All of us instinctively learn much about the mind-sets of others through body language. We recognise instantly when, for instance, someone is feeling aggressive or conversely, when they are perhaps, feeling fearful. Friendship and partnerships, not to mention hostilities, are often built upon the automatic understanding of what a person's body language is telling us. However, it is probably also true that when it comes to understanding the body language of other creatures, we quite often don't get it right, or indeed, fail to understand the messages we are receiving, usually because of preconceived ideas.
I used to live in a farmhouse behind which stood a rabbit infested woodland. Every evening, the rabbits emerged from their warrens to graze the small field that lay between the house and the wood. And frequently, I would see a fox emerge from the same woodland. What baffled me was the difference in reaction on the part of the rabbits to the fox's appearance. Sometimes they would scatter in panic, many of them heading frantically for their warrens or at least to seek somewhere much less exposed. On other occasions, they literally sauntered away from the path the fox was following, now, compared with the panic stations previously exhibited, relatively calm and measured, just ensuring that there was reasonable distance between them and the trotting fox.
Frankly, I could never tell the difference between the demeanour of that fox from one occasion to the other. Yet somehow there must have been something in its body language which communicated the fact - pretty important to the wellbeing of the rabbits - as to whether he had recently dined or not.
Something communicated the fox's mood and presumably the fullness of its stomach, so that they knew whether or not the fox was therefore interested in them as a potential meal. In other words, was it dangerous or not? I've watched foxes for a lifetime and I'm darned if I can tell the difference between a hungry fox and one that has recently sated its appetite. I've seen foxes hunting of course and there can on such occasions be no mistaking the creatures' intent. But I have also observed foxes in such benign moods that I could imagine a rabbit hopping by and the fox completely ignoring it!
Of course, during the next few weeks we are about to find Christmas cards falling through our letter-boxes. Decorating those cards will doubtless be countless robins. Cock robin continues to be the festive bird and of course, may well be our idea of the epitome of sweetness and light as we hopefully enter a period of 'goodwill to all men ... animals and birds'! He, almost alone, entertains us with his sweet soliloquy of notes on the bleakest of winter days. Yet he is not what he may seem to be. At this time of the year many other small birds surrender their independence and join flocks, as a matter for the common good and a sense of shared survival. Such a submission is never, under any circumstances, made by Robin Redbreast.
Sweet his voice may be but sweet of nature he very definitely is not. We perhaps see in his cocky, cheeky and confiding nature, a friendly kind of bird, prepared to some degree, to fraternise with us. Yet in truth, apart from his human admirers, the robin really is pretty friendless and most certainly not prepared to make liaison with any male of his own kind. Indeed, his body language, which we may, in our innocence, interpret as assertive yet very definitely 'sweet', is nothing short of naked belligerence should another cock robin put in an appearance. 'Goodwill to all cock robins' is not on his agenda!
I often think, as I watch the birds at my bird-table, that whilst by and large, they go about their business in a mood of relative equanimity, there is nevertheless an underlying atmosphere of competitiveness. From time to time peace gives way to momentary eruptions as two or more males suddenly find the red mist descending, incidents, which are usually series specific. Generally however, the mood is relatively benign ... or at least it was here, until in a sudden explosion of energy, at least two dozen starlings burst upon the scene. Starlings do not do things in half measure. They always seem to fly at break-neck speed and their sudden 'crash-landing' here, was distinctly reminiscent of the arrival of a ravening horde. Their abrupt appearance certainly cleared the bird-table of all other visitors.
I regularly have a couple of visiting starlings, sometimes three or four but my observations of them always seem to confirm an in-built level of indiscipline, which means that they spend most of their time here squabbling with each other rather than feeding. The two dozen interlopers quickly descended into a melee of squawking flurries of feathers. I doubt if any of them secured more than half a beak-full of blood, before in as much disarray as they showed on their arrival, they were suddenly gone as quickly as they had come. I wondered whether they were a breakaway group from a small murmuration seen a few evenings earlier. Their body language definitely pointed towards a substantial lack of discipline.
Yet, it is during these winter evenings that starlings show the other side of their character when they get together in serious numbers and in the most extraordinarily disciplined way, perform the most beautiful aerial ballets anyone is ever likely to witness. Even small murmurations can have us gasping in amazement but when not dozens, not even hundreds but thousands and on occasions, millions of starlings get together and begin to career around the sky, we may witness what I regard as one of the wonders of the world. These amazing gyrations of great masses of starlings bring many new dimensions to any thoughts of body language!
The ever changing shapes of these huge flocks as they hurtle across our skies seem in a sense, to paint messages which as you might guess, scientists of late, have been eager to explore. There are all sorts of scientific explanations for the phenomenon which has these masses of birds constantly creating and re-creating new patterns in the sky, while they fly first in one direction, then in another, always at full speed. Furthermore the birds fly in such close ordered formation and travel at such high speed, that crashes seem inevitable, yet never seem to happen!
They say (the scientists) that each bird has its own very special space around it which, no matter what the shape they form and the speed at which they travel, each individual maintains. Scientists can apparently artificially replicate these extraordinary sky pictures on their computers and there are seemingly, no collisions on screen either! All very well and good say I. However, nothing will ever convince me that there is not something else at work which somehow gives those flocks some kind of spiritual connection, a mental synchronisation which all feed off and obey. Now that is what I call body language ... of an extraordinary degree!