Flirt Like a Rhinoceros

valentine heart

I’m always pleased when I learn a new word and this week it was ‘murmuration’. The BBC News website has a stunning video of an estimated 70,000 starlings soaring and swooping in unison over an Oxfordshire nature reserve. It’s described as aerial ballet and the term murmuration comes from the sound of the birds’ beating wings. No-one knows for sure what triggers this phenomenon but there are probably many reasons including grouping together for safety and warmth, and for exchanging information about feeding areas.

Seeing this video reminded me of the plight of the passenger pigeon. At one time these birds were amongst the most common in North America. The skies above the prairies would turn black and blot out the sun as billions passed overhead. An account from 1855 describes people in Ohio witnessing this event. Children screamed and ran for home, horses bolted and women hurried for the shelter of shops, gathering their long skirts as they ran. Some people knelt down and prayed in fear. Then the seemingly impossible happened: they became extinct—wiped out through shooting, netting and forest fires—with the last one dying in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.


I learned about this extraordinary demise from watching David Attenborough’s Life of Birds. This is part of my Life on Earth treat. There are nine series covering all aspects of the natural world from the deepest oceans to the furthest reaches of the Poles and jungles. I wrote about Life in Cold Blood in a previous post—Serpent Tales.

Aside from the passenger pigeon there were a number of other moments that stood out in Life of Birds. As so often happens with treats, they filled in gaps in my knowledge of the world and gave me new things to relate to. Having kept poultry myself, I was particularly pleased to find out about chickens’ eggs. I’d often wondered why they only lay once a day, and now I have my answer. The yolk and the albumen sit in the chicken’s oviduct, and it takes a day for the glands to secrete enough lime to create the hard shell. Then I heard about the kiwi bird whose egg is a quarter of its own body weight; my eyes watered as I imagined giving birth to a baby weighing two and a half stone.


The grebes were remarkable too. They’re attentive parents and make their chicks eat feathers. These line their little tummies and protect them from being pierced by sharp fish bones.


The series was filmed in 42 countries and whilst many of the birds seemed unfamiliar and exotic, I was glad that the humble sparrow got a mention. I discovered that they have markings on their feathers, like Army ranks, which denote where they come in the pecking order. There are the privates that have to give way to their superiors, and then there are the colonels with their black bib markings. All ranks defer to them. This finding changed me in one of the small ways that I welcome. Now, whenever I sit at an outdoor table in a café, I’ll enjoy the antics of the sparrows even more by knowing that they’re not as random as they seem.


For me, though, the star was the bowerbird, also found in Australia. The male goes to great lengths to attract females. He builds a bower from sticks, positions it vertically, and then decorates the surrounding area with flowers, stones, berries, leaves, and coins or even bits of brightly coloured glass if they’re available. He then spends hours arranging and re-arranging them, whilst various females go from bower to bower, making their choice.


A clip from a different series gives some insight into the romantic preferences of another animal—the rhinoceros. We, the viewers see a male trying his damnedest to win a female whilst she heedlessly ignores him in favour of a bigger animal. She dances about and flirts in a way I don’t normally associate with rhinoceroses. The spurned male disappears for a while and we think it’s all over. Then suddenly there he is again. Back with a set of antelope antlers draped rakishly over his horn. Immediately Ms Rhino is bewitched and she trips off, following him enthusiastically.  I’d like to say that they live happily ever after but unfortunately relationships don’t always work out that way as you’ll see by clicking here.

So, for some that magic ingredient is good taste and possibly wealth. For others it’s individuality.  But if you’re a human looking for a mate then it’s worth bearing in mind an excellent snippet of advice I heard on Radio 4.  Marry someone cheerful. I intend to do that this summer.

Happy Valentine’s Day.


Serpent Tales

 Aruba beach      aruba flag

I never fail to learn something new when I listen to BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent and last week my attention was caught by a report from the Caribbean island of Aruba. In recent years it’s been suffering a plague of boa constrictors and, as the island’s main economy is tourism, this is not a welcome influx. They’re thought to have been introduced by someone releasing some pet boas into the wild. This explains how they got there, but until recently no-one could understand how they were managing to make their way so efficiently to the furthest reaches of the island. The mystery was solved when they were discovered to be expert hitchhikers. They’re attracted to the warmth of car engines where they curl up and stay quiet while the unsuspecting drivers ferry them around the island.


This story reminded me of Bernard the boa constrictor who went missing in Portsmouth a couple of years ago. His owner had enjoyed a heavy night at the pub and attempted to get into a taxi with the snake draped around his neck. “There’s no way, you’re getting in here with that” said the taxi driver, not unreasonably, and so poor Bernard was brusquely removed and thrown into the nearby bushes. The owner took off in the taxi but someone notified the police and the story was reported on all the local TV and radio stations. My sister and brother-in-law live in Portsmouth and the next day were watching television quietly in their sitting room when they heard a terrible noise in their kitchen. They have a ground floor apartment surrounded by lawns, bushes and flower beds, and in the summer they leave their sash windows open. At first they tried to ignore the unusual thrashing sound, but eventually they looked at one another and wondered if this was just the kind of noise that an angry boa constrictor would make in the confines of a suburban English kitchen. They tiptoed into the hall and worked out a strategy…how to respond if they pushed the door open and a giant snake lunged at them. My brother-in-law has held a number of responsible positions in his life, including father to four boys and commander of a nuclear submarine. He took charge bravely, and positioning my sister next to him for reinforcement, made a sudden dart at the door. It flew open to reveal that the ice-maker on their fridge had gone berserk and was firing frozen lumps at the walls and ceiling.

I often think of Bernard and wonder what happened to him. I can’t find any reports of him being found and since they live for up to thirty years, who knows what he might be up to these days. If I lived in Portsmouth my obsessive personality would force me to check my engine every day before getting into my car.


Another snake, this time a python, cropped up in one of my treats and unwittingly contributed to my sense of mid-life confusion. I’m currently watching all of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth documentaries. I started with the Life of Birds series which I thoroughly enjoyed and then went onto Life in Cold Blood. This is where I encountered the python. The film showed speeded up footage of the snake lying quietly for months, barely moving, with just a pilot light metabolism to keep it alive. Then with no apparent warning it decided it was hungry and sensing an antelope nearby, struck out with forked speed. The animal was squeezed in its coils and over the course of several hours, it disappeared head first down the python’s throat with its hooves sticking out. The snake’s flexible jaws stretched wide open and in order to avoid suffocation it left the top of its windpipe hanging out of its mouth like a piece of flexible tubing. Once the antelope was down, the python’s physiology began to change. During the next few days its liver doubled in size and its heart increased by forty per cent. It took about four weeks for the python to digest its meal. Hair, horns, hooves, everything. Then it went back to sleep again till its next mealtime many months later.

There were many interesting moments in the Life in Cold Blood series but I often think about this episode. One motivation for doing my treats is that I’m ensconced in an existential crisis. I’m in middle age. What am I for? This is puzzling enough, but I have to wonder… what must it be like for a python?

python Photo: Shankar S. United Arab Emirates