How to Bite a Woman on the Shoulder

How to Bite a Woman on the Shoulder

Everything you need to know about shoulder biting, the latest craze to sweep the British Isles


Shoulder biting grips the nation

Well, now we’ve seen it all. First there was Twerking, then the Ice Bucket Challenge, the Shiggy Challenge, Fidget Spinners and Pokemon Go, but nothing has prepared the land of soap and glory for its latest, supremely daft obsession: shoulder biting. That’s right. All over the United Kingdom, innocent pedestrians are today falling victim to the ‘nudge, nibble and nonchalant walk’ of gangs of amateur shoulder biters.


Young boy next to a stop sign - Rob Gregory Author

A classic example of a juvenile shoulder biter. Be afraid. Be very afraid.


Those who have experienced shoulder biting first hand, complain of feeling alienation, rage or guilt. Some have even succumbed to suicidal thoughts. Many are unwilling to venture outside, in case they are subject to further attacks, by what proponents of the craze say is just a bit of harmless fun and retail organisations up and down the country are preparing themselves for a vast drop in sales in the run up to the busy Christmas/Easter period.


What is shoulder biting?

For those who are unfamiliar with the practice of shoulder biting, it involves two people, the biter and the bitee. The biter selects their victim, usually a person a little smaller than themselves, then approaches, using a slow, casual walk and bumps into the bitee, whose initial response is one of surprise. The biter then turns their head as if to apologise and makes contact with the bitee’s shoulder, using their teeth. A quick nibble or gentle bite is delivered, before the biter scurries off to the adulation of their friends, leaving the bitee shocked, bewildered and wondering what the heck just happened to them.


British police watch out for shoulder biters - Rob Gregory Author

UK police officers spot a suspected shoulder biter.


According to the police, most shoulder biters are males in their late teens to early twenties and victims are predominantly young women or single mothers. There have been isolated reports of female shoulder biters approaching male victims, however, such cases are rare, generally because women are far better behaved than men and men tend to respond with a swift right hook to the face, rather than a shriek of surprise.


The origins of shoulder biting

The precise origin of the shoulder biting craze is unknown, however, social scientists at Keele University have traced anecdotal reports back to a single incident in Bristol, which occurred in the early nineteen-nineties. According to unnamed sources, a young man, wearing a signed Trumpton Riots T-Shirt was seen to collide with a moderately attractive woman, while approaching a pedestrian crossing. Once contact was made, the man turned and “accidentally” bit the woman on the shoulder, before continuing to the other side of the road and disappearing from view. The woman was apparently left shaken but otherwise unharmed and after a short pause, continued on her way, no doubt to recount the incident to her friends later that evening.


Clifton Suspension Bridge - Rob Gregory Author

Bristol, the original home of shoulder biting?


Subsequent accounts of shoulder biting are patchy, but it is believed that the practice gradually made its way to the North West of the country, finding popularity in the underground Jungle and Breakbeat scenes of Liverpool and Manchester at the turn of the century. Following that, it crept across the country to Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Hull, where rumour has it that a notorious gang, known only as the Norman Cook Massive, incorporated it into their initiation process.


Dancers at a rave, home of shoulder biting - Rob Gregory Author

The underground North West Jungle scene in the UK really allowed shoulder biting to increase its popularity.


From there and with the rise of social media and video streaming, shoulder biting has rapidly grown in popularity and finally broke into the mainstream consciousness earlier this year, with over fourteen thousand YourTub videos being posted in the last six months alone.


The dangers of shoulder biting

We spoke to veteran shoulder biter, Bigdog Bazman, through his Twatter channel, @Bigdogbitesya, to talk about the dangers of shoulder biting. This is what he had to say:


“Well, of course it’s dangerous, man and I wanna say from the outset that me and my bro’s only do it by the book. Y’know, a gentle nibble, like, nothing more. It’s a bit of fun and no one needs to get hurt. I mean I know of guys out there that go full tilt on it, try to go for the bone, but that’s just not cool. Not cool at all. You also gotta pick the right person and watch what you’re biting into. There’s been guys put in hospital because they’ve tried to be hard and gone round shoulder biting bouncers and people wearin’ leather jackets. I mean that’s just stupid and the dental bills is rough as flip afterwards! You also gotta make sure that they’re wearin’ protection. You don’t wanna bite into a bare shoulder, that’s base, man! Oh and finally, never try and shoulder bite a copper. Those guys just don’t see the funny side of things at all!”


Ariel view of a crowd - Rob Gregory Author

Watch out, there’s a shoulder biter about!


Proper etiquette for shoulder biting

According to the newly formed British Union of Shoulder Biters, the correct way to perform a shoulder bite is as follows:

  1. Identify the proposed bitee and make yourself known to them from a distance. Eye contact and a nod of the head is usually sufficient. If the bitee signals non-assent then do not proceed. Seek a willing bitee instead.
  2. Approach at sauntering speed, with the arms swinging naturally, but not too high. The aim is to make contact with the shoulder, not punch the bitee in the stomach or head.
  3. Use your dominant shoulder or whatever feels natural to you and graze the bitee’s opposite shoulder, i.e. right to left or left to right. Do not try to strike the same side shoulder, i.e. right to right, as you will end up head butting the bitee.
  4. At the moment of contact, snap your head around smartly and touch your upper teeth to the bitee’s shoulder. Minimal pressure should be used, rather than a vampire bite, which is a common mistake made by those new to the sport. Now would be a good time to give the bitee your social media details, especially if they are attractive. Many experienced shoulder biters carry a business card specifically for this purpose.
  5. Break contact and carry on as if nothing has happened. Congratulations! You have successfully performed your shoulder bite.
  6. Record the details of your successful shoulder bite in your log book. Remember to include the date, time, place and local weather conditions, as well as the physical characteristics of your bitee, for future reference.


Important note: In the rare event that your shoulder bite is too hard and an injury occurs, we recommend carrying a small first-aid kit, including antiseptic wipes, plasters and a zip-lock bag for any dislodged or broken teeth, so that immediate roadside assistance can be carried out. Do not run away from an injured bitee. This is considered unprofessional.


In contrast, the website of the Yobsmouth Shoulder Biters Club ( has this advice for those interested in joining in the craze:


“Find ‘em, bite ‘em and flee!”


A young female victim of shoulder biting - Rob Gregory Author

Dierdre Brimstone, an early victim of shoulder biting.


Shoulder biting. Is it here to stay?

Is shoulder biting just another in a long line of ridiculous English crazes or is it something with a bit more staying power? One might as well ask if the UK will ever leave Europe, only time will tell. For many, including politicians, the police and the countless victims whose lives have forever been altered following an encounter, shoulder biting is an unwelcome nuisance with potentially sinister and injurious overtones. For others, such as Bigdog Bazman, shoulder biting is a way of life and an increasingly important part of daily social interaction, a handshake for the twenty-first century if you like. Based on the available evidence, with more and more youths becoming aware of the practice and dozens of new videos being posted daily on social media accounts, it does indeed appear that the ‘nudge, nibble and nonchalant walk’ of the shoulder biter will be with us for some time to come.




Editors note: We will do our best to keep you updated on developments in the shoulder biting sphere, including progress with the proposed Anti-Shoulder Biting Bill (ASBB), which is due to be introduced into Parliament once Brexit negotiations have concluded. In the meantime, why not check out these useful resources?


Ever Increasing Collins – A Cartoon

Ever Increasing Collins – A Cartoon

Ever Increasing Collins

… A Surreal Trip Down Memory Lane…

Ever Increasing Collins by Rob Gregory Author

Ever Increasing Collins in all its glory!

Adolescence. It’s a funny old thing. Hormones sloshing wildly around a body which doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Hair sprouting from funny places and a voice box that goes from bass-baritone to soprano at the most inconvenient of moments. And then there is Ever Increasing Collins, a blast from the past, which took me back to those terrible days of teenage longing, when I stumbled upon it, while sorting out some old papers a week or so ago.

Once upon a time, I was an adolescent and not a very good one at that. I found the whole process extremely troubling and in addition to all of the biological inconveniences alluded to above, I developed a social awkwardness, which took me decades to bring under control. In the end, I resorted to living in a cave, far from human scrutiny and mastered Zen Buddhism, which I now loathe with a passion. You can find out why, if you click here.

Anyway, I digress. Back then, when I still had hair on my head and a body that was more than the flabby, worn-out organ carrier that it is now, I used to doodle. Exercise books, A4 refill pads, postage stamps, nothing was sacred and that included the margins of any piece of paper I could lay my hands on. Most of the time it was stuff copied from whatever anarchistic, Indie publication I was reading at that particular moment.

