At the request of the eminent biologist Dr Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1900 the naturalist W H Hudson kept watch on a robin's nest in which a cuckoo had laid an egg. In his Hampshire Days, Hudson describes in mesmerizing detail the innate process whereby the nestling cuckoo ejected its rivals – a single egg and a nestling robin. He was assisted by the young and tender-hearted daughters of the house where he was staying.
The account ends like this:
The end of the little history – the fate of the ejected nestling and the attitude of the parent robins – remains to be told. When the young cuckoo throws out the nestlings from nests in trees, hedges, bushes, and reeds, the victims, as a rule, fall some distance to the ground, or in the water, and are no more seen by the old birds. Here the young robin, when ejected, fell a distance of but five or six inches, and rested on a broad, bright green leaf, where it was an exceedingly conspicuous object; and when the mother robin was on the nest – and at this stage she was on it a greater part of the time – warming that black-skinned, toad-like, spurious babe of hers, her bright, intelligent eyes were looking full at the other one, just beneath her, which she had grown in her body and had hatched with her warmth, and was her very own. I watched her for hours; watched her when warming the cuckoo, when she left the nest and when she returned with food, and warmed it again, and never once did she pay the least attention to the outcast lying there so close to her. There, on its green leaf, it remained, growing colder by degrees, hour by hour, motionless, except when it lifted its head as if to receive food, then dropped it again, and when, at intervals, it twitched its body as if trying to move. During the evening even these slight motions ceased, though that feeblest flame of life was not yet extinguished; but in the morning it was dead and cold and stiff; and just above it, her bright eyes on it, the mother robin sat on the nest as before, warming her cuckoo.
How amazing and almost incredible it seems that a being such as a robin, intelligent above most birds as we are apt to think, should prove in this instance to be a mere automaton! The case would, I think, have been different if the ejected one had made a sound, since there is nothing which more excites the parent bird, or which is more instantly responded to, than the cry of hunger or distress of the young. But at this early stage the nestling is voiceless – another point in favour of the parasite. The sight of its young, we see, slowly and dumbly dying, touches no chord in the parent: there is, in fact, no recognition; once out of the nest it is no more than a coloured leaf, or a bird-shaped pebble, or fragment of clay.
It happened that my young fellow-watchers, seeing that the ejected robin if left there would inevitably perish, proposed to take it in to feed and rear it – to save it, as they said; but I advised them not to attempt such a thing, but rather to spare the bird. To spare it the misery they would inflict on it by attempting to fill its parents’ place. They had, so far, never kept a caged bird, nor a pet bird, and had no desire to keep one; all they desired to do in this case was to save the little outcast from death – to rear it till it was able to fly away and take care of itself. That was a difficult, a well-nigh impossible task. The bird, at this early stage, required to be fed at short intervals for about sixteen hours each day on a peculiar kind of food, suited to its delicate stomach – chiefly small caterpillars found in the herbage; and it also needed a sufficient amount by day and night of that animal warmth which only the parent bird could properly supply. They, not being robins, would give it unsuitable food, feed it at improper times, and not keep it at the right temperature, with the almost certain result that after lingering a few days it would die in their hands. But if by giving a great deal of time and much care they should succeed in rearing it, their foundling would start his independent life so handicapped, weakened in constitution by an indoor artificial bringing up, without the training which all young birds receive from their parents after quitting the nest, that it would be impossible for him to save himself. If by chance he should survive until August, he would then be set upon and killed by one of the adult robins already in possession of the ground. Now, when a bird at maturity perishes, it suffers in dying sometimes very acutely; but if left to grow cold and fade out of life at this stage it can hardly be said to suffer. It is no more conscious than a chick in the shell; take from it the warmth that keeps it in being, and it drops back into nothingness without knowing and, we may say, without feeling anything. There may indeed be an incipient consciousness in that small, soft brain in its early vegetative stage, a first faint glimmer of a bright light to be, and a slight sensation of numbness may be actually felt as the body grows cold, but that would be all.
Pain is so common in the world; and, owing to the softness and sensitiveness induced in us by an indoor artificial life, since that softness of our bodies reacts on our minds, we have come to a false or an exaggerated idea of its importance, its painfulness, to put it that way; and we should therefore be but making matters worse, or rather making ourselves more miserable, by looking for and finding it where it does not exist.
The power to feel pain in any great degree comes into the bird’s life after this transitional period, and is greatest at maturity, when consciousness and all the mental faculties are fully developed, particularly the passion of fear, which plays continually on the strings of the wild creature’s heart with an ever varying touch, producing the feeling in all degrees from the slight disquiet, which is no sooner come than gone, to extremities of agonising terror. It would perhaps have a wholesome effect on their young minds, and save them from grieving overmuch at the death of a newly-hatched robin, if they would consider this fact of the pain that is and must be. Not the whole subject – the fact that as things are designed in this world of sentient life there can be no good, no sweetness or pleasure in life, nor peace and contentment and safety, nor happiness and joy, nor any beauty or strength or lustre, nor any bright and shining quality of body or mind, without pain, which is not an accident nor an incident, nor something ancillary to life, but is involved in and a part of life, of its very colour and texture. That would be too long to speak about; all I meant was to consider that small part of the fact, the necessary pain to and destruction of the bird life around them and in the country generally.Besides being a fine writer, it seems Hudson was also a fine and kindly teacher: and what lucky children they were to have him at hand. The natural world offers the percipient an infinity of situations, relationships and dramas. Meditation upon them leads at last beyond mere science to religion; this excerpt will chime not only with the Buddhist and Hindu, but with those of us trying to understand the meaning of the Crucifixion.
Hudson was one of my earliest influences. If you’d like to read him, try Far Away and Long Ago, or indeed Hampshire Days itself: I lived for nearly twenty years near Selborne, and his descriptions of that district still ring absolutely true.