This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue.
Small gray birds with choppy feathers atop their head and breast, with short tails and heavy beaks. Their beaks and legs are darker, like slate, while their feathers are shades of light gray, with darker streaks on the undersides of their wings. Their beaks are neither as curved as a common prey-bird, nor straightened like most songbirds, and notably they are more reminiscent of marquise-cut gems than smooth and curved. Older pikerines will have beaks that possess saw-like serrations on the edge of top half from years of gnawing bone and bark. In the wild it is estimated they can live up to ten years, but in captivity no more than three. An adult Pikerine is between 15cm and 20cm long and weighs around 85g, though some that are well fed and long lived can become as heavy as 140g. In the wild most have a lifespan between three and four years. There have been no successful domestication attempts, but the oldest Pikerine on record was captured at twenty five years and eight months.
There is very little sexual dimorphism among Pikerines. Males may be minimally larger than females, and have a small tuft of feathers, crest-like, on their heads; they may also range in color from slate-blue to ash-grey, with the latter predominating. Females lack the tuft, and are uniformly ash-grey. Nesting, breeding, and incubation are, like their hunting patterns, communal endeavors. Pikerines lay two to three eggs up to five times a year if food is plentiful enough. Their small broods prevent depleting local resources too quickly, while they still produce enough young over the year to keep their swarms in threatening numbers. Pikerine eggs are of a motley pattern in gray and pale-blue with white spots, and are about 3cm×2cm in size. They prefer to lay them deep within the fissures that hide their nests for protection, and will lay fewer eggs in a clutch if their nesting environment is too shallow. The eggs take around fourteen days to incubate, which can be done by either male or female Pikerines. On the rare occasion that the swarm must move to a new nesting site during the incubation period, the eggs yet unhatched will be consumed by the oldest and largest members.
Pikerines inhabit rocky environments where their coloration best conceals them between feeding hours. In badlands they spend hot or blustery days within the cracks of mudflats or stone fissures. In cold mountain ranges, they crawl into small caves and crags, packed tight for warmth. Both of their common habitats are often sparse of easy food. They will take to lengthy dormant periods after filling their bellies with bark stripped from available trees until easy prey becomes active, or kills are left unguarded. They are primarily carrion birds but prey can include, suffice it that the Pikerines are in strong numbers: lizards, small mammals, and even humans. They are cowardly creatures but will swarm any single creature that they can densely surround.
While Pikerine swarms will scavenge an area around two miles wide in a day, their broader territory often extends up to twelve miles from their nest as they shift towards more plentiful areas and work in a circle around the nest over several weeks depending on the size of the swarm and the resources available. When food is thin, they will resort to choosing an area within that range with the most plant matter to subsist on and wait for the territory to recover. After two cycles without enough meat, be it active prey or corpses to consume, they will gather at the next and consume any young that are not old or well enough to fly for long stretches. After this they will seek out a new twelve mile or so territory, preferring to avoid biomes with heavy tree-cover as barren lands and rocky cliffs suit them best. If such areas are lacking in resources however, they will choose the tallest and largest tree they can find in which to carve shallow alcoves from the bark with their resilient beaks so that they can avoid ambush-predators on the ground.
Signs of their activity would include fresh bones picked clean. Otherwise the first warning of their presence are massed shadows just above the clouds on a clear day, and their call to action is as a distinct, pleasant, trill. It is sweet like the long notes of a theremin. Their adorable call is a sick coincidence, as it does nothing to aid their lifestyle. Alone, a pikerine is not much of a threat. They prefer to hide or steal quick meals. They are omnivores, but prefer fresh meat.
When gathered in a swarm numbering from thirty to nine thousand, if they out-mass a creature significantly they become bold and aggressive, and will form fast moving clouds around the creature. The swarm will wear it down with pecks and scratches until it can fight no longer, and then land upon the defeated creature to take it apart at leisure while it still lives. For Travellers, full-body armor or weapons that are loud and smokey are advised to ward off Pikerine swarms.
If two swarms were to come into contact, provided they are from the same region and not introduced by human intervention, they would merge to become one larger flock. Two swarms from different regions would be as likely to join each other as they are to attack the smaller group if they are wanting for food.
Encounters With Humanoids
Pikerines are highly intelligent birds. Though they often eat hard or unsavory material when scavenging, they are unlikely to forget the look and taste of truly inedible material such as machinery. Their lifestyle of caution and risk v. reward hunting patterns allow many of them to reach the upper limit of their lifespan if the area can sustain them, and these elder Pikerines not only recognize the faces of specific humanoids like their younger kin, but can even recognize simple traps that they have seen before. This ability is limited to physical traps, although areas protected by sonic or energy based defenses will be avoided after repeated exposure.
Being small birds that pick an area clean, there is not much to gain by hunting them save for collecting stripped bones or dry plant-matter for desperate building materials. In almost all cases Pikerines are considered pests to avoid unless they are seen often around settlements or develop a habit of preying on primary travel routes.
All domestication attempts by humanity have failed eventually. What seems like successful timing via reward proves to be a calculation by the lone Pikerine, only withholding its murderous tendencies as long as food is forthcoming and danger does not present obviously. As soon as either of these situations is challenged, the lone Pikerine will sooner fight its way out by attacking the eyes of its captor and seeking the nearest exit. They are often thwarted by glass on the first attempt, but if given a chance will return to feigned docility long enough to work out how its captor comes and goes and try again only when that route is available. Some alien species may have found a way to domesticate the lone Pikerine, or even a handful, as hunting birds. Even in such a case the tasks asked of it would need to be balanced with a higher reward of food for it to accept the risk if any method of escape is also available. Any attempt to domesticate a group of a dozen or more is likely to devour its captor at the soonest opportunity, unless they are waiting for an approaching swarm to join them first.
- While investigating a lost convoy in the badlands, a dark cloud approaches out of the clear sky. Soon, adorable trills are heard on the wind.
- A lone bird is found picking at rotting vegetables in the garden of a frontier citizen. It is taken in as a harmless pet, but in two days time three more appear. If someone doesn’t do something soon, within a week the town will be picked clean of produce… and then the local pets.
- Rumors reach the Travellers that about once a month, a swarm of birds descends upon the roadhouse of a merchant. His family has been here for three generations, and for as long as anyone can remember these birds arrive to chase off clientele before destroying some of the property and attacking any family members outside. It’s as if they have sworn vengeance upon them.
- While traversing narrow ledges on the cliffs below a mountain research station, a swarm of aggressive little birds pour out from cracks in the stone below. They harry the Travellers in hopes of dropping their prey into the ravine below for an easy meal.