06 May 2013

Anthropomorphism, literally in the shape of man, has come to mean the ascription of human characteristics to what is not human. To anyone studying animal behaviour this is almost sin. Yet we all do it, perhaps unsurprisingly since most of us cut our teeth on Pooh and Piglet, or Ratty and Moley. Even David Attenborough, guru of ethology, or animal behaviour, occasionally lapses into it on television. But watch your dog wolfing down his supper or a pretty red squirrel stealing the peanuts you put out for the titmice and you find yourself saying ‘look how they’re enjoying it’! However, one cannot know that an animal is capable of enjoyment, he is just satisfying a basic need for food.alt
Gillian likes red legged partridge. She finds their shape and colours pleasing. They are often in our garden, which she says, anthropomorphically, they obviously like. Though I agree they are comely they remind me of the partridges of my boyhood: which were the English, or grey partridge, now threatened by modern agriculture. In Warwickshire they were once sold by the sackful for sixpence (6d not 6p!) and were the best eating of all game birds.
The other morning, making the morning tea, I saw the unmistakeable evidence of an affray in the garden. Taking the cup to my wife, reading in bed, I announced: ‘There’s been a murder!’ Gillian, used after fifty odd years, to my alarming observations, was not disturbed, so I had to explain one of her ‘red-legs’ had been done in. The crime scene was obvious; a plume of feathers was scattered over the lawn. Later I found the body under a bush, most of the breast meat had been devoured. No more was needed to make a sparrowhawk prime suspect. I consigned what was left to the bin.  
Later, working in the garden, I had a blue-grey glimpse of the male sparrowhawk. ‘Ah’ I said to myself, ‘you’ve come back for more.’ Washing up after lunch provided an opportunity to spy on the murder scene. Suddenly the much larger, brown, female bird arrived. It was she, I guessed, who was the real killer. She landed on the bush where I had found the corpse. She was not three yards away but could not see me inside the window. I called Gillian: ‘Here’s your murderess’ I said and together we watched her as the wind ruffled her tail coverts. I drew Gillian’s attention to her brilliant orange, predatory eye with its pale, eye-brow-like, supercilium.
The bird was obviously puzzled and for ten minutes it searched the bush wanting the rest of its meal. It hunted all round, pushing under the bush in its eagerness to find the prey. ‘You can almost hear her say,’ I commented to Gillian, ‘“Damn it, I know I left half a partridge here  - I can see the feathers, I can smell the flesh - It can’t have got away.”’ The bird perched on the bush looking put out and puzzled.
Some people hate murdering sparrowhawks ascribing human notions of right and wrong to a creature that, like us all, must eat to live. To such people I would say if you have a raptor in your garden rejoice at its beauty and your proximity to such an accomplished creature that can do so many things you cannot.
But, of course, haters of sparrowhawks argue anthropomorphically: just as I attributed human reason to the bird’s obvious frustration at losing lunch. 
But even Attenborough finds it hard not to lapse into anthopomorphism!  Though unscientific the world would be less colourful without it. 

Robin Hull


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