of a python or reptile, a small or large cunning cat, other raptors, or any of the infamous scavengers.
We continued walking and after another hundred meters, as we got to the bank of a dry river bed, there was a Bateleur, the most infamous scavenger eagle, down on the ground… clutching the dried flesh and bones of a guineafowl carcass.
I have no doubt that this was the same carcass, pillaged from the Hawk Eagle. Though the dense foliage of the gardenia bush would have hidden the carcass well, it was obviously not enough to hide it from the keen eyes of the low flying bateleur. Perhaps the behavior of the hawk eagle had given it away?
Old world eagles and vultures locate carrion and prey by sight and sound alone. Their sense of smell, as it is with most birds, is poor and, for some, almost nonexistent. New world vultures, on the other hand, such as the turkey vultures, have a highly developed olfactory sense for locating carrion (as do honeyguides to detect bee hives, and cave swifts to help with navigation in poor light conditions).
However, the cone cell concentration in the retinal fovea of raptors is, on average, eight times that of the human retina. Not only do they see eight times the resolution that we do, they see an image that is magnified thirty percent over ours. To hide something from them, it had better be, and stay, well hidden.
Competition for resources in a living system is fierce; no detail goes unnoticed by hungry eyes and ears. The evolution of the senses of these creatures has been driven by a continual desire for more sensory information. Their survival depends upon it.
Just as for the creatures, the key ingredients to knowing the wilderness and its goings on are: attentiveness, fascination and time. In other words just place yourself here: the rest will come naturally.
The wild is one great big story of life, of which we will only ever have an individual’s experience. As stories are revealed to us, through non-sequential evidence, so, little by little, we form new associations and become familiar with the intricate behaviour and intimate lives of creatures. Knowing them in turn reveals a vast world, which our absence, unfortunately, neglects to witness. Thankfully the creatures remain: and thus, no detail, of the sacred and perpetuating world of interlinking life, goes unseen.
Unlike our stories, to this story there is no end. But if it must have a title and a conclusion then let’s call it: precious meat, contested ownership and life after the death of a guineafowl.