Favourites included the wonderful ‘Bugs and Drugs’ and it’s predecessor ‘Skate Muties from the 5th Dimension’, as well as ‘Arnie’ and the ever so dark ‘Harpy’ by Nick Mackie, which, as far as I know only ran to two editions… a terrible shame, because it was shaping up to be a fantastic cartoon series of epic proportions.

However, on occasion, I would be assailed by brief flashes of surreal brilliance and pump out images and situations worthy of commentary by the world’s greatest sages. Ever Increasing Collins is not one of those.

Where it came from or why, I have no recollection, but I am glad that it has not seen the light of day until now, because if it had, then I would probably be writing this to myself from the safety of my very own padded cell and the only commentary it would have attracted would have been from criminal psychologists and the male nurses guarding my rubber-walled accommodation on a 24/7 basis.

Happily, I am now a recovered doodler and direct my creative urges towards writing, rather than drawing, so I will leave it up to you to interpret the meaning behind Ever Increasing Collins. A commentary on Shakespearian character definitions, a much loved, yet missing scene from Pride and Prejudice or just the ridiculous scratchings of a bored English student, you be the judge. I very much look forward to your replies.


Note: Ever Increasing Collins will shortly be available as a limited edition print, with T-shirts, mugs and other useless paraphernalia following close behind. Please contact me directly should you wish to purchase the original artwork. Prices are negotiable, however, you will probably need a rich Nigerian uncle or a recently deceased foreign dictator to have left you some money beforehand, in which case, you can just leave me your bank details and PIN numbers and I will do the rest!


While you are at it, here are some of the magazines referred to above. Enjoy!

Cover of Bugs and Drugs - Rob Gregory Author

Bugs and Drugs – Issue One.


Cover of Skate Muties From The Fifth Dimension - Rob Gregory Author

Skate Muties From The 5th Dimension – Issue Nine.


Harpy 1 & 2 by Nick Mackie - Rob Gregory Author

Harpy – Issues One and Two. Check out Nick’s latest stuff here.


Arnie - Rob Gregory Author

Arnie – Issue Five.

Fotherington-Tomas and the Mephostus Meeting

Fotherington-Tomas and the Mephostus Meeting

Fotherington-Tomas and the Mephostus Meeting

… Dark revelations abound at Haggrid’s Club for Gentleman…

Two besuited figures, one substantially larger than the other, sat in high, wing-backed, leather chairs, enjoying their glasses of brandy, as they watched the crackling flames dance in the fireplace before them.

Away to one side, squeezed rather uncomfortably into the far corner of the room, in fact, sat two other suited figures, both similarly mismatched in terms of their relative scale. The larger of the two cast a longing glance towards the two chairs and then turned to frostily regard his colleague over the top of his tumbler.

“Would’ve been nice to have sat by the fire on an evening like this,” he said, his voice rumbling like a troll gargling granite. “But someone had to go and have the last slice of apple pie, didn’t they?” he added somewhat petulantly.

“Sorry, FT,” said Maxwell, mopping up a lone droplet of cream hanging from the tip of his waxed moustache. “But you know how much I adore apple pie and it would have been a crime to have let it go to waste. And we did manage to get seats in the drawing room, unlike those poor chaps over there,” he continued, pointing to a glum group of ex-diners, huddled miserably over the Deluxe Scrabble and Cluedo boards in the Games Room.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Far end of the dining room at Haggrid's - Rob Gregory Author

The ‘slum’ end of the informal dining room at Haggrid’s.

“I just fancied warming my bones a bit, that’s all. I’m not getting any younger, you know. And in our line of work, you’ve got to learn to take your leisure whenever you can,” said Fotherington-Tomas, snapping his fingers to summon a passing butler to bring him another brandy.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, FT,” said Maxwell, regarding his long-time friend with concern. “I mean, it’s not like it’s the depths of midwinter and we’ve been here for most of the day, bathed in centrally-heated bliss, so I can’t really see how you’ve got any reason to be chilled, let alone so miserable.”

By here, Maxwell was referring to Haggrid’s, the oldest and most exclusive gentleman’s club in all of London Town. Founded in fourteen-forty-four, by the son of a Spanish whelk-peddler, it was steeped in history and more than a little mystery to boot. Rumour had it that the Lord Chief Mason kept a private room on the top floor of the building, for his mistress and her pet chinchilla, while others said that there was a fully functional, antique S&M dungeon located in the basement. Both were absolutely true, of course, and a lot more besides, but the only things that really mattered were that the male heirs of the Fotherington-Tomas clan were granted membership in perpetuity, because of a blood-debt owed to them from way back in the early fifteen-hundreds, and that the club was so catastrophically old-fashioned that it insisted on painting its blackballs white.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Lower drawing room at Haggrid's - Rob Gregory Author

The lesser drawing room at Haggrid’s.

