A JOUR­NEY INTO SIGHT AND SOUND

As another par­tridge shoot­ing sea­son be­gins, Jeremy Hob­son ex­plores the likely hear­ing and see­ing abil­i­ties of game birds.

Shooting Gazette - - News - By Jeremy Hob­son.

Are game birds re­ally as half-wit­ted as they make out?

Hear all, see all, say nowt” is just part of an old maxim beloved of York­shire folk, but it serves very well when dis­cussing the im­por­tance of be­ing quiet on a shoot day.

Par­tridges and pheas­ants – par­tic­u­larly pheas­ants – are often not cred­ited with much in­tel­li­gence but, as any keeper will tell you, they are pretty adept at sneak­ing away from potential trou­ble at the first sound of any un­due noise or sight of un­usual oc­cur­rence.

As far as the for­mer is con­cerned, Charles Aling­ton, in his clas­sic book, Par­tridge Driv­ing, was quite em­phatic about the ef­fects of un­nec­es­sary noise by the beat­ers: ‘It may be laid down as a rule that the driv­ers should beat in si­lence’. How­ever, ob­vi­ously not one to be to­tally dic­ta­to­rial, he did go on to say that: ‘…there are two cases… when it may prove ben­e­fi­cial to make ex­cep­tions to this rule’.

The first of these, so Aling­ton claimed, was when driv­ing cover crops up­wind. ‘In this case birds can­not hear the ap­proach of the beat­ers till they are close to them, when they are al­most cer­tain to go back’. The second in­stance con­cerned the beat­ers tap­ping at a high im­pen­e­tra­ble hedge run­ning across the mid­dle of the beat and which runs par­al­lel to the line of guns: ‘Here the beat­ers will be obliged to go round… in or­der to get through to the next field. There will prob­a­bly be birds close [to the hedge] on the far side, and these are… likely to go back…when the beat­ers line up again. If, how­ever, the driv­ers make a good noise be­fore get­ting through, these birds will run out into the field, and can thus be sur­rounded and sent for­ward’.

Whilst Charles Aling­ton may have pro­vided the beat­ers with cer­tain ex­emp­tions, he gave no such lee-way to the guns when it came to the sub­ject of inat­ten­tion and noise: ‘Noth­ing is more ex­as­per­at­ing to a host…than to see his guests wan­der­ing about in the wrong di­rec­tion, ap­par­ently tak­ing no in­ter­est in the pri­mary ob­ject of the day and talk­ing over some mat­ter of far greater im­por­tance to them­selves or the na­tion at large’.

WHAT WAS TRUE THEN IS TRUE NOW…

Although writ­ten in 1904, what Aling­ton wrote then is as ap­pli­ca­ble in 2017 – at least if my ex­pe­ri­ences as both a keeper and a shoot host are any­thing to go by. Voices carry, as do the sounds of car doors slam­ming as guns un-bus in readi­ness for the next drive and, whilst you might get away with a bit of ill-con­sid­ered row­di­ness at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son, you most def­i­nitely will not at the end when game birds are wise as to what’s go­ing on.

A game bird’s hear­ing should never be un­der­es­ti­mated. Many of us have heard tales of pheas­ants along the south coast who were said to have ut­tered their ‘cock-up’ vo­cals at the sound of ar­tillery fire in France dur­ing the First World War. It wasn’t, though, only in south­ern Eng­land where this phe­nom­ena was ob­served. Writ­ing his reg­u­lar Coun­try Di­ary for the

Manch­ester Guardian in Fe­bru­ary 1915, this un­known di­arist wrote the fol­low­ing: ‘It has been sug­gested that un­usual ac­tiv­ity among pheas­ants noted on the day of the re­cent North Sea bat­tle was due to their con­scious­ness of the fir­ing. Be­fore we con­demn as a mere fa­ble or cred­u­lously ac­cept the sug­ges­tion, let us con­sider and weigh the ev­i­dence. First the Rec­tor of Saxby, in Lin­colnshire, in his letter to

The Times, quotes his par­ish clerk – “The pheas­ants are all over the place with their fuss.” Another ob­server in Lowther, Pen­rith, has af­firmed that the game­keep­ers no­ticed the un­usual crow­ing of the pheas­ants at the time the bat­tle was tak­ing place’.

Our mys­tery di­arist fur­ther re­marked that: ‘Every game­keeper, and in­deed every field or­nithol­o­gist, knows that thun­der in­vari­ably ex­cites cock pheas­ants and causes them to crow’ and then wrote: ‘In spite of all our boasted knowl­edge we re­ally know very lit­tle about the power of hear­ing in birds… Nev­er­the­less we are aware that ae­rial vi­bra­tions are set in mo­tion by ex­plo­sions [so] pos­si­bly the pheas­ants could not hear as we un­der­stand hear­ing, but could feel the sound waves’.

