John Lichfield: Our Man in Paris

Parisian wildlife thrives on baguettes while Chirac shuns haggis for boiled calf's head
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The Independent Online

Our villainous, downstairs neighbour, for instance, specialises in doing the washing-up, with the kitchen window open, at midnight.

Florence at least sings beautifully, even if it is always the same short, mellow, happy tune. I assumed, because she sings late at night - sometimes after 11pm - that she must be a nightingale. Hence her name.

If a nightingale can sing in Berkley Square, a rossignol (French for nightingale) can presumably sing in the 17th arrondissement. (In fact, only male nightingales sing, so Florence should be Florent or Florian.)

I contacted the Centre Ornithologique Ile-de-France (Corif). They sent me to see one of the great experts on the bird life of Paris.

It turned out that Guilhem Lesaffre lives only a few streets away from me. He is a teacher of French but also an internationally renowned writer on birds. His book on migration - Taking Flight (Hachette-Illustrated, £25) - was named one of the four best bird books published in Britain last year.

M. Lesaffre is the author of the only guidebook to wild birds in the French capital, the Guide des Oiseaux de Paris (Parigramme, €12.20). He has recently been involved in a series of exhibitions - and bird-watching expeditions - organised by Corif to introduce Parisians to the unsuspected natural wealth passing over their heads.

"There are 40 to 50 species of birds nesting in Paris and more than 200 species regularly seen within the capital, not including the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes," he said. "Considering how small and densely occupied Paris is, this is enormous."

There are kestrels nesting in Notre Dame cathedral, in the Eiffel Tower and in the Arc de Triomphe. There are swifts and house martens and black-birds nesting under many roofs and balconies. There are dozens of colonies of black redstarts, a bird which loves cliffs and ruins but finds that chinks in old Paris apartment blocks will do just as well.

In the parks and gardens - and above all cemeteries - of Paris, there are robins and black caps and green woodpeckers and serins (a small green-yellow bird which does not live in Britain).

Père Lachaise cemetery - last resting place of Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and others - is a "real bird sanctuary", according to M. Lesaffre. It has, among other things, spotted flycatchers and little woodpeckers.

And of course there are sparrows. Everywhere you go in Paris, there are still hundreds and hundreds of sparrows (moineaux). It was precisely a visit to Paris which led The Independent's environment correspondent, Mike McCarthy, to ask eight years ago: "what has happened to all the sparrows in London?"

Their disappearance remains something of a mystery. Why do they still flourish in Paris, I asked M. Lesaffre. "I have a theory," he said. "Bread shops. Paris has hundreds of bread shops. At my local boulangerie in the morning, you see rows of sparrows, waiting for people to come out and bite a lump from their baguette and let crumbs fall to the ground."

The number of different bird species in Paris seems to be stable, M. Lesaffre said, but the population of birds is increasing. "I suspect that there is more food for them now," he said. "The fashion for window boxes attracts insects. Although there is pollution in Paris, there is not thick smoke like there used to be. That also means more insects."

And what about my rossignol? Nightingales have occasionally been seen in central Paris, M. Lesaffre said. They never stay for long.

He played me a couple of birdsong tapes. As he suspected, my nightingale was really a merle or blackbird. "Birds that live in the city react to the light and warmth around them. They start to sing earlier in the morning and go on later at night," he said.

So there you have it. Florence or Florent is an insomniac, streetwise blackbird - probably a male blackbird. He just thinks that he is a rossignol.

Can't take a joke

Good luck to the London Olympics ... All the same, the aggressive, and misleading, campaign against Paris run by parts of the British press deserved to be punished, not rewarded. As the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, said, the amended notion of "le Breetish fair play" is to trip up your opponent.

It was also interesting to see the frothing indignation which greeted President Jacques Chirac's jocular suggestion that British grub (a telling word) may not be the finest in the world.

Some of our newspapers constantly insult the French. If you object to this relentless, and mostly wilfully ignorant, campaign of denigration, you are told: "It's only a bit of fun. It's our British sense of humour."

Chirac's would-be funny comments about British food were not treated with the same giggling indulgence. How strange. Seen from this side of the Channel, it seems as if we have become a nation of humourless bullies.

A delicacy too far

That being said ... How dare M. Chirac insult the noble haggis. It is well known that his favourite dish is Tête de Veau (calf's head), which, in terms of food squeamishness, puts haggis in the same category as spaghetti hoops.

Tête de Veau - which even many non-squeamish French people regard as going too far - is just what it says it is. A calf's head is boiled in tripe and served, hot or cold, sometimes still retaining its skin, sometimes chopped up and mixed with tongue and brains.

The President likes to eat it washed down by Mexican beer. Give me a pint of heavy and a haggis any day.