It was in Glasgow, many years ago, that I vividly remember being called a ‘bird’ for the first time.
“Oi, Jim! Nice bird!” (Or ‘burd’, as this is Glasgow.)
As I was hand in hand with someone actually called Jim, I first assumed that it was one of his friends. It wasn’t. ‘Jim’ is a universal term of address in Glasgow. A positive form of address. You don’t want to be called ‘mate’ or ‘pal’ in Glasgow – it never bodes well.
Once we’d cleared up that misunderstanding, I was, of course, somewhat upset at being called a ‘bird’, and not even to my face, but as some kind of perceived appendage to Jim.
But, to be clear, I like birds. I enjoy watching our feathered friends as they flutter and fly around. I am even interested enough to find out their names.
But that’s it.
I am not a birdwatcher.
I am not a birder.
I am not a twitcher.
I enjoy looking at birds as much as I enjoy looking at trees or animals or weird shop names, or the Tour de France. But I’m not obsessed. I don’t go on birding holidays (except by accident), and I’d never get up at crazy o’clock to travel to a remote Scottish rock in the middle of the Atlantic to see something rare or unusual. That’s what David Attenborough does, and he’s very good at it, and I can see all that he sees from the comfort of my own house.
I have, after all, discovered that there are only five types of bird anyway.
Big Bird, Wee Bird, Pretty Bird, Fluffy Bird and Scruffy Bird.
All avians will fit into one or more of these categories.
Flamingo – big, pretty bird
Marabou stork – big scruffy bird
Blackbird – wee bird
Baby blackbird – fluffy wee bird
Budgie – pretty fluffy wee bird
See? It’s easy!
I think I started to like birds (in this very qualified way) when I was given the Ladybird Book of Garden Birds as a child. The gorgeous illustrations made identification of the birds outside the kitchen window very easy. Sparrow? Check. Robin? Check. Starling? Check? Hoopoe? Eh? I couldn’t comprehend how there could be such an exotic bird in the gardens of Edinburgh. Sadly not, as it turned out – they don’t travel much further north than the South of England – but I eventually saw my first hoopoe in a friend’s garden in Kenya almost 30 years later, evoking my childhood, and the beauty and otherness of birds.
I have travelled with a few actual birders in my time – always unplanned, never intended. There was Steve, who helped me laugh my way around South America and helped me to learn that working is only a means to earn money to travel. At first I thought that he was kidding me about his love for birds – he seemed to take little in life seriously – but he was enthusiastic at pointing them out in a non-pompous, excited way, even giving them funny voices.
Andy was part of a small group safari around Zambia and Botswana on my first few days in southern Africa. Pale to the point of translucence, he was earnest in his desire to glean all the information about the birds from guides who were equally glad to share their knowledge. I always think of him when I think of a jacana, the splay-footed bird which seems to walk on water.
The birding holiday that I went on by accident wasn’t supposed to be a birding holiday at all. It was a couple of weeks travelling through Senegal by pirogue and jeep, and then drifting lazily back down the Gambia River on a converted peanut boat.
It was a small group, about a dozen of us, and around half of them were retired. Rich retired. Rich retired birders. The rest of us weren’t anywhere near retirement age, but we all liked to travel, and were there to enjoy the scenery, meet new people, listen to the music, to dance, and to experience different ways of living.
But the Retired Rich Birders – let’s call them the RRBs – dressed in sand colours, with floppy hats, many-pocketed waistcoats, and clutching a large pair of binoculars in one hand and the Guide to Birds of West Africa in the other, liked nothing more than to demand that the driver (whom they called Driver to his face, as if it was his name) stop wherever we were to that they could look at the birds, which we could all see perfectly well with our own eyes. But they insisted on only viewing them through powerful binoculars, then to check their books and loudly explain about them, at which point the birds would fly off in fear. Or annoyance. The RRBs would even demand that the pirogue navigator would stop, despite there being no shade out on the water under the high sun. (They met their match with the Peanut Boat crew though. They were too drunk on palm wine, and too busy playing the djembe to be bothered with the RRBs’ crazy demands.)
Early one morning, we were being driven back from a dispirited game drive, having seen no game, thinking of breakfast and showers, when the RRBs demanded Driver stop so that they could examine a tiny dot high in a tree some way in front of us.
Their excited chatter was accompanied by the flicking and turning of pages and exclamations that oh-by-Jove it was the lesser spotted great crested five-toed cross eyed owl. Or something. One RRB took his chance to point out that this bird had not been sighted since 1952. (They were very competitive.) So it was probably, he said witheringly, just the great crested five-toed cross eyed owl. Well, the first RRB (and his wife – they all came in pairs) got terribly excited. Could Driver get them closer? This could be the ‘spot’ of a lifetime (is that the right word?). They would have to notify people. Take photos. Plot the exact co-ordinates. Take readings from the sun.
At this point, the rest of us mutinied and sweetly asked Dembo if he could just drive us back to the hotel as we were really hungry. I think it was about that point that the rift developed between the two groups.
The RRBs never did find the fame and fortune of documenting a rare bird.
Nor did they ever bothered to ask Dembo’s name.
Of all the bird types, you really don’t see too many scruffy birds. Usually because they are preened to perfection. Watching a bird preening itself is one of my favourite things in the world to watch. Even more than watching a sunset or a Paul Newman film. It is one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing sights, watching that hard, sharp beak delicately separate and fluff each individual feather, each individual barb.
I love how they frouf out their feathers, puffing them away from their body with a movement which travels from their head to their tail via their wings, and back again. Then they look over their shoulder as if to check who is watching before they start dipping and ducking their heads to tease and stretch their feathers. They gently nibble between the feathers and then pull their long tail feathers through their beak. They twist and turn their neck to clean it against their wings, and stand on one leg, scratching their heads with their other foot, much like a dog does. It is a beautiful toilette; and with a final ‘frouf’ to settle their feathers into place, they are ready to face the world gorgeously.
The second time that I remember being called a ‘bird’ – was with the description ‘scruffy’ attached. Angela and I were having a few days break in Oxford. It was February and cold, and we’d done the bus tour, wandered through the quads, and I’d taken a lot of photos of gargoyles. We were wrapped up warm in jeans and jumpers.
Sitting in a very pleasant bar made to look like a boat house, a group of ‘rugger’ types appeared at the bar. (Well, they were wearing rugby shirts and were big and loud, so we just assumed…). They began loudly appraising us as the only women in the bar, which we ignored. So they turned up the volume of the appraisal, and we heard ourselves being described as ‘the pair of scruffy birds in the corner’.
We continued to ignore them. We must have been doing this extremely well, as one of them finally came over and asked if they could join us. We sweetly suggested that being seen with a couple of scruffy birds could make things difficult for their image. He had the grace to look embarrassed, and left us, but then they sent over drinks and apologised. So the scruffy birds frouffed their feathers, and accepted the first of many apologetic drinks from the Oxford rugger types that afternoon.
Perhaps, on some occasions, preening is over-rated?