“You wouldn’t understand, Maxwell. After all, you were only in your first term at Oxford, when it happened,” said Fotherington-Tomas morosely.

“When what happened, FT?” said Maxwell, his eyebrows lifting in anticipation at the thought of his beloved mentor sharing some rare and long-suppressed angst that was gnawing at his indomitable soul.

“Well, it is forty years to the very day, that I first met Doctor Mephostus, if you must know,” replied Fotherington-Tomas, with an unusually distant look about him.

“I never knew that Doctor Mephostus was at Oxford!” exclaimed Maxwell. “You never mentioned that before.”

“Like I said, you were only in your first year and studying History of Art, if I remember correctly, so there would have been little chance that your paths would have crossed,” said Fotherington-Tomas, taking a large swig of brandy from his glass, as if to gird his loins before beginning his confession.

“Ah, yes. History of Art. The noblest of all the academic pursuits,” said Maxwell fondly. “Two hours of lectures a week and a stipend that you could drown a rugby team on. I must admit that I don’t recall it too clearly these days, although I do believe that my initials are still to be found carved in a lintel above one of the cubbies in The Lamb and Flag.”

“That particular admission wouldn’t surprise me in the least, knowing what a rascally rapscallion you were back in those days,” answered Fotherington-Tomas, with a mixture of admonishment and admiration in his eyes.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Oxford colleges and meadow - Rob Gregory Author

Oxford University, as seen from the rear.

Fotherington-Tomas drained his glass and then indicated to the steward that he should bring him yet another and one more for Maxwell besides.

As the drinks were placed delicately down on the tiny oak table that separated them, Fotherington-Tomas continued:

“Yes, Mephostus was indeed an Oxford boy. An old Mortonian, like myself, in fact. We used to knock around together quite a bit back then. Along with old Aldo Passlington, the Yorkshire Yippmaster, don’t you know? He was studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the time. Aldo, that was, not Mephostus. We were quite the inseparable threesome, until Aldo’s tastes turned a bit too militant for my liking and he started drinking in The Three Goat’s Heads.”

“Another nugget of glimmering information that I was hitherto unapprised of,” said Maxwell, settling himself into his seat, as the story began to unfold.

“Indeed, but it is Mephostus that is the subject of my woes this evening,” said Fotherington-Tomas, swirling his brandy slowly around in his glass and watching the legs of alcohol, as they dribbled down the glass towards the dark, amber meniscus below. “At that time, he was a brilliant young chemistry student, indentured at the Dyson Perrins Workhouse for Boys, on South Parks Road. And when I say brilliant, he was far ahead of anyone else in his year, and well beyond most of the seasoned Dons who were tutoring him. At one point, they were actually fighting each other in the street, for the honour of having him do his doctoral thesis under them. How wrong that went in the end, especially when that poor organ grinder and his monkey came around the corner…” his voice dropping into silence, as he lost himself in the depths of his glass.

Maxwell took a sip of his own brandy, enjoying the warm smell of the time-aged liquor, as it hit his nose and wormed its way smoothly down his throat. He remained silent, watching Fotherington-Tomas, until the great man suddenly jerked himself from his personal reminiscence and carried on.

“We were the best of friends, old Mephostus and I, at Oxford. I was just finishing my first degree in Zoology and it was he who convinced me to contemplate the study of chemistry for my D.Phil. Well, not pure chemistry, to be absolutely precise about it. Rather the biology of chemistry… and not biochemistry, before you ask. No, we were going to open up a whole new field of human endeavour, Mephostus and I. We would have been Nobel Laureates, for sure, the pair of us. Were it not for the incident.”

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Dyson Perrins Workhouse for Boys - Rob Gregory Author

The Dyson Perrins Workhouse for Boys. Allegedly modelled on a prison in the Alsace.

“Incident?” queried Maxwell, setting his empty glass down on the table as quietly as he could, so as not to disturb Fotherington-Tomas from his memories.

