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A case of nepotism in the woods

Time for another instructive nature ramble today, children! So let's join Uncle Geoffrey as he goes with his nephew and niece Robert and Susan out for a wintry walk in the Wiltshire woods. (NB: They were actually some woods in Berkshire, but I was loath to lose the alliteration.)

"Have you noticed that beech trees often keep their leaves long after they have died?" said Uncle Geoffrey as they strode along the lane which divided field from woods. "Brown and useless as they are, they still cling on to the tree."

"Why is that, Uncle Geoffrey?" said Robert curiously, abandoning his usual supercilious manner.

"I have no idea," confessed Uncle Geoffrey, similarly abandoning his usual omniscience and feeling all the better for it. "I just thought I would open it up for discussion."

"That was very avuncular of you," said Susan. It was a word she had learnt recently and had been hoping to use in conversation soon. Now, thanks to Uncle Geoffrey, she had. So he did have some uses after all.

"Strange word, avuncular," mused Uncle Geoffrey. "I suppose there must be some disused word in Latin for `uncle' like `avunculus'. And yet there is no word meaning aunt-like. If uncles have character, you would think aunts had character as well."

"Same with nepotism," said Robert. "Why are nephews involved in family favouritism, but not nieces?"

"It's sexism," said Susan. "It's always the male who gets in the spotlight, never the female. To take another example, why is there a word from Latin for `brotherly', namely `fraternal', but nothing for `sisterly'?"

"Well said!" said Uncle Geoffrey. "But this isn't increasing our knowledge of nature at all! Let's stop for a moment."

Uncle Geoffrey had once read a remark by the rural writer Duff Hart-Davis to the effect that time spent standing still in a wood was never wasted. He was much impressed by this remark and often repeated it without attribution. He also stopped still in woods quite often and stared about him, which led to a reputation for terrible indecision, and had once caused him to be picked up as a suspect in a kidnapping case.

This time, however, he thought it paid off.

"Listen to that birdsong!" he said. "The trees are full of birds singing their little hearts out! I can hear robins and tits and blackbirds - ah, and a chaffinch! What melodies they bring us!"

"Melodies?" said Robert.

"I know what you're going to say," said Uncle Geoffrey, still avuncularly. "You're going to say it's not about joie de vivre, it's about territory and mating and breeding and unemployment among birds and immigration policy protests and heaven knows what, and I expect you're right, but what lovely song all the same!"

"I hate to contradict you while in such blithe mood," said Robert, "but it's the use of the word `birdsong' which I dispute. These birds are swapping info about territory and feeding and mating. To do that, you have to talk. When you exchange threats, you don't sing them. You shout them. It may sound like singing to us. But it's their way of talking."

"Not singing?" said Uncle Geoffrey.

"No," said Robert firmly. "Singing is a spare time activity, a luxury, an added-on artistic experience. But in nature there are no spare time activities! Everything must have a function! Birds do not have artistic hobbies! In bird terms there is no such thing as singing! Birdsong does not exist!"

Uncle Geoffrey knew instinctively that Robert was right and fell gloomily silent. Susan sensed his unhappiness and slipped her hand into his.

"Never mind," she said softly, and perhaps even maternally.

Study notes

"Avunculus" is a Latin word meaning "maternal uncle".

"Novercal" is a rare word meaning "in the manner of a step-mother", from the Latin word for step-mother: "Noverca".