Here is a gem that I found in the depths of the Internet. It adds to my ‘Animal Necrophilia Files’ and documents one of the most dramatic cases of avian homosexual necrophilia, and the first case I know of in Galliformes.
The three-minute video was first posted on the Internet on 7 April 2007 and titled ‘Der Rackelhahn – Ein unfruchtbarer Bastard’. It is dated 2004 and was taken and edited by Herbert Rödder *. ‘Professional hunter’ Hilmar Wichmann acted as biological consultant and producer (Rödder 2004). The location where the video was taped is unclear, but it was probably somewhere in northern Germany. Spoken comments are in the German language. Main character is a ‘Racklehahn’ – a male hybrid between a Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and a Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix). Both species occur across much of northern Eurasia and yield this hybrid throughout the zones of overlap within their respective distribution ranges and habits, especially in Scandinavia (Cramp & Simmons 1980; McCarthy 2006).
The video shows a snowy, forested landscape. It is a Black Grouse lek – an aggregation of males that gather to engage in competitive displays that may entice visiting females who are surveying prospective partners (for copulation). Two male Black Grouses are displaying. They do not attract females, but a Racklehahn. This cock quickly and vigorously attacks one of the Black Grouses. The much bigger bird tramples the grouse, hits him with his wings and forcefully pecks his head, with special attention for the bright red combs. After a mere 40 seconds the Racklehahn ends the fight by ripping off the head and throwing it away. Then he immediately mounts the lifeless mess and copulates for 20 seconds. After dismounting, the cock keeps pecking into the decapitated body.
The wording of the voice-over is carefully chosen, and spoken with appropriate diction:
‘Seine Kampf entsteigt er so weit das er den Kopf abreißt und weg schmeißt. Es ist kaum zu glauben das ein Vogel zu solch eine grausame Tat fähig ist. Was vor und hinten ist an dem zerfetztem Birkhahn ist kaum erkennbar. Trotzdem kopuliert der Rackelhahn mehrere Male auf dem leblosen Körper [ … ] Die Natur kann schön sein, aber auch grausam.’
[As he loses himself in the fight, he tears off the head and throws it away. It is hard to believe that a bird is capable of doing such a cruel act. What’s the front or rear of the tattered Black Grouse is barely visible. Nevertheless, the Rackelhahn copulates the lifeless body several times. Nature can be beautiful, but also cruel.]
Hybrids between male Black Grouse and female Capercaillie are the most common grouse hybrids (Porkert et al. 1997). They mostly turn out to be males (McCarthy 2006), and are known to occur solitary on black grouse leks where they display aggressively towards male black grouse (Hjorth 1970; Porkert et al. 1997). What this video documents – a fight that ends with the violent death (by decapitation) of a black grouse, immediately followed by a (homosexual necrophiliac) copulation – was not documented before. It is a unique case in animals. Homosexual necrophilia after non-violent death is known, in ducks and other vertebrates.Although the decapitated grouse was a complete mess, the Racklehahn did mount the rear end, and mated while holding the neck (as the head was missing) with the drooped position of the partly spread wings (the classic copulatory position of Capercaillie – contrary to beating the wings during copulation by black grouse [Porkert et al. 1997]). The shivering body of the copulating Racklehahn clearly indicates penetration and ejaculation.
* I tried to trace and contact the people who took and produced this video, but failed. Should any know them, please let me know as I am interested to see the uncut footage.
McCarthy, E.M. 2006 – Handbook of Avian Hybrids – Oxford University Press [PDF]
Hjorth, I. 1970 – Reproductive behaviour in Tetraonidae with special reference to males – Viltrevy 7(4): 181-596
Porkert, J., Solheim, R. & Flor. A. 1997 – Behaviour of hybrid male Tetrao tetrix (male) x T. urogallus (female) on black grouse leks – Wildlife Biology 3(3/4): 169-176
Rödder, H. 2004 – ‘Der Rackelhahn – Ein unfruchtbarer Bastard’ – HR-Studio, http://www.myvideo.de/watch/1195637/Der_Rackelhahn_Ein_unfruchtbarer_Bastard