“Yes, the incident. And how very unfortunate it was for the both of us, upon reflection,” said Fotherington-Tomas, with uncharacteristic sadness in his voice. “We both played rugby for the College and bloody good we were, too. I was in the front row, while he was one of the most talented scrum-halves that I have ever seen on the field. You should have been there, Maxwell, we were truly something to behold. The way that he could run rings around men thrice the size of him was nothing short of amazing. He could have played for England, had his heart been in it, which for a short while, at least, I believe that it was.”

“Anyway, we were both in our final year, when the bi-annual Army versus Oxford rugby match was announced. Naturally, we were both selected for the team and never before, or since, for that matter, have two men trained so hard for an amateur sporting event.”

“So, it was an injury that did him in, was it?” asked Maxwell, daring for just a moment, to interrupt the human mammoth in his captivating monologue.

“No, nothing of the sort!” roared Fotherington-Tomas, causing several of the older members in the establishment to clutch their hands frantically to their chests, for fear of having another heart attack, and so soon after dinner too.

“No, Maxwell. We were both at the peak of physical fitness, when we took to the field that day. It was a glorious June afternoon and a sizeable portion of the University had turned out to watch us play, including, I should point out, most of the chemistry professors from Dyson Perrins. The Army team were predominantly from the Household Cavalry, with a few Royal Marines thrown in to bolster the back row, but what we didn’t know, was that there was a minor Royal, the nephew of one of the Princes or some other, playing on their side. It was a great game, with plenty of playful gouging going on, and a bit of harmless biting in the mauls, of course. Then, just after half-time, Mephostus was sent off for a high tackle on the Royal in question.”

“The rotter!” said Maxwell. “I knew that he was no good, even from the start. What a terrible thing for him to do and to a member of the Royal Family at that!”

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Rugby jersey and players on the field - Rob Gregory Author

Rugby. A game played by men with odd-shaped balls.

“Far from it,” replied Fotherington-Tomas, darkly. “It was the referee’s fault. It was never a high tackle, not even close to being one, but the foolish fellow couldn’t bear the thought of impugning the good name of the Monarchy, so he castigated Mephostus in the only way that he knew how, with a red card held stiffly aloft, for all to see.”

“Two sides to every story, eh?” said Maxwell, summoning the waiter for another glass of brandy for the pair of them.

“Yes. And we were left without our best scrum-half in the process. We ended up losing the match because of that decision and from that day on, Mephostus swore to bring down the entire Royal Family. If the referee had only made the correct decision, then I wouldn’t be left where I am today, battling a nemesis of considerable guile, who was once my very best friend in the world.

I tried to remonstrate with him in the changing rooms after the match. Mephostus, that was, not the referee, but the damage was done. I don’t mind admitting that he frightened me to the very core, such was the bitterness with which he took the referee’s decision. I have never heard such vehemence from the lips of an Englishman in all my life and that is God’s honest truth. It changed my opinion of him in an instant. You know me, Maxwell, old boy. I stand for Queen and Country, no matter what the cost. And to hear the blasphemous slander that was issuing from his lips on that day, with only an Egyptian cotton towel wrapped around his waist, turned my heart into stone. I remember slamming his bony frame against the wall of the changing room, as I left the building, and never again did I spare even the most-paltry word of acknowledgement for his existence as a man born of English parents.”

“I understand your position completely, FT. But, you did indeed make a mortal enemy of him on that day. And the problem with Doctor Mephostus, as you know only too well, is that you can never predict where he is going to strike next.”

“Indeed, Maxwell. Indeed. He’s proven to be as slippery an eel off the pitch, as he was on it,” said Fotherington-Tomas, draining his glass with a single gargantuan gulp.

“What was that, FT? I didn’t say anything,” replied Maxwell, reaching for his glass.

He was but inches away from the table, when Fotherington-Tomas’ suddenly dashed his glass onto the floor and began scrabbling at his bow tie.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Poison box from The Prodigy - Rob Gregory Author

I’ve got the poison… I’ve got the remedy! RIP Keith Flint of The Prodigy (1969-2019).

“Poison, Maxwell! Don’t touch it!” he gasped, as his round, moon-like face began to redden, and his eyes bulged alarmingly from their sockets.

“The waiter! It must have been Doctor Mephostus in disguise!” cried Maxwell, scanning the room for any sign of the ancient, grey-haired manservant, who had delivered their drinks.

