27 January 2013

Chiff Chaff On A Stick

Source of Image

Yesterday I went to a talk at Manchester Museum about Garden Birds. The purpose of this outing was not only to provide food for a new blog post but to find answers to genuine questions that buzz around my head about the birds in Garden 65. For instance, where do they go after their chicks have fledged? And why, if they have to eat their weight in food to keep alive, don’t they flock around the peanut-filled feeders hanging from my tree?

As usual though, it was the other members of the audience who caught my attention. This group was quite large for this kind of thing. There were 21 people which included a high proportion of men – 6. If you remember, my previous Manchester Museum talk was populated by silver-haired women, but this one was a mixed bag of both sexes, ages, and fashion sense. Over the course of my career as a bored housewife I’ve attended a lot of talks and workshops, usually history or art related (this foray into gardening/nature is a new fascination), and can usually rely on the assumption I would be the youngest and the only one wearing something from TopShop, but yesterday was a bit of a blow to that old picture. Can you believe it, there were women in their twenties? And there were some high end tailored coats hanging from the backs of chairs, with some skilled scarf tying techniques on view.

Which is interesting. Either my self-concept is slipping or (and I hope this is the reason) birds attract an attractive crowd. I thought bird watching was all about men with pendulous binoculars. Seems that’s not the case. I sat next to a lady of a certain vintage wearing full maquillage (is that the word?) who casually mentioned she had a partner who lived in Dunham Massey (posh rural area). I wanted to interrupt her story of blue tits in her yard and say ‘oh, well done, you’.

Perhaps I should pursue birding and see where it takes me.

Back to the talk itself: Henry, in his ‘dress down Saturday’ jumper, had a collection of bird ‘skins’. Apparently one of the methods used to seriously study birds is to lay them out straight, stuff them with cotton wool (sticking little ones like chiff chaffs on a handy stick) and tie labels to their skinny little legs. A lot of the specimens were Victorian but still looked quite fresh. One of them was stuffed in 1870. Henry kept putting out appeals for more dead birds. If we were to find one we were to put them in the freezer, email him to let him know it was being sent to him, then put it in a jiffy bag and post it via Royal Mail.

Actually it was very useful to be able to look closely at the bird’s markings and to see how small most of them are. The yellow belly of a grey wagtail is a vibrant sulphurous colour, and owls have tiny barbs on their wing edges to help keep them silent.

Overall it was an enjoyable couple of hours and I’m glad I went, but I didn’t get satisfactory, or any, answers to my questions. The format was to listen to Henry and then squeeze in some questions before he left. I would like to have been able to talk to him one to one.

Wouldn’t it be good to talk personally to an expert about anything you wanted to know about, be it the Libor rate or how can 2 in 1 conditioning shampoos work? That could be a new business: rent an expert for an hour. You could meet in a cafe, pay them a tenner, buy them a coffee with a free choice of pastries, and then ask them lots and lots of questions. I’d love that.  What kind of expert would you want to interrogate?