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Was Beethoven a Birdwatcher?
A Quirky Look at Birds in History and Culture
By David Turner
Summersdale Publishers Ltd Copyright © 2011 David Turner
All rights reserved.
Fatherhood – but not as we know it
Spare a sympathetic shudder for the hard-pressed male emu, the ultimate henpecked, cuckolded, devoted dad.
After the emu chicks are born, the father spends eight weeks incubating and protecting the eggs, with a fidelity that passes beyond the bounds of even his most attentive human counterpart. He hardly ever eats, drinks or even defecates, but survives by descending into a kind of stupor, letting his body temperature drop by 4°C to avoid losing liquid. Phew. Not even David Beckham, the unsurpassable New Man, can compete with that. Where is the mother, you are probably asking by this stage? The terrible truth is that she is roaming around another part of Australia looking for a new partner. Emus, like a small number of other species, are polyandrous, a scientific way of saying that it is the women who have all the fun – just like the female Red-Necked Phalarope, which enjoys Highland flings in the north of Scotland.
The modern male emu, staggering around after this two-month stint, can at least be thankful that life is not as bad as it was for his ancestors in the 1930s. Unlike them, he does not have to dodge bullets in addition to desisting from defecation. The emu is one of the few birds in history on which a country's army has ever declared war: annoyed by trampled crops, farmers persuaded the government to send an artillery squad to eradicate the emus of Western Australia.
This military escapade did not work out entirely according to plan, however, and the emus emerged victorious. These giant fowl may look bulky and unwieldy, but they proved surprisingly fleet-footed when necessity demanded. Emus can run at up to 30 mph.
They also proved unlikely masters of military tactics – adept at making strategic withdrawals in the face of overwhelming odds, only to regroup later. In World War Two, the Germans lost on the Russian front precisely because they proved unable to perfect this technique – but the emus managed it. After killing only twelve birds, the Royal Australian Artillery accepted defeat and called it a day. Nature cannot always be conquered by humanity.
But the male emu does not make life easy for himself, it must be said. While looking after the chicks he becomes extremely irritable and downright aggressive towards anyone regarded as an intruder – much like Rod Hull's Emu, the puppet famed for regular savage attacks on celebrities on television sets in the 1970s.
The emu also suffers from the same problem as other tasty birds in human society: it has attracted the attention of some characters with less than honourable intentions. While many other birds have been ignored by humans because they are bony or foul-tasting, emu meat is, by all accounts, similar to the best succulent beef (read more on the advantages of tasting disgusting in the Fulmar essay). This explains the rapid extinction of the Kangaroo Island Emu – scientifically considered a separate species from the sole surviving species, whose full name is the Spotted Emu. The eradication of the Kangaroo Island variety is blamed on Matthew Flinders, the explorer who landed his men on the island in 1802, at a time when the word 'sustainability' had not been coined, to find large hunks of fresh, flightless meat running around.
The emu's notorious inquisitiveness about humans would have done little to aid its survival on Kangaroo Island. Some bird species, like the scarce quail in Britain, are rarely seen because they are so shy, but others, like the emu, or the nightjar of England's heathland, will boldly approach humans to see what they are doing. We are not the only creatures to have an interest in the world about us that is unrelated to the simple daily struggle of finding enough food, and that is a heartening reminder that we have more in common with other animals than we sometimes think. However, just as curiosity killed the cat, it also put paid to the Kangaroo Island Emu – though not, thank goodness, to the Spotted Emu, which later learned that discretion was the better part of valour in its skirmishes with the Royal Australian Artillery.
So, all you new fathers, next time you're down the pub enjoying a guilty glass while mum is at home with baby, pray raise your pints to that paternalistic primus inter pares, the male emu.
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times
Kiwis seem the least bird-like of all birds. Imagine a kiwi without its bill, and concentrate instead on its fleecy feathers that resemble a mammal's hair and its lack of a tail. It looks more like a mole than a bird.
But the resemblance to mammals is not merely superficial – there are many similarities of physiology and lifestyle.
Most famously, kiwis can't fly. They have a great sense of smell and hearing, but a very poor sense of sight – like many mammals and most unlike birds, which can generally see better than humans. Kiwis can only spot things 2 feet in front of their rather long bills in broad daylight, though they can monitor developments 4 feet further in front of them at night, which sounds odd but makes sense when you consider they're nocturnal – like many land-based mammals. Their body temperature is 38°C, which is more like a mammal's than the average bird's 40°C or so. Kiwis also smell by probing with nostrils at the far end of their beaks, which sounds even odder but makes sense when you consider that, like many mammals, they use smell to find much of their food – their nostrils are nearer the food which they have to find.
The Brown Kiwi, the commonest member of the family, also sometimes looks after its young for long periods, like the more sophisticated mammals. In the Brown Kiwi's case, parents accompany their offspring for up to three years. This length of time is rare for birds, but makes sense for the Brown Kiwi, which produces a small number of young every year (usually just one or two). This creates both the time and the evolutionary necessity for it to help its offspring until they have become adept at the important skills of finding food and avoiding being eaten – particularly since Brown Kiwis take eighteen months to grow to full size, so are physically more vulnerable to predators for a long time. In this respect, their habits are much nearer to our own than those of most birds, which are quite ruthless about abandoning their young within a matter of months at most (read about the Golden Eagle's callous treatment of its fledglings in the Golden Eagle essay).