Fotherington-Tomas started to tremble, as Maxwell watched on in horror, his face as pale as his dear friend’s was red. With every passing second, the trembling grew more and more fitful, until Fotherington-Tomas was jerking around in his seat, like a condemned man riding the blue-limned lightning of the electric chair.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the shaking stopped, and Fotherington-Tomas sat bolt upright in his chair, his eyes staring fixedly ahead, as his breathing slowed almost to a stop. Maxwell watched on, transfixed, as beads of perspiration broke out on Fotherington-Tomas’ forehead and began running down his face. Very soon, a small pool of sweat appeared beneath the vast man and Maxwell became aware of an extremely unpleasant odour hanging in the air between them.

Casting his eyes around the room, to see if any of the more antiquated members had passed wind and not admitted it, he noticed that the hubbub, which had accompanied his mentor’s initial shocked outburst had died away, to be replaced by an almost reverential silence, as every pair of eyes in the room fixed themselves on the pair of them.

After what seemed like an age, Fotherington-Tomas’ glassy-eyed stare faded, and his breathing returned to something approaching normality. Rolling his shoulders in displeasure at finding his clothes soaked through with sweat, he shook himself and rose from his chair.

“Are you alright, FT?” asked Maxwell, his voice sounding like a bomb going off in the wood-damped silence of the oak-panelled drawing room.

FT and the Mephostus Meeting. Morton College, Oxford - Rob Gregory Author

Morton College, Oxford. Home to both Fotherington-Tomas and evil Doctor Mephostus.

“Had a close call there, Maxwell,” said Fotherington-Tomas, trying unsuccessfully, to mop his face dry with his sodden handkerchief. “But thankfully, I was able to force the poison out through my pores, before it could attack my nervous system.”

“Another victory for the training of Abbot Victor Falangies, eh?” said Maxwell, handing his own, unspoiled handkerchief, to the dripping form before him.

Before Fotherington-Tomas could reply, the room erupted into a cacophony of cheering and rampant applause, as the assembled members of Haggrid’s rose to their feet, to give their most celebrated brother a standing ovation, in honour of the magnificent show of mind over matter that they had just witnessed.

“Enough. Enough!” boomed Fotherington-Tomas, waving a shovel-sized hand in the air to silence the crowd. “Thank you, my dear fellows. Thank you. But it was really nothing, nothing at all. Now, if you will excuse me, Maxwell and I have a villain to apprehend.”

At that moment, there was a polite tug on his arm and Fotherington-Tomas span around to find himself face to face with a butler bearing a small silver tray. For a second, Maxwell thought that his mighty colleague was going to strike the man, but he regained his immaculate composure, when the terrified fellow managed to stammer out: “Telegram for you, Mister Fotherington-Tomas, Sir.”

“Thank you,” said Fotherington-Tomas in a perfunctory tone, as he lifted the small, yellow envelope from the tray and opened it.

Once again, the drawing room of Haggrid’s fell silent, as Fotherington-Tomas’ eyes scanned the narrow type printed on the telegram. Then, placing the missive back down on the silver tray, he turned to Maxwell and said: “My friend. I am afraid that capturing Doctor Mephostus will have to wait for another day. It would appear that we have been summoned by Her Majesty to make all haste to Paris and from there, to Mont Blanc.”

“Mont Blanc. Whatever for, FT?” asked Maxwell, still glancing around the room for any possible sign of Doctor Mephostus in amongst the servants.

“She didn’t say. But for us, my dear fellow, ‘all haste’ can mean only one thing. And that’s a trip on the Eurostar, followed by the Orient Express!”




Will Fotherington-Tomas get to the Orient Express on time, especially seeing as Network Rail has reported fresh leaves on the line? What hideous peril awaits the brave duo at Mont Blanc? And what of Doctor Mephostus? Will he ever be apprehended, and the safety of The Realm assured? Stay tuned for the next exciting instalment of, The Adventures of Fotherington-Tomas… whenever that might be!

Do chickens have faces?

Do chickens have faces?

Forget about them crossing the road, this is the big one, folks!

A semi-serious anecdote from a former student of poultry behaviour…

The rise of facial recognition technology

Today, we live in a world dominated by technology, one particular part of which is facial recognition. Whether we are passing through an airport, walking down a city street or simply unlocking our mobile phones, our faces are being captured and used to identify us.

Facial recognition technology is based on using the geometry of the face, i.e. the relationship between features such as the distance between your eyes or where your nose sits in relation to your ears, to build a unique map, which can be used to identify you.

But it wasn’t always like this. Back in the late 1990s, facial recognition, the way we know it today, was a dream. Pure science fiction. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that a commercially viable product using iris recognition was available on the market.

