Stories of child abuse as only the fittest survive

The common tern.
The common tern.
Share this article

ARE COMMON terns just plain stupid or do they have a cunning plan?

Some really awful stories of child abuse circulate which make any observer at a colony wonder how the species survives.

Continually treading on their young ones, force feeding them till they choke to death and spending valuable time trying to steal the food brought home by neighbours often quite unsuccessfully is just some of the bad behaviour I used to observe in a famous tern colony of which I was once assistant warden.

No wonder many of the young terns protected in Sussex colonies fail to live more than a few days.

Contrast this with the careful parenting we see at the nests of all the raptors such as the peregrines on Chichester cathedral, or the ospreys in Scotland.

Those parents take great care to cut the nursery food in to tiny pieces for their delicate young.

How carefully they place a titbit into their wavering mouths.

Then if it is cold or rainy they will be sheltered for hour upon hour.

Finally, the parents will bring home food for the teenagers as they learn to fly and will continually care for them well into the autumn.

Not so the terns. Like many other observers I have watched some weird goings-on.

There was the time when two parents could not agree as to which should feed the chicks.

So they had a tug-of-war with the sand eel one had brought back.

One held the head, one the tail.

They pulled backwards and forwards, scattering the hungry babes.

At last one lost its grip and the eel now covered in sand was forced into a mouth.

Quite often one child was the chosen one and the other three starved. There seemed to be no reason that human eye could see.

Maybe the parents had seen there was a missing gene in the others.

Presumably the cunning plan is just that the fittest must survive.

They have to be in the fittest possible state to be able to fly by themselves from the top of the planet to the bottom and back again, every year.

But forced feeding? Several times tern watchers have intervened and pulled a huge sand eel out of the nestling’s mouth to save it from extinction.

But these sea swallows do not live on sentiment.

They may seem vain and foolish, screaming for attention from their mates, flying triumphantly in circles around the sky showing off their stolen goods, bringing useless little beads of pretty pebbles or the flower heads of pink sea thrift to decorate their nests, then maltreating their young.

But all this foolishness somehow produces one of the most spectacular creations of life on the planet we are privileged to see.

And anyway, is human behaviour often any better than the terns?

Richard Williamson