Aspirin. It's what birds want on a bird-table

'Nobody ever spoke up for woodpeckers and do you know why?' 'Because they don't have the vote?'
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The Independent Online

"It all started one day when I was sitting under a tree, listening to a woodpecker getting down to work," says Professor Tungsten. "As you probably know, a woodpecker can drill its beak into a tree at such a rate that the human ear cannot make out the individual pecks - it sounds more like a drum roll. And then I got thinking - what sort of migraine will that give to the average woodpecker?"

"It all started one day when I was sitting under a tree, listening to a woodpecker getting down to work," says Professor Tungsten. "As you probably know, a woodpecker can drill its beak into a tree at such a rate that the human ear cannot make out the individual pecks - it sounds more like a drum roll. And then I got thinking - what sort of migraine will that give to the average woodpecker?"

Professor Tungsten stops to look at me. He gives a little quizzical sideways movement to his head. He looks a bit like a parrot. He does a lot of work with parrots. Maybe there is a connection.

"When a boxer gets punched in the head often enough, he sometimes suffers ill-effects. Not always. Some boxers still seem pretty bright at the end of their career. Others seem pretty stupid before they even begin boxing. But no boxer ever got brighter because he was being punched in the head, and some of them definitely suffer.

"Now, a woodpecker is using his head 10 times a second as a battering ram or maybe a mechanical drill, and his risk exposure must be way higher than a boxer's, but nobody ever said that a woodpecker was likely to suffer from repetitive strain injury. Nobody ever spoke up for woodpeckers. And do you know why not?"

"Because woodpeckers don't have the vote?" I hazard. He ignores me.

"Because we simply haven't got the imagination to realise that the animal kingdom suffers from workplace-related injuries in the same way that we do. So, starting with that simple experience with the woodpecker, I set out to determine just how badly animals are affected by occupational hazards."

That was 20 years ago. At first people laughed at Professor Tungsten's efforts to equate an animal's fight for survival with our need to earn a livelihood, but when the University of Milton Keynes demonstrated some faith in him by giving him a chair of animal-health and safety studies, people started treating him with a new respect, or at least not laughing at him so much.

"Do you remember when they were trying to find out if stags suffered a lot during a stag hunt, and they actually took measurements to decide whether a chase to the death had a distressing effect on the animal? Nobody thought that that was a silly thing to do.

"Yet people have tried to discredit my research into the occupational hazards of everyday animal life. Why? Why? Why are we interested only in the effect on animals of human activity? That is so egocentric of us! But surely it is more important to find out about the natural life of animals - for instance, what effect it has on a squirrel when the animal jumps!"

A squirrel? When it jumps?

"Sure. Every time a squirrel jumps, it is risking death. It is doing most of the day what a trained circus acrobat does once a night for lots of money - and there's no safety net for a squirrel! Every time it jumps into the void, try to imagine the effect on its heart! The cumulative strain!"

But surely...

"And think of starlings and all that noise they live with!"

Starlings? What noise?

"Starlings go around in flocks of thousands every night, looking for food. Starlings make a great racket. One starling on a roof is loud enough. Can you imagine being a starling in the middle of thousands? What sort of noise hazard does that constitute? Why isn't the poor thing deafened? Well, maybe it is! Maybe starlings all go deaf prematurely! But who cares?"

Professor Tungsten clearly cares deeply. But surely all these hazards, if hazards they are, come from the animal's way of life? A woodpecker has to drill his way into a tree trunk if he is to eat, so isn't any attendant migraine just par for the course? And in any case how does Professor Tungsten know that woodpeckers get a headache? Where is the evidence?

"For the evidence, I think you should wait to see my forthcoming BBC documentary series, Health and Safety In the Animal Kingdom."

Oh, there's a TV series, is there?

"Of course," winks Professor Tungsten. "Just you wait and see the show's opening credit sequence, in which a Trafalgar Square pigeon relieves itself on Ken Livingstone..."

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