Now, turn your attention to a young scientist, working towards his doctoral degree at Oxford University at around the same time. Poor fellow. He was investigating social discrimination in laying hens, which in plain English means: how the heck do chickens recognise each other? This might seem like something of an unusual pastime, not to mention use of taxpayer’s money, but it did have a serious point…


Cover of my doctoral thesis on chickens - Rob Gregory Author

My doctoral thesis. Yes, I did complete it and am still rather proud of it.


Facial recognition and the pecking order

Chickens have long been believed to have a strong pecking order. Indeed, the very phrase ‘peck order’ comes from work done by a Norwegian scientist, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, back at the turn of the twentieth century. I have my own thoughts on the validity of a strongly linear pecking order, i.e. one where the top dog dominates all those below it, the second in command dominates all but the top dog and so on, as indeed did Schjelderup-Ebbe, but I’ll save that for a future blog.

Suffice to say that scientists have long believed that the way chickens recognise their place in the pecking order is through the comb on their heads and to a lesser degree, the wattles that hang from their throats. The question I was grappling with, because it was indeed me who was that poor young scientist, was whether chickens used individual recognition or what was known as a ‘badge of status’. Think about a sergeant’s stripes and you’ll get the idea. You don’t need to know a sergeant individually, to know how to behave around them!


Head of a chicken showing the comb and wattles - Rob Gregory Author

Traditional wisdom says that the comb and wattles are what chickens use to recognise each other.


Where it gets serious, at least from an animal welfare point of view, is when you look at commercial flocks of hens, which can number in the tens of thousands. If chickens have to rely on individual recognition, then the cost of trying to remember several thousand one-on-one relationships just isn’t worth it and is likely to be highly stressful, which is not good for poor old Chicken-Licken. On the other hand, if they can switch to badges of status, then everything should be hunky-dory, and we can all sleep soundly at night, thank you very much.

So, there you have it. Took a long time to explain, but at least you now know why I was spending an unhealthy amount of time in the company of poultry. And as an enquiring young researcher, I had a question and it annoyed me…


How do chickens recognise faces?

At the time that the peck order is being formed, the comb and wattles are in a juvenile stage, i.e. they are still growing. And growing rapidly. The effect is like trying to remember your place when everyone around you, including yourself, has a new haircut each day. Of course, you could argue that on a day-to-day basis, the change is gradual and so the chickens don’t notice it, but as you can see from the images below, over a seven-week period, when all of the peck order action is happening, the change is really quite substantial.


Picture of a chickens head at different ages - Rob Gregory Author

The same chicken before and after puberty. Look how the comb changes but the other main features do not.


An alternative idea is that the size of the comb and wattles reflects the amount of testosterone the chicken has and so the bird ‘knows’ how strong it is without ever having to see its own features. But that doesn’t really work because there are diseases that cause the comb and wattles to enlarge and change colour, even when the amount of circulating testosterone is low.

And that’s another thing, the placement of the comb and wattles means that a chicken can almost certainly never see its own! It’s like that card game where you slap a card on your forehead and then try to guess what it is, based on what the other players tell you. I’m sorry, but there has to be a better explanation than: chickens use something that they can’t see, and which is changing rapidly, as the basis for settling all of their future arguments about food, water, access to mates etc. After all, if God doesn’t play dice with the universe, why should chickens play cards with their social status?

So, I set out to investigate, taking lots of photographs of chickens as they progressed through puberty and measuring various facial features with a ruler. No particle accelerators or whizz-bang tomfoolery here… just belt and braces British science at its best. And what did I find?


Schematic of a chickens head showing measurements made - Rob Gregory Author

Back then I was a brilliant artist as well!


Chickens have individual and distinct faces

Lo and behold, chickens have faces! Things like the diameter of the eye, the length of the nostril, the length of the ear feathers and beak length changed, on average, less than a millimetre during puberty, in contrast to the comb and wattles, which increased by several orders of magnitude during the same period. Furthermore, after puberty, the same facial features that I had measured essentially stayed the same, giving the animal a consistent set of cues with which to recognise other individuals as they progressed through life.

While this in itself, is not absolute proof that chickens are using those features to recognise other individuals, or indeed, even using individual recognition, it certainly called into question the use of the comb and wattles alone for recognition, which was good enough for me.

And of course, I took it one step further, which is where the link to modern-day facial recognition technology comes in. Consider the following paragraph lifted from my thesis:

Excerpt of text from the doctoral thesis of Rob Gregory Author

Perhaps I was ahead of my time for once? This was written in late 1999.


