Corvids Archive

An Animal Diary, Animals, Momentary Affects

Grieving for Magpies

He is on a train to London when he reads, as part of his research, about four magpies who gather around a fifth who has been hit and killed by a car:

One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose at the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one they flew off. (Beckoff 2009: 82)

He looks out of the carriage window. His eyes are pointing down to the right, remembering something he has never experienced and has no memory of but is, nevertheless, connected to, and feels. His larynx and chest cavity collapse… a little. He can still breathe, but it forces out a long, slow sigh; a a sigh without a mouthing.

magpieThe cognitive appraisals and reappraisals that form one component loop of the affect-appraisal-emotion-action nexus have already begun. He rationalises what the feeling might be. A love and respect for the natural world, and a resignation that the world we have does not share his feelings? Yes. But he knows these are not the momentary affect, the inconsolable loss of sentience at the heart of the image. That downward look, that sigh without mouthing, is a phylogenetic sadness, a epochal loss.

It is not only an image. It happened. The author, Marc Bekoff, witnessed this moment while out on a cycle with a friend. But he, sitting on his train to London, doesn’t need to have witnessed this specific event. In his essay on roadkill, David Lulka draws on a range of statistics to emphasise that, if he hasn’t already seen roadkill in his travels, he will:

A conservative estimate indicated that 500,000 deer are killed annually in the United States (Romin and Bissonette 1996). Caletrio et al. (1996) gauged that 10 million vertebrates are killed annually in Spain. Ehman and Cogger (1985) calculated that 5.5 million reptiles and amphibians are killed each year in Australia. Lalo (1987) referenced a study which found that one million vertebrates are killed daily on roads in the United States. (Lulka 2008: 39)

He has, of course. That owl he hit driving the minibus between Birmingham and Plymouth on December 25th 1995, with Andy in the passenger seat. The impact. A low glass thump in the gut. He has not forgotten it, but he cannot recall the affect exactly… It may have been more Michael’s “mixture of excitement and sadness” (2004) than the ‘Unnamable’ exhaustion that Lulka finds at the heart of, for example, Beckett’s writing on experience and survival.

He reads that Beckoff writes “I like to think of our emotions as gifts from other animals” (82). Certainly, he agrees, of our animal ancestors. But also of the animals we co-habit and exist with (see Haraway 2008) and of ‘wild’ animals—all animals. How does he, then, go forward? How does he survive this magpie loss? This is what Beckoff, co-author of Wild Justice, an ethologist and researcher with many decades experiences, suggests to him:

 Daily, we silence sentience in innumerable animals in a wide variety of venues. However, we also know that we’re not the only sentient creatures with feelings, and with the knowledge that what hurts us hurts them comes the enormous responsibility and obligation to treat other beings with respect, appreciation, compassion, and love. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it’s their emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their behalf. (Beckoff 2009: 85)

He thinks of the birds he has fed over the winter. The crows and other Corvids that craw in the small park he runs through. The turkey he ate at Christmas not to inconvenience his host family. The blackbirds that dropped out of the sky in Arizona over New Year. But there is something numbing about his individual loss. Something obstructs the grief from outpouring as a “bestiary of affects” (Ngai 2005: 3). He thinks it is capitalism, or that he still owns a car, but he also knows it could be his poor sleep. It is, either way, an “obstructed agency… with a remarkable capacity for duration” (Ngai 2005: 3). Capitalism and insomnia both, then, and the pounding through air of the accelerating train.

Beckoff, M. (2009) ‘Animal emotions, wild justice and why they matter: Grieving magpies, a pissy baboon, and empathic elephants.’ In Emotion, Space and Society, 2(1), 82-85

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lulka, D. (2008) ‘The intimate hybridity of roadkill: A Beckettian view of dismay and persistance’. In Emotion, Space and Society, 1(1), 38-47

Michael, M. (2004) ‘Roadkill: between humans, non-human animals, and technologies’. In Society and Animals, 12, 277-298.

Ngai, S. (2005). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Image (c) Chuck Roberts