Sunday, June 6, 2010

Guest post - Battle to the Death

Friends of mine sent me this amazing story.  Copyright for the images and story remain with the author, James Crookes.

Note, the story and images are a little violent!

Battle to the Death

James Crookes [his blog]

One of the joys of living in the bush is that the most amazing sightings tend to
happen at the most unexpected times and often in the most unexpected places.
On the way back from breakfast, walking through the staff village, I noticed two
birds rolling around on the ground outside one of the rangers’ rooms. They were
obviously having some sort of altercation, so, with a sense of amusement, I
decided to stop and watch them for what I expected to be a couple of seconds of
interaction before going their separate ways. What unfolded was much more
serious than I could ever have expected and it turned out that the birds were
engaged in mortal combat. What developed turned out to be the most gruesome
scene I have witnessed in my time in the bush and, my sense of amusement
quickly changed to one of astonishment.

As I moved closer I noticed that the birds were both bearded scrub-robins
(Cercotrichas quadrivirgata), which are monogamous and are known to be
territorial throughout the year. By definition, a territory will be defended against
members of the same species, with the extent of the territoriality depending on
factors such as the availability of food, population densities and habitat.
Although there is no sexual dimorphism in this species, based on their behaviour,
I concluded that this was a territorial battle between two males. I expected that
at worst, the territorial male would have engaged the other male, shown him
who is boss in the area being defended, and left him to lick his wounds in
someone else’s territory. After all, these territorial disputes put both parties at
risk as the aggressor also faces a risk of being injured during the course of the
altercation, so it is in both parties’ interest to settle the dispute with as little
physical interaction as possible. The dominant bearded scrub-robin in this
territory, however, obviously had a different idea.

Early on in the battle, one bird clearly dominating the other

I’m not sure how long the fight had been going on for when I arrived, but at that
stage, although one of the birds was clearly dominating, both were putting up a
fight and, amidst a lot of wing flapping, they were rolling around on the floor.
Both seemed to be trying to peck each other, but one of the birds had a good
grip on the other’s leg, so was able to dominate him. As time went by, I noticed
that the dominant scrub-robin was making a distinct effort to peck the other,
which by this stage almost seemed submissive, on his nape and the back of his
head. This continued for a couple of minutes, after which the other bird, clearly
having sustained some injuries, was completely submissive. My expectation was
that the dominant scrub-robin, clearly the victor, would now have left the scene
and carried on with his daily foraging. This, however, was not to be.

The birds engaged in battle, fighting for survival

By now a reasonable crowd had gathered, all with the same sense of
astonishment, to witness this epic battle. Some suggested that one of the scrub-
robins had obviously come home that morning to find the other in bed with his
partner and was now teaching him a lesson. This anthropomorphic idea seems to
be the only logical explanation for what was taking place. Just as we were
discussing this, we noticed a third bearded scrub-robin enter the fray. Our
assumption was that this was the ‘offending’ female, as she stayed on the
outskirts and watched for a couple of minutes, before hopping off to carry on
with her daily activities.
All this time, without paying any attention to either the third scrub-robin or any
of us, the dominant male continued to peck at the other bird’s head and, after a
while, had pecked out the eyes and plucked off the majority of the feathers. This
took the scene to a new level and it was now obvious that the dominant male
wouldn’t stop until the other bird was dead. At this stage there was the odd
whispered suggestion that we chase the scrub-robin away to give the other a
chance of survival, however one needs to bear in mind that we are in nature and
that this is a manifestation of the idea of the survival of the fittest. We are in a
world where there is more than enough human interference and although this
may appear cruel and gory, it likely happens all around us without us even
knowing. Being able to view this sort of interaction is a privilege and enables us
to gain an invaluable insight into the behavior of these animals. Although
sometimes tempting and I must admit, it was a thought that went through my
head early on in this battle, it is best not to interfere and let nature take its

The aggressor with a good grip from which to continue his attack, having plucked most of the head feathers.

After about 45 minutes the battle continued and by this stage we were convinced
that the targeted bird was on death’s doorstep, but miraculously, every couple of
minutes he would writhe, bringing about more aggression from his attacker. His
scalp was exposed and bleeding and the attacker continued to pluck flesh from
his head. The level of aggression was so pronounced that the attacker appeared
to have blood splatter on his otherwise clean belly and chest.

The head and scalp had clearly taken a beating to expose this gory scene.

The Bearded scrub-robin’s chest, showing evidence of blood splatter after the gruesome battle

Finally, in a dramatic scene after a valiant defense, the injured bird extended its
wings, raised its tail and took its last breath. This epic battle had lasted just over
an hour.

Amazingly, the victor continued to peck away at the deceased’s head for a
couple of minutes, even though it was clearly dead. Eventually he decided he
had achieved his goal. He lifted his head, had a look around, and hopped off as
though nothing much had happened, carrying on with his foraging in the leaf
litter surrounding the scene of the battle.

 The end result of the attack. After a valiant effort, the loser finally took his last breath

This interaction caused me to look at the bearded scrub-robin with new eyes.
What had always been, to me, a pretty bird, with a cheerful whistling call, has
exposed a different side to its nature, one that rivals the most aggressive and
savage I have seen in any animal of the African bushveld.

James Crookes
Trainee Guide
Singita Game Reserve


  1. your blog looks nice!
    warm greeting from Indonesia

  2. This story was published in the August/September edition of Africa Birds & Birding.

  3. Thank you. I want to point out that when I heard the story a friend had sent it to me, and I went out of my way to get hold of the author to be sure that he didn't mind me publishing it.

    It is on pages 48-50, for those who want to have a look.

  4. I was very impressed with it in the magazine and equally surprised that there is no record of this behaviour amongst African robins. The photos came out well too...

  5. What a gory scene this must have been to watch as it unfolded. The victor seems to have killed one of his own kind for no reason other than to experience triumph. I suppose the reason this is so disturbing to me is that such bullying behavior reflected in the human population too.

  6. Thanks for the comment, timetheif.

    I think this behavior is most unusual (hence making the Africa Birds & Birding Magazine - for these birds, but I guess in nature cruelty is really the norm a great deal of the time.

  7. hello!
    do you like photography?

  8. Hello baloons,

    I press the button on the top of my camera sometimes, but I don't like your site because it loads so slow I would have to wait twenty minutes for it to load. Do you have pictures on there that somehow relate to African Bush Stories or Bearded Scrub-robins?