A cuckoo dies in Malta…why do I care so much?


I’m reading a book called ‘A Small Furry Prayer‘ by Steven Kotler. Subtitled ‘Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life’ it’s a very intelligent, anecdotal-style autobiography about discovery: self-discovery, as well as discovery of love for another animal species and the profound effects it can have.

This morning I read several tweets from Ceri Levy (@cerilevy). The organiser behind the wonderful art/conservation initiative ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds‘ Ceri is back in Malta with BirdLife Malta’s Spring Watch, and relayed news that yesterday “Reports are just reaching our ears of the shooting of a Golden Oriole and TWO Cuckoos. The sadness and anger has begun. We will report back” – this morning he wrote that “Weather has been bad and not too many birds so far.Just received two shot dead cuckoos and a golden oriole… Why?” and then “The cuckoo is a signifier of spring and the hunter that shot this just ruined spring for us“.

“…ruined spring for us”. I know Ceri fairly well, and with far worse to come over the next few weeks (assuming Malta’s poachers are true to form) he may well look back on that statement with a wry smile if not a touch of embarrassment. That doesn’t diminish, though, how he – and no doubt the other volunteers in Malta at the moment – felt when he wrote it.

I felt it too, though with the benefit of distance I’m sure I felt it less. The interesting question, though, and one I’ve generally been struggling with during what has been a year of quite deep depression and subsequent Cognitive Behaviour Theory sessions, is WHY? Why, from an evolutionary and from a mental health point of view, do I (or Ceri, or anyone else for that matter) care about a small bird being killed on a small island in the eastern Mediterranean?

In the book I mentioned above, Steven Kotler talks about how humans and wolves (from which all domestic dog breeds have been created) co-evolved after they met for the first time on the steppes of Eurasia. The Grey Wolf was the top predator, and our ancestors – the theory goes – copied how the pack structure worked to make hunting more efficient. Wolves learnt at the same time that humans are wasteful: the ones that could overcome their fear of us learnt to forage on our discards. The more tolerant wolves came to live alongside the more tolerant humans, and gradually the two species ‘merged’ their packs, the wolves helping protect our ‘cubs’, us humans with the advantage of bipedalism and opposing thumbs, helping spot prey and handling weapons that made killing even easier. The process, according to DNA studies looking at when ‘dogs’ began to diverge from wild wolves, has apparently been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. It explains why we and dogs are so close, why we work together so well, why dogs are apparently so good for us to have around.

Now, I have to admit that while I understand the theory and accept it wholly, I don’t really get the whole ‘dog thing’. I wish I did. It’s not that I dislike dogs, I just don’t identify with them like I do other animals. Maybe it’s a question of ‘domestic vs wild’, but my empathy seems to lie more with cuckoos shot in Malta, Spoon-billed Sandpipers dying because staging sites in the Yellow Sea no longer exist, whole forests being cut down to grow Palm Oil. Wolves being slaughtered in North America so hunters have more Elk to shoot. I could go on, there are far more examples – but I would really like to understand WHY I feel the way that I do?

Caring hurts, it won’t bring the cuckoo back, it makes me feel bad. Yet, I stubbornly keep on doing it…and because I’m seemingly not very efficient at it (cuckoos keep being shot, Spoon-billed Sandpipers are on the edge of extinction, most people don’t seem to give a rat’s a*se about Orang-Utans) I feel even worse. But from an evolutionary point of view, there is really no reason to concern myself with a single bird thousands of miles away. In fact, biologists might say that Malta’s poachers are innately responding to the arrival of spring (and while there are many symbols of spring here in the UK when you start to look, from bee-flies to violets to swallows, cuckoos do seem to hold something of a special place in the mythology of the seasons) by celebrating the end of a long, dark, hunger-filled winter by hunting down a mouthful of fresh meat that’s naive enough to announce its presence with a call that can be heard a mile away.

Of course, in the case of Malta’s poachers – many of whom seem strikingly unable to empathise with living things – the Cuckoo was never intended to be eaten: it was target practice, shot because it was there, killed because it made a mistake or was unable to cross the Med in one flight. But that still shouldn’t concern me. This was never going to be a Cuckoo I would hear or watch: given the route it was taking chances are it was heading towards breeding grounds a long way from here. Yet, try as I might and despite the common-sense approach to organising your thoughts of CBT, I can’t shake off an image of it lying dead in the Maltese dust, of someone standing over it to confirm the shot then casually walking away.

For reasons I can’t properly explain those images annoy me intensely. They will annoy many birdwatchers and naturalists I suspect. What I’m struggling with is WHY I persist in conjuring them up. We may be hard-wired now to work with and live alongside dogs, but not Cuckoos. Am I (are we?) annoyed because we want to protect an animal from being killed? If so, why are we not all vegetarian, why do we not want to protect chickens and lambs as much as songbirds? Is it because Malta’s ‘dross’ are depriving us ‘right-thinking people’ of the pleasure of seeing and hearing a Cuckoo? This particular bird could have just vanished into a remote woodland or reedbed somewhere and never been seen again, so it makes little sense to get so angered about its loss. Is it because it just seems ‘wrong’ for what many of us (if we were being polite) would probably describe as a ‘grinning oaf’ to so selfishly kill a bird that belongs to all of us? Perhaps, but I don’t personally believe that Cuckoos belong to anyone: it wasn’t mine to protect, it wasn’t mine to see, it wasn’t mine to tell anyone else to stay away from. Is it just ‘wrong’ to kill a bird like this? If so, on what level is it ‘wrong’ and for what evolutionary reasons do we think so? Very few of us could genuinely claim the moral high ground when it comes to animal welfare, and killing one cuckoo hardly equates for example to the far-reaching impact of the massacres committed to supply the traditional medicine trade in Asia.

Purely from the point of view of human survival it matters not a jot to us that one Cuckoo won’t now be parasitising a Dunnock or a Reed Warbler (it matters far more to the individual Dunnock or Reed Warbler of course). No matter how many million years of evolution there are still to come Cuckoos will never protect our children or hunt with us. Forget the chaos theory example of butterflies and typhoons, if Ceri hadn’t tweeted and I hadn’t seen what he wrote I’d have been happily unaware of its death and I’d have gone about my day not fretting about one more bird shot by one more poacher in one more corner of southern Europe.

Yet for all my heartfelt impotence to do anything about it, for all my problems with depression, for all my basic knowledge of CBT and of evolution, I do care. Ceri, who only started birding a few years ago, cares. His spring has been ruined because a hugely selfish poacher woke up, picked up a gun, went outside, and blew a cuckoo out of the sky. I don’t know why he cares, but I do know that in the very facts that he does care, that despite my own troubles I still care, that the messages he sends can reach more and more people who might also care, the killing of birds in Malta will one day be halted.

And though that matters to me, I still really don’t understand WHY. It would be far better for me personally not to care at all. So can anyone reading this help explain to me why it does?



BLMlogo TN63 Ceri Levy on illegal hunting on Malta

The BirdLife Malta website: http://www.birdlifemalta.org

BirdLife Malta is part of an international network of fully co-ordinated ringing stations and National Ringing Schemes that have been indispensable for the efficient management of scientific bird ringing in Europe. We are the leading voice in ensuring that Malta’s hunters WILL conform with EU Directives and spring hunting will be banned in accordance with those directives. Birdlife Malta currently manages two nature reserves, Ghadira and Is-Simar, and also joint manages an afforestation project known as Foresta 2000 (located adjacent to Ghadira): the two nature reserves are both Ramsar-designated wetland areas and represent the largest free-standing sources of water in Malta.


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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