Thursday, 15 December 2011

Baby, it's cold outside. Probably.

   Below, nestled amongst my collection of elephants and cowboys, can be seen my collection of Galilean thermoscopes. Everybody gotta collect sumptin'.

   Explanations of how these thermometers function can be found on line. I have read several articles that describe the process very clearly, but I still don't understand it. I especially don't understand how mine work as each of them registers a different temperature, a disparity that can be explained in various ways: Galileo was wrong, there are extraordinarily local variations in the temperature of my living room or I was sold a load of old tat.


Thursday, 8 December 2011

Low on High

In my previous post I mentioned how, for my seventh birthday, I received a pair of Greenfinches.

   At seven I felt I knew all about Greenfinches, I knew their diet, how to sex them (“the female is more dowdy than the male”), the size of their clutch and the incubation period of the eggs therein. This information was gleaned from copies of “Cage and Aviary Birds” a hobbyist newspaper that, as a result of my birthday present, my father could now bring home as a matter of course rather than as an occasional and guilty luxury. I would pore over each word of every article paying particular attention to the price lists placed by dealers who advertised inside the back cover. The motivation for scrutinising the price lists was to see how cheaply I could create in my imagination the most comprehensive collection of birds, particularly parrots. The exoticism and rarity of parrots were reflected in their price – even in the 1960s it was a month's wages for a Hyacinth macaw, despite these beautiful birds being less rare then than now. There were no restrictions on the importation of birds at the time, it was never reported how most died in transit, at least not in “Cage and Aviary Birds”. It never crossed my mind that for the vast majority of exotic birds their being for sale was to the detriment of their wild populations. For a boy of seven all that is beyond immediate experience is immutable.

   There was an anomaly in my closed world of birds, and that was the presence of Rosemary Low, a journalist who wrote in “Cage and Aviary Birds”. My avian world, save for Ms Low, was uniformly masculine; men ran the pet shops and the dealerships where we bought the birds, I saw only men at the bird shows I was taken to, and of course, towering over all, was the very male figure of my father. I found Rosemary Low intriguing, a parrot enthusiast who kept, it seemed to me, every parrot species that existed. Week after week she would churn out lucid, authoritative articles usually accompanied by a black and white photograph of yet another successful brood of wobbly, fledgling parrots that had appeared in one of her innumerable nest boxes. I know the articles were lucid and authoritative because I still have a scrapbook of her clippings. I recently looked up her name on the Internet and was heartened to see that Rosemary Low is still writing and is now universally acknowledged as a world expert on all matters psittacine.

   I have since bought one of the twenty or so books Ms Low has written on parrots. It seems inevitable that, like the Holy Ghost in Flaubert's Un coeur simple, she will one day in the distant future assume the form of a gigantic parrot and ascend, screeching, heavenwards.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Putting the male parent first

   My father, in common with many working men in the England of my youth, kept birds as a hobby. Next to our garden shed, which would come to serve as a hide, he erected an aviary for a trio of fantail doves he had bought in a local pet shop. He built the structure of the 'flight', as we called it, with scrap wood he carried home from the factory. My father would later move from doves to canaries and other finches, a shift marked by his gift to me, for my seventh birthday, of a pair of Greenfinches (Carduelis chloris). Money was tight and it would be easy to see my dad as having used my birthday as an excuse to buy the birds for himself, but I clearly remember my febrile anticipation of their arrival. It is irrelevant that my reaction was the result of conditioning; what my father really gave me was enthusiasm.  

   Cousins of mine took an interest in this pastime, young men without academic qualifications who would go on to have aviaries of their own. They gradually accrued a deep understanding of genetics as a knowledge of bloodlines is essential in developing (as they did) healthy colour variants from limited gene pools. It's clear that these acolytes were heavily influenced by the calm of our little wooden haven and the knowledgeable, taciturn man who oversaw it. All problems of work and family were forgotten as they sat in quiet contemplation listening to the soft chirrupings that surrounded them - the only distraction the rustles emanating from the corner where a boy sat on a tea chest poring over his precious copy of “Cage and Aviary Birds”.

   Occasionally we created hybrids. A pair of finches of different species could be induced to breed if they were kept in isolation. Some of these hybrids were mules, a 'mule' being a cross between a canary and another species of finch. Birds bred this way were not only sterile but also at a social disadvantage; I remember a Goldfinch mule whose ethereal song enchanted human ears, but whose mongrel melodies bewildered the hens for whom he sang. My favourite was a Siskin-Greenfinch cross whose plumage was so harmonious it made the bird appear to be a genuine species, unlike the Goldfinch-Bullfinch that, to me, looked strangely cobbled together. An aviculturist such as my father would have noted that I wrote 'Goldfinch-bullfinch' and not 'Bullfinch-goldfinch' as male Bullfinches cannot be induced to mate with any other species and when describing a hybrid it is traditional to put the male parent first.