Slugs Are For The Birds

by Theodore Dalrymple (September 2013)

Among the many publishers who have failed to make a fortune either for themselves or for me by publishing my books is one who is a keen birdwatcher. I admire him for it because it seems (or rather once seemed) to me that birdwatching, or birding as I believe birdwatchers, or birders, now prefer to be known, is a peaceful and disinterestedly contemplative activity of the kind that I am too impatient to pursue but wished that I was not.

I have always been a little curious about the psychology of birders. Are they nature mystics, scientifically minded, or more like train spotters? I once sat next to a man on a flight from the Netherlands to England who had binoculars round his neck and was dressed as for field research. I assumed that he was an ornithologist until he got out his notebook and saw that he had been collecting aircraft registration numbers at Schipol Airport, one of the world’s largest and busiest. He continued to take down numbers until the last possible minute, when our aircraft took off. What on earth was he going to do with all these numbers? My heart was suddenly seized by sorrow that a man should obtain his pleasure, perhaps even his joy, in such a futile way: but then, suddenly ecumenical, I thought, well, pleasure is pleasure and joy is joy, and the man was doing no harm by what he was doing. Who in a thousand years – fifty – will say that my pleasures were more serious, important and intelligent than his? 

Are birders a little like my plane spotter? Mildly interested in the question, I happened on a book in a charity shop (thrift store) titled Birders: Tales of a Tribe by a distinguished ornithologist and author called Mark Cocker. In truth I bought the book because it cost next to nothing, and I immediately started to read it. It was fascinating, and it somewhat overturned my beliefs about birders.

Birders, at least in Britain, have a sub-culture all their own, a scale of values and a system of ethics. So important for them is seeing a new species of bird that they are quite prepared to risk their lives to do so, and the author gives several examples of birders who have lost their lives in pursuit of a sighting, including one who was mauled to death by a tiger for the sake of birds. Practically nothing, short of death, will come between a birder and the birds he wants to see, and there is one hilarious incident in the book in which young birders are driving up to Scotland in order to see a rare bird that has been reported there. They crash (and wreck) their car, and are very nearly killed, but all they can think in the hospital to which they are taken afterwards of is getting up to Scotland to see the bird. They care nothing about the car, as most young men would; neither does the pain of their injuries deter them; they care only for seeing the bird and adding it to their list of species seen. There is something magnificent in this disregard of normal everyday concerns for the sake of a non-monetary reward, and it seems that this kind of enthusiasm is by no means dead or dying; on the contrary, every generation brings forth new birders, and I find it reassuring that such eccentricity should continue in a time that I think is characterised by a horrible uniformity of taste and interest among the young. How nice it is (sometimes) to be wrong! But yet, merely to see a bird so that you can say to other birders that you have seen it – not to discover anything new about it – seems a little vainglorious, to say the least, albeit that birders genuinely love the birds they see, spot and watch. 

The first little essay in the book concerns the author’s search for the Satyr Trapogan, a startlingly blood-red pheasant that lives only at 8000 feet in the Nepalese Himalayas (in pursuit of which another birding friend of the author’s lost his life, probably by falling in the dark). Although I know nothing of birds, certainly not by comparison with the author, there was a passage in the essay with which I rather disagreed:

This is a creature even more lovely than its title… Those who haven’t seen one shouldn’t try to conjure the beast by thinking of those beautiful but stupid birds that blunder into our car windscreens.

I would once have agreed with that our pheasants are stupid, but I can no longer agree that they. Or at any rate all of them, are.

I learnt how clever pheasants can be by watching them from the windows of a large country house in which some friends of mine live. It is in a rural area where one of the main economic activities is raising pheasants for businessmen, who pay an exorbitant fee for the privilege, to shoot.

Personally I have never understood the passion for shooting birds, large or small. The last thing I want to do when I see a bird, even a vulture, is to shoot it. I can understand shooting them if one is hungry – in the sense that there is no alternative source of food, not in the sense of hunger that a quick visit to the fridge, the supermarket or the corner store would soon alleviate. But there are people whom I respect – the great writer Turgenev, for example – who are or were passionate about killing birds with guns. And I also recognise that, if it were not for the desire of people to shoot them, many birds such as the pheasant would not exist, at least not in such numbers. Whether it is better (for birds) to have lived and be shot than never to have lived at all I shall leave it to moral philosophers to decide, the question being far too difficult for me.

A small group of pheasants would come on to the lawn that stretched away from the house, led by an absurd male who was proud and pompous as only (among humans) the head of an ancient institution can be. He was cock of the walk, but how small was the walk of which he was cock! He preceded his little following by a few yards, and woe betide any of them who forgot their place and did not keep those few yards distant. Then he would turn and fly at them with righteous indignation, whereupon, without fail, they would retreat. Order having been restored among the revolting peasants, he would then resume his stately progress across the lawn.

Why was this so irresistibly funny? I think it reminded everyone who saw it of the pretentiousness of some ambitious person whom they knew, and by extension of the absurdity of all human ambition. You couldn’t look at the self-important pheasant without thinking of Ecclesiastes: vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (And goodness was that pheasant vain!)

But what has this to do with intelligence, you might ask, rather than with stupidity? Nothing, I reply: I am about to come to the intelligence of pheasants.

There was another little group of pheasants, including a one-eyed female, who came right up to the house. The male of this group (he was a bigamist) somehow discovered that if he pecked sharply and rhythmically on the window the humans inside would give him and his tiny harem food. What is interesting about this is that he devised the strategy for himself: no one, as far as I knew, had taught or encouraged him to do this. He seemed to have thought of it himself. It was as if he had used his imagination and had, to use a popular phrase among psychologists these days, a theory of mind, in particular of the human mind.

It is possible, I suppose, that someone somewhere else might have taught him the trick. But even if that were so, the bird had generalised his instruction to a new situation, surely a sign of intelligence. And I don’t actually think this was the explanation of his behaviour, because there was no house for miles around where he might have been taught the trick, and pheasants (like burglars) are not great travellers. Moreover, most of the pheasants around my friends’ house avoided close contact with humans rather than sought them out, and I am driven to the conclusion that this was a mental giant, a genius, among pheasants. But if he was such a giant or genius, it was likely that there were other mute, inglorious Miltons among pheasants. And the capacities of a species surely deserve to be known by its cleverest members, not by those of its dunces, just as a writer should be judged by his best work rather than by his worse, or even by his average work. No one, after all, can write a good book by accident.

Another amusing manifestation of pheasant intelligence was the conduct of this particular pheasant if food was not immediately forthcoming. He would then, as if in outrage or indignation, peck at the window faster, louder, more aggressively, furiously in fact, until his demand was met. And I should add that he pecked at the window only if he could see humans present in the room inside. It was altogether a most impressive performance.

It is on these grounds that I take slight issue with the characterisation by the ornithological author of the British pheasant as stupid. The bird has hidden abilities or potential which it is the duty of every gamekeeper to suppress, in case the birds learn to evade their businessmen-executioners, just as it is the effect, and possibly the purpose, of modern educational methods in British state schools to ensure that pupils, especially from poor homes, remain at a low level of attainment.

I am not alone in my belief that the pheasant is not a stupid bird. In The Parliament of the Birds (at least in Edward Fitzgerald’s version of it, the only one I know), the Thirteenth Century Persian Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar, made the pheasant the sole bird that questioned the authority of the Lapwing, the bird who claimed to have been chosen by God to lead all the other birds to Paradise. The pheasant was thus the Descartes of his phylum who questioned blind faith in a self-proclaimed authority. One is tempted to see the pheasant, then, as the bird that rebelled against the opening of the second sura of the Koran: ‘This is the Scripture which cannot be doubted.’     

One class of one phylum of the animal kingdom whose intelligence is not in doubt – because it has none to speak of – is the gastropod mollusc (the cephalopods, squids and octopuses, among the molluscs are different in this respect, they show intelligence). And it so happens that along with the book about birders I bought a book whose blurb said that it was ‘bound to remain a standard handbook for the foreseeable future – the snail-hunter’s bible.’

The snail-hunter: another, even more curious fraternity (I doubt there are many female snail-hunters, it sounds to me like a predominantly male occupation) in the great mosaic we call humanity.

The book was A Field Guide to the Land Snails of Britain and North-west Europe, a title which delicately avoided the fact that it was also a guide to the slugs of that geographical area. I suppose that a title including the word slugs would have put the casual buyer off – I can just imagine the sales-team at the publisher objecting strongly to its inclusion, for practically no one likes a slug and in gardens they are to be feared and killed with little blue pellets spread on the soil.

Is there a culture in which slugs are not abominated as aesthetically repellent and economically destructive? If there is not (and I am not anthropologist enough to know whether there is such a culture, for example one which worships the slug as a god), does this mean that man is born with an instinctive dislike of slugs, as chimpanzees are born with a fear of snakes? Few people like sliminess, either literal or metaphorical. For as Othello says:

An honest man he is, and hates the slime
That sticks to evil deeds.

Snails at least may have pretty shells; but slugs, even when they are pink, greenish or yellowish, or handsomely brindled, repel. Nothing can redeem a slug. 

But the Germans say that every little animal has its little pleasure, to which one might add with justice that it has its collector too. My field guide informs the latter how to preserve what the great majority of mankind would wish to destroy, namely slugs, though it does not really go so far as to recommend it:

Whole animals can be kept by pickling in alcohol. Slugs can be preserved in this way, but they shrink considerably, and their colours change.

Instead, photographs are recommended as being more useful and attractive.

The book did not convert me to the fascination of snails and slugs, whose repertoire of behaviour is much less than that of, say, pheasants (though I was surprised to learn that some snails are carnivorous, and one species becomes so, but only in captivity). However, though slugs and snails have been studied less than other types of animals, which explains why, even in an area as well-worked by naturalists as Western Europe, there are new species still to be discovered, yet I was moved by the many hours of human devotion that must have gone into the careful classification of hundreds of species, often requiring dissection (‘when in doubt,’ says the field guide, ‘dissect,’ a piece of advice that would apply equally to poltiicians’ rhetoric).

Which all goes to show that Hamlet was right when he said:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how
infinite in faculty! 

He can even make slugs his study.


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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