A cen­tury on, de­spite the fact that those of us in­volved in game shoot­ing are very aware that un­nec­es­sary noise will have par­tridges and pheas­ants run­ning long be­fore the guns are in po­si­tion at one end of the drive and the beat­ers are at the other, it seems that bi­ol­o­gists have paid rel­a­tively lit­tle heed to a bird’s hear­ing – not be­cause it is unim­por­tant – but be­cause it is dif­fi­cult to study.

IS OR­ANGE THE NEW WHITE?

For one rea­son or another, hav­ing more or less as­cer­tained that a quiet ap­proach is es­sen­tial on a shoot­ing day, what about the im­por­tance of keep­ing out of sight of game birds? That their vi­sion is ex­cel­lent can be safely as­sumed, given their need to keep a con­stant look­out for preda­tors, par­tic­u­larly in the case of par­tridges, which ob­vi­ously spend all of their life on the ground, but it might also be of in­ter­est to con­sider whether they can see in colour.

Both am­a­teur ob­ser­va­tions and mod­ern sci­ence sug­gest they can. With re­gard to the for­mer, writer and nat­u­ral­ist, W. H. Hud­son, had it that coloured stream­ers would keep bullfinches out of the Kent or­chards if used en masse – and that scar­let ones worked the best.

Many keep­ers equip their beat­ers with ex­tremely ser­vice­able flags made from cut-up feed bags – which are pre­dom­i­nantly white – whilst other keep­ers and their beat­ers pre­fer the bright or­ange type that can be slid over the end of

“Pheas­ants along the south coast were said to have ut­ter­erd their ‘cock up’ vo­cals at the sound of ar­tillery fire in France dur­ing the First World War.”

their stick and then folded neatly and car­ried in the pocket when not re­quired. But, in the eyes of a par­tridge, does one colour make them re­act dif­fer­ently to the other?

Re­search car­ried out five years ago sug­gested that birds of all kinds can, in fact, see colours far bet­ter than hu­mans. A study – some of the find­ings of which were pub­lished in the jour­nal Be­havioural Ecol­ogy

– found that birds, ‘not only can see more colours than they have in their plumage, be­cause of ad­di­tional colour cones in their retina that are sen­si­tive to ul­tra­vi­o­let range, but they also see colours that are in­vis­i­ble to hu­mans.’ Prof. Richard Prum, a pro­fes­sor of or­nithol­ogy, ecol­ogy, and evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy at Yale University, fur­ther men­tioned that: ‘The star­tling thing to re­alise is that although the colours of birds look so in­cred­i­bly di­verse and beau­ti­ful to us, we are colour­blind com­pared to birds.’ Food for thought when it comes to those beat­ing flags. On a sport­ing es­tate where both pheas­ant and par­tridge fea­ture, whether it’s sight or sound that first makes par­tridges aware of ap­proach­ing beat­ers push­ing through the cover crops or strid­ing over stub­ble, it’s im­pos­si­ble to be cer­tain but, as one keeper re­cently re­marked: ‘they must know some­thing the pheas­ants don’t as they [the par­tridge] are al­ways first out of the drive!’

Per­haps we’ll never know whether par­tridges have more acute hear­ing than pheas­ants, or if they are just a lit­tle more wary. One ex­pe­ri­enced field­sports­man to whom I spoke in con­nec­tion with this ar­ti­cle was of the opin­ion that it was wari­ness – and gave the fol­low­ing ex­am­ple: ‘When two pairs of par­tridge joined the dozen pheas­ants for a feed in my gar­den every day, they were al­ways more alert and more eas­ily alarmed. The pheas­ants would run right up to me to be fed... the par­tridges wouldn’t come any­where near as close’.

And what of that old York­shire say­ing with which I be­gan this ar­ti­cle? Well, the full ver­sion is: ‘Hear all, see all, say nowt. Eat all, sup all, pay nowt. And if thou ever does owt for nowt, al­lus do it for thissen’. So, with that adage in mind, do ‘thissen’ (your­self) a favour on shoot day, par­tic­u­larly with par­tridges and, as far as is prac­ti­ca­ble, keep out of sight head­ing to­wards the pegs and make as lit­tle noise as pos­si­ble. It’ll cost you noth­ing and could pay div­i­dends.

“When two pairs of par­tridge joined the dozen pheas­ants for a feed every day they were al­ways more alert and eas­ily alarmed.”

The next time you're en­joy­ing a day of mixed sport keep an eye out for the first bird you see cross­ing the line be­fore the real ac­tion starts – it could be a wary par­tridge.

Re­search sug­gests that birds have bet­ter sight than hu­mans, so might it be time to change the colour of your beat­ers' flag?

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