A JOURNEY INTO SIGHT AND SOUND
As another partridge shooting season begins, Jeremy Hobson explores the likely hearing and seeing abilities of game birds.
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?