It is no mere chance that the kiwi's lifestyle has come to resemble that of mammals so much. After all, New Zealand, the birds' home, has no native species of walking mammal – in common with many smallish islands that were cut off before mammals inhabiting the great land masses could colonise them on foot. It has a few bats, and whales and other marine mammals, but that's all.
But it was kiwis' adaptation to a New Zealand without mammals that very nearly proved their undoing. The trouble began when the Maoris arrived from Polynesia at some point before 1300. Maoris started proving a fact often glossed over by historians of imperialism – that westerners are not the only people capable of unsustainable levels of natural destruction, although their technology makes them the most adept at it.
Much of the Maori destruction of kiwis was an accidental by-product of another form of spoliation: kiwis' preferred habitat, tropical forest, was burned down to produce farmland. But Maoris also liked catching kiwis for food, and became ingenious at doing so – playing tricks on them like lighting branches so they looked like glow-worms, which kiwis like to eat, and hunting them with dogs. The Maoris were clever predators, but the kiwis were also easy prey, since they couldn't fly away, and had not adapted to run off very fast when danger approached, or to develop a healthy sense of weary cynicism when confronted with appetising-looking glow-worm-like objects. It is often pointed out that the Maoris regard kiwis as sacred, but in cultures across the world sacred status does not necessarily mean that birds are protected. Often it just makes the birds akin to chocolate – something you eat and enjoy, and then feel slightly guilty about afterwards. The Maori habit of roasting and offering the heart of the first kiwi to be killed to the forest god Tane to placate him for taking what they saw as his bird must have come as scant consolation to them.
Maori habits had wiped out one kiwi species, the Little Spotted Kiwi, from New Zealand's North Island before the westerners came in the nineteenth century. However, the arrival of European colonists sped up the process of destruction, since they hunted kiwis and laid waste to their habitat with industrial efficiency. The decision in the early twentieth century to start protecting kiwis saved the world's three or so species (scientists can never agree on the exact number), but the birds themselves deserve credit for their surprising adaptability in the face of adverse circumstances. Forced to find new habitat because tropical forest was disappearing, they responded by moving to temperate forest, scrubland, and even commercial pine plantations. They wouldn't have been seen dead in these places a few hundred years before because they don't provide the sort of dense cover that kiwis prefer, but given that tropical forests were being burnt down, they would only have been seen dead in them if they'd remained in place.
Kiwis are also admirably persistent about breeding, like many birds. If their eggs are taken, they will lay up to four replacement clutches before giving up for the year. This has proved handy in a country where their eggs are often taken by stoats. Stoats? What on earth are they doing, fraying kiwi nerves in a country that has no native land mammals? They aren't supposed to be there but were introduced by humans to keep down the population of rabbits, who aren't supposed to be there either, but were introduced by humans too. One imagines the kiwi's rage slowly building as its eggs are nicked. But it suppresses its anger and just gets on with the job of laying more eggs. To borrow an adjective inspired by one of the kiwi's bitterest enemies, it is an admirably dogged bird.
INACCESSIBLE ISLAND RAIL
When it pays to be hard to get
It may not surprise you to learn that few people have seen the Inaccessible Island Rail.
There are two main reasons for this, and both are given away in the bird's name. Most rails are small shy birds that skulk in the undergrowth, much like Britain's Water Rail. Moreover, this particular one can only be found on Inaccessible Island. Some place names are famously inapt – like Greenland, or the storm-ridden Cape of Good Hope. But the sailor, now forgotten by history, who named the island was a good geographer. It is miles away from Tristan da Cunha, the nearest island that anyone has heard of, and that is miles away from anything else. Should you manage to reach Inaccessible Island, to make it past the beach you have to scale high cliffs in your attempt to find rather a drab-looking brown bird that does its best not to be seen by people who generally are not there anyway – not, at least, since the Stoltenhoff brothers arrived from Germany in the 1870s to attempt to make a living by catching seals and trading their meat and fur, without stopping to think about the crucial f aw in their plan that there was no one to trade with. This was a rare but instructive case where a bird's name hinted heavily at the project's commercial viability. For more than a hundred years since then, no one has tried to live there permanently.
It is a pity, though, that the rail lives in a place that is so, well, inaccessible, since it is a fascinating creature scientifically. As the smallest surviving flightless bird in the world, it is only 17 centimetres from head to rather stumpy tail, making it even more diminutive than a skylark. It is a fascinating example of island dwarfism, though the even smaller Laysan Rail of the eponymous Hawaiian island, which only became extinct within photographic memory, was little bigger than a sparrow.
Island dwarfism happens when birds that live on small islands become smaller than other birds of the same species that live on large land masses. One possibility is that resources are limited, so only the smaller individuals tend to survive. Through a process of natural selection eventually all the birds of that species on that island are small. Eventually those birds on the island evolve into a separate species that can't mate (or, more strictly speaking, can't consistently produce fertile offspring by mating) with the related birds elsewhere, even if they were let loose on the mainland. Island dwarfism has a direct opposite, island gigantism, also caused by isolation – only in this case the birds get bigger, usually because they are filling a niche left vacant by the absence of large mammals.
The topic of island dwarfism had previously been a mere scientific curiosity that we had noticed in other creatures. But it suddenly became hot news with a direct bearing on us humans in 2003 when scientists declared they had found skeletons of a species of dwarf – related to Homo sapiens but distinctly different – on the Indonesian island of Flores. The newspapers imaginatively referred to these newly found creatures as 'hobbits', after the small human-like creatures in The Lord of the Rings.
Excerpted from Was Beethoven a Birdwatcher? by David Turner. Copyright © 2011 David Turner. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
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