Unfortunately, I never did that particular piece of follow up research. If I had, then possibly I wouldn’t be sitting here today, writing this blog for you. But nonetheless, I can still get some small satisfaction out of the knowledge that my hypothesis, made on the basis of looking at the humble chicken, has since proven to be validated on a far more complex animal – us!




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Thank you!

Lost Consonants – A tribute to Graham Rawle

Lost Consonants – A tribute to Graham Rawle

Lost Consonants

… a tribute to the genius of Graham Rawle (still alive)…

Many years ago, I used to be an avid weekend reader of the Guardian newspaper. Every Saturday, I would trek down to the local newsagent (usually with a hangover from the night before) and pick up a copy of the bumper Saturday edition. Among the myriad of various pull-out supplements was the obligatory magazine, somewhat uninspiringly called Weekend. Despite this, the actual missive itself was packed full of highly entertaining content (much like my blog, in fact) and I would curl up on the sofa (back at home, not in the newsagent’s you understand) with a cup of tea and a packet of Fox’s Classic biscuits and lose myself for a good hour or so within its many pages.

Folder covered in Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle. Rob Gregory Author

Lovely Lost Consonants!

Among my favourites were the regular contributors. David Stafford wrote a column called Staffordshire Bull, which contained humorous anecdotes and far-fetched tales rooted in real-life and I was delighted to discover that you can still read a selection of these on the website that he shares with his wife, Caroline. I can’t imagine what it’s like to share a website with your wife, it must be rather cramped, a bit like living in a council bedsit, but from the photos at least, they seem to be making a fairly good job of it.

Detail of folder covered in Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle. Rob Gregory Author

Lost Consonants: Roy used his new paint prayer to change the colour of his car.

Another, more serious contributor, was John Diamond, who chronicled his battle with cancer, week by week, up until his untimely death in March 2001. His column was a forerunner to today’s modern blog and I found myself immersed in his writing, as he detailed the various ups and downs of his illness against the hum-drum background of his day-to-day life. Although I never knew him personally, I remember feeling genuinely saddened when his column abruptly ended and I realised that he had sadly lost his fight with the terrible disease.

Detail of folder covered in Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle. Rob Gregory Author

Lost Consonants: His doctor had recommended foods with a high fire content.

But it is Graham Rawle, creator of the wonderful Lost Consonants series, who I want to focus on today. Every week for fifteen years, a one-pane collage, complete with ‘cut out and keep’ scissor marks around it, would appear near the beginning of the magazine and have me in stitches with its sheer brilliance. The idea was simple, remove a single consonant from a phrase and give it a totally different meaning. Thus we had gems such as, ‘It had always been his ambition to pay for Aston Villa’, complete with a grinning John Fashanu in the background and ‘The Wilsons had gone out leaving their baby with a child miner.’

Detail of folder covered in Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle. Rob Gregory Author

Lost Consonants: It had always been his dream to pay for Aston Villa.

I don’t know why, maybe it was those subliminal scissor marks, but I began to religiously cut out and keep each week’s Lost Consonant, until the point where I’d built up a fairly sizeable collection of them. Not really being the scrapbooking type, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with my collection, until I found a fitting solution and covered a couple of old loose-leaf folders in them, preserving the images for posterity beneath transparent book sealing film, where they remain to this day. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology (actually just my mobile phone and a micro-USB cable) I’m able to share them with you here. So, strap yourself in tightly and prepare to enter an outrageous world of ‘cardboard ox’s’, ‘Paris priests’ and ‘a few kid words’!

Detail of folder covered in Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle. Rob Gregory Author

Lost Consonants: Butch looked vicious but he’d never do them any ham.

Happily, Graham Rawle is still alive and most definitely productive. His latest novel, Overland, is based on the true story of the extreme camouflaging of the Lockheed Aircraft factory in Burbank, California, during the second world war and he also lectures extensively around the world on design and illustration.

Detail of folder covered in Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle. Rob Gregory Author

Lost Consonants: Whenever he felt a draught, Frank would lose the window.

If my collection of Lost Consonants hasn’t satiated your appetite then thankfully, you can view more of them on Graham Rawle’s website, here.

Folder covered in Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle. Rob Gregory Author

More Lost Consonants: There must be a whole alphabet of them in here!


Detail of folder covered in Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle. Rob Gregory Author

Lost Consonants: It wasn’t the first time Colin had been caught heating.