Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: In a birder's paradise, I thrill to the sight of a myna

 

A A A

Mynah birds (then spelt with a final h) were once popular in Britain in the days when every other family had a budgie in a cage and antimacassars on the back of the sofa; their ability to imitate human speech was regarded as equal to that of parrots. Cor. What a larf. They disappeared from British domestic parlours a long time ago but I have been watching them in the wild in the past week, while covering the UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa.

Southern Africa is a birder's paradise, with species to take your breath away, and if you ever catch sight of a lilac-breasted roller, as I did once in Namibia, you will need no convincing. But you can't do a lot of birding at a UN conference, because, if you shoot off somewhere with your bins, you're likely to miss the latest text from the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action, so you have to make do with what's around. And the mynas (no final h these days) are one of three local species I have managed to grab a look at in the gaps between waking, conferencing and sleeping, two of which were fascinating, and the third of which made my spirits lift.

The common or Indian myna is not, in fact, a native African bird but was introduced to what is now KwaZulu Natal a century ago, perhaps by Natal's large Indian community (Mahatma Gandhi being its most famous member). It's like a big starling, and indeed is in the starling family: a brownish job, with attractive white wing bars in flight, a yellow eye, and long yellow legs on which it stalks around with a swaggering strut.

It looks like a bully and it is, depriving other birds of their nest holes; and, as it adapts very well to human habitation and reproduces quickly, it has come to be regarded as a pest for tendencies such as roosting in trees and pooing on the cars parked below. I've been clocking it around the conference centre, and in the Durban suburb where I've been staying, and, although you would think it common as muck if you lived here, its unfamiliarity to me has made it an enjoyable sight.

A much more surprising sight in my suburb has been the hah-de-dah. I spell it that way because that's how you pronounce it, and, when I first heard it spoken of, I thought for a moment it was the lah-de-dah, which would be a most memorable name for a bird, would it not? But it's actually spelt hadeda, and it's an ibis.

You know ibises; those big wading birds with downward decurved bills which figure in Egyptian hieroglyphics. They look fantastically exotic, and to see four of them on a small suburban lawn, probing the grass for worms 10 yards from the French windows, nearly as big as sheep, makes your eyes pop out.

But that's what they do: hadedas, like mynas, have adopted to human habitations and they are the blackbirds of suburban Durban, 50 times bigger. (The landlady of the guest house next door told me they steal her dogfood.) Their loud cries, which are meant to be represented in the name, but aren't really, have awakened me each morning at 6am, yet I don't mind, because I can see dawn breaking over the distant Indian Ocean.

The third bird I have been looking at is only too familiar: the swallow. By that, I mean our swallow, the European swallow, officially the barn swallow, Hirundo rustica. I've seen three of them, streamlined navy blue blurs, and they have vividly brought to mind one of the most memorable moments in ornithology, recounted left.

The little symbol of home and its 12,000-mile round trip

People had known for centuries that swallows migrated from Britain in the winter, but nobody had any idea it was as far as to South Africa, 6,000 miles way, until a Staffordshire solicitor, John Masefield, ringed a young bird in the porch of his home in May 1911. Just over 18 months later, on 23 December 1912, it was recovered on a farm near the small Natal town of Utrecht, about 150 miles north of Durban, proving that these matchbox-sized birds made this scarcely believable journey twice a year.

I have been looking northwards, longingly, towards Utrecht, dreaming that I might nip up and find the farm, if it is still there. (It was called "Roodeyand" and the farmer was a Mr Mayer). There has been no time; but the sight of the swallows themselves has been enough – European swallows here for the winter, looping, swooping, curving through the air, each one seeming a piece of our spring, waiting to come back to us.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com.mjpmccarthy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride