Swedish birds are a real eyeful

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hello, children! Time for another stroll in the country with nature expert Uncle Geoffrey, as he takes his nephew and niece, Susan and Robert, through the wintry English lanes.

Hello, children! Time for another stroll in the country with nature expert Uncle Geoffrey, as he takes his nephew and niece, Susan and Robert, through the wintry English lanes.

"Think it will snow today, Uncle Geoffrey?" asked Susan.

Uncle Geoffrey looked at the cold grey sky. Then he licked his finger and held it up. Then he sniffed deeply.

"No," he said. "I think it is most unlikely."

Susan was impressed.

"How can you tell that from just licking your finger?" she said.

"Oh, I can't," he said. "I just happened to notice, as you spoke, that I had a smear of Bovril left over on my finger from breakfast, and I didn't want to waste it."

"Then why do you think it is most unlikely that it will snow?" said Robert.

"That's because of the law of averages," said Uncle Geoffrey. "It very seldom snows in England, especially in these days of warmer climates. Scotland gets much more snow than we do, but it always has done. Snow in England is so rare that if someone asks me whether it is likely to snow, I always say no. And I am usually right."

Robert stole a glance at his sister, Susan, as if to say that the old boy was talking more sense than usual, but decided to challenge him anyway.

"Ah, but how could you tell from natural signs that snow is on its way?"

"Well, one way is to spot the arrival of the migrant birds from Scandinavia. They get out before the cold weather hits - they almost seem to know instinctively that a cold snap is coming - so when you see the fieldfares arrive, it's a good sign that snow is coming by and by. Look, there are two of them up there."

And he pointed to what looked a bit like a couple of pink-breasted thrushes sitting in the bare branches of adjacent trees, making a noisy racket at each other.

"Not unlike manic starlings to listen to," said Uncle Geoffrey. "They are not the most beautiful of songsters."

"Mating talk, presumably," said Robert.

"You couldn't be more wrong," said Uncle Geoffrey. "They don't mate over here. They won't breed till they go back to Scandinavia. What they have come here for is the food."

"Sort of like a booze cruise," said Susan.

"Yes, except it's fruit and berries they're after. Let loose a fieldfare on a holly bush, and you've got one happy and contented little fieldfare. Not so much a booze cruise, more a trip over on the berry ferry."

Robert stole another covert glance at Susan, as if to say that the old boy was out-smarting them every which way this morning. He decided to try another challenge.

"Do they have any interesting sexual habits, Uncle Geoffrey?"

"I think sexual habits are only interesting to the animals that practise them, don't you?" said Uncle Geoffrey. "What is more interesting about the fieldfare is its defence technique."

"Why, what does it do?"

"The fieldfare has toxic qualities in its droppings," said Uncle Geoffrey. "Quite how it knows this, I have no idea, but it does seem to know, because it actually aims to squirt its droppings in the face and the eyes of any bird or animal that is threatening its young."

The children looked up at the fieldfares in the trees above, and tried to imagine these homely looking birds firing a deadly stream of ammunition behind them. Then they looked at Uncle Geoffrey with renewed respect and tried to imagine where he had learnt this from. After a pause, he said:

"It's all in The Swedish Encyclopaedia of Wildlife, if you're interested. That's where I got it from."

Which was not true, because he had got it from a gruesome TV programme about how animals kill each other, but he was not going to tell them that. In the grim, eternal battle for survival between grown-ups and children, every point counts.

Comments