September 28, 2013

A view to a kill

The ancients believed that it was possible to predict the future by reading birds' entrails, a process known as haruspicy. This ex-woodpigeon, on a path on Tooting Common, certainly has a lot to tell us – though more about its recent past than its sadly truncated future.

Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to pull themselves together before scrolling down:

The first thing to note is that the remains – a foot and leg, part of a wing, part of the pelvis, lower spine and innards – have been dropped, rather than dragged. The intestine is clean (not grit covered) and there is no blood near it or drag marks.

This initially led me to think that it was killed by a bird of prey. Both sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons can kill woodpigeons, and will take them to a tree or roost to pluck and eat, starting with the head; it would make sense, given the way it lies on the path, for this to have been dropped onto the tarmac from above. However, there were no branches for perching directly above the site, or feathers nearby from plucking.

The telling detail, for me, is to be found in the lower left of the picture, opposite the leg. A small group of feathers has been nipped off near the base – characteristic of the way a fox treats a bird kill, using its back teeth to remove feathers, and the pelvis is well masticated. A dog is the other possibility, but most city dogs would struggle to surprise a bird.

The woodpigeon was not killed at this site; if this was merely the part the fox didn't want I think it would have simply been left in situ. Therefore, the fox may have been on his way to bury the last of his meal when he was disturbed. Alternatively, he may have stolen it from another animal and fled, dropping it when challenged, or he may have been transporting a partly eaten but entire bird, and this part became detached.

Had the woodpigeon's head been present it would have been interesting to look at the crop and see what it had been eating, or whether there was 'crop milk' indicating the presence of squabs somewhere. Although, given the bird's fate, perhaps it's better not to know.