I’m sure that any bird-lover will empathise with my reaction when I came back from a few days with my parents to see this scene of carnage in the garden. I often fear that, by providing food, I am luring some creatures into danger. I position the feeders and birdtable so that it isn’t easy for birds to be ambushed, but clearly something serious has happened here.
The feathers are just by the edge of the pond, so I imagine that the bird was attempting to drink when something made a grab for it. However, there is no corpse. I crouch down to have a closer look, and see if I can piece events together.
First, I want to see if I can identify which kind of bird these feathers belong to. It’s clearly a largish bird, probably some kind of pigeon. I find a small clump of soft feathers, tinged with a pinkish blush. The colour tells me that they belong to a woodpigeon. The nature of the feathers, their soft fluffiness, tells me that they are from the breast. There are a lot of them.
Mixed amongst the breast feathers, which come very easily out of the flesh, are the flight feathers, which don’t.
Woodpigeons have a black stripe at the end of the tail, and black primary feathers in the wing.
I imagine the bird flying up in a panic, its assailant jumping up at it and sweeping at it with a hooked claw.
So, my initial assumption was that a woodpigeon had been surprised by a cat. Judging by the volume of feathers, it was quite a fight. There is no blood, so maybe the bird got away, or maybe it was simply carried away to be tortured and eaten elsewhere. There is, however, one other possible explanation.
Just before Christmas, I opened the kitchen door to find a sparrowhawk glaring at me with great psychotic orange eyes. It had its talons embedded in a dead woodpigeon. I shut the door, and it turned back to its task of plucking its prey, tearing out the soft feathers of the breast which fell back on to the patio like snowflakes. I ran upstairs to get my husband and we both goggled at this strange visitor until, with more irritation than fear, it clutched the corpse of the woodpigeon with the talons of one foot and, with two or three strong downstrokes of its dappled wings, swerved over the garden fence and off, to eat its prey in peace.
Was this enormous pile of feathers a sign that this enigmatic bird had returned, and plucked its prey on the stones by the pond?
Of course, I will never know. But although the end result for the woodpigeon is the same, my heart lifts when I think that maybe it died to feed a wild hunter, rather than fell victim to someone’s bored pet. As the bluebottles buzz over the feathers and the soft breast fluff blows away into the wallflowers, it humbles me to think of the drama that is happening every day in my tiny back garden, the lives lost, the stomachs filled, the territories fought over and the babies born. If I lived to be five hundred, I would never be short of something to write about.