Saturday, September 13, 2008

Calidris bellicosus

Our stance on this matter is reaffirmed by none other than Herodotus, who cites a Sinopian traveler as having seen, outside a Scythian encampment on the banks of the Gerrhus, a pair of Maeotian bull sandpipers (Calidris bellicosus) incited to combat for the benefit of a crowd. He noted that the birds sparred with great fierceness, though conical muzzles of stiff hide hindered their beaks from dealing grave wounds. A spectator explained how a rousing fight could boost the virility of these ornery waders, producing not only larger broods, but more robust chicks that grew into meatier birds. It was to the breeders’ advantage, then, to set the sandpipers against each other, though not to the death; thus the sport flourished with these checks in place.

It emerged that within this site, the municipal chieftain staged similar battles, but his craftsmen would rig out the birds in more elaborate restraints, binding their already-clipped wings and weighing down their legs to impede both movement and equilibrium. This filled them with a wild vexation that departed only when they were allowed to mate — with gainful results for their keeper.

And further east (the historian concludes), in the heart of the Scythian territories, those alleged descendants of Skythes known as the Royal Tribes imposed yet grander curbs, enclosing their downy pugilists in bronze-girded spheroids of cured pelt. Preceding a match, the keeper would open a tiny exterior flap to introduce a ration of air and a caress from an opponent’s feather — an action sufficient to fill a bull sandpiper with the spirit of Ares. What ensued resembled nothing so much as a skirmish between strangely motile eggs. In fact, to stifle and goad the species in this manner could supposedly conjure the conditions of an actual egg within the casing, making the adult bird a renewed embryo, but in magnified terms, so that it emerged from its second hatching a superior creature, doubled in size. Herodotus was dubious of this claim and we may dismiss it entirely.

From: Burncourtin Raldice, Littoral Avians Delineated from Known Specimens, London: Ficknor & Velsonport, 1829: p. 248.