Why garden birds are still afraid of you

What many bird-watchers, or simply those who are fond of birds, don’t realise is that they are able to see more birds, and species of birds, in a month in their gardens than their ancestors of only 300 years ago ever saw in their lifetimes in the countryside.

The reason is that in years of poor harvests when people were starving they would kill and eat almost anything that moved. I first realised this when, some 30 years ago, I spent a holiday in Majorca. There was not a bird to be seen in the whole island during all the ten days I was there. Even the seagulls which closely followed returning fishermen who were de-gutting the fish into the sea, stopped flying closer than about 100 yards from the shore.

In Medieval England all those below the land-owners learned from childhood that any parts of the countryside or forests that contained birds or other prey animals were strictly off limits. In fact, savage laws against poaching — terrifying mantraps — didn’t even have to be passed until the 17th century when the spirit of freedom — the Age of Enlightenment — finally started to drift down into the minds of the ordinary public. These laws weren’t rescinded until the 19th century

This also explains why, when I used to take my dog for a walk in the countryside some years ago, birds would never allow me to approach them but were totally unperturbed if my dog wandered near to them. However, birds still retain a genetic memory — epigenetic, actually –of the time 300 years ago when they were instantly fearful whenever they saw an animal walking on two legs anyhere near them.

Epigenetic fear of humans is now wearing off, but it’s very slow. Although we don’t capture and eat birds who appear in our gardens, many households also have cats and there’ll always be one stalking the locality. Otherwise we could all make closer acquaintance with many delightful and beautiful birds.

[P.S. This posing was not intended to be a diatribe against household cats but rather giving an example of epigenetics. But instead of scrapping it, as I usually do when a topic goes astray, I decided to keep it this time even though it might upset some of my readers.]

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