A Canary Conversation


We got talking about canaries the other night, Husband and me.

We have recently found out that Norwich was once the capital of canary breeding in England.  Maybe that explains the nickname for the local football team, more than just the colour of their strip.

Husband, however, was telling me that canaries aren’t really yellow after all.  I know, I was having visions of several pillars of my childhood and culture disappearing down the pans marked ‘myth’ and ‘lie’ faster than you can say goldfish.  Well, don’t worry, canaries are yellow but they’re just not meant to be.  Apparently, it’s a genetic mutation that one breeder made rather popular.

So what colour are real canaries then?  I want to know.

And where do canaries come from?  The Canary Islands?!  (I know the canary wine, an old-fashioned brew that I have never met in modern life came from there; they used to pay the poet laureate with it).

I know little about the birds that people keep as pets.

I thought I had canaries, at least, sussed.

Apparently not.

And if canaries come from the Canaries then all I could suppose was that budgies come from a car hire place.  Husband was not amused.

(I believe budgies are the blue ones with the stripes.  I await this theory being destroyed also …)

Apparently, it isn’t that wild canaries (wherever they do hail from) aren’t ever yellow but this colour makes them too vulnerable to predation so they don’t survive.

I discerned a flaw.

What about parrots?

Parrots?  Husband wasn’t quite sure what path my brand of logic was leading me down.  (I don’t blame him).

Parrots are bright colours.  How come they don’t get predated?  Or is it just because they live in Brazil where everything is bright coloured?

Sexual selection.  Came Husband’s sage reply.

I spent a moment trying to work out what sexual selection had to do with predation rates.  I failed.

They’re bright colours to help them attract a mate.


So we’re saying that bright yellow canaries aren’t sexually attractive to other canaries?

I was indignant on behalf of the thousands, if not millions, of yellow canaries that live in this country, if not their natural habitat.

Husband decided that he was rapidly coming to the end of his scientific knowledge about canaries.

Anyway, why do parakeets live in Australia when parrots live in Brazil?

The wordsmith in me has always wanted to know; the words sound related but are they?

And what’s the difference between cockatoos and cockatiels?  I know one is white with a fancy hair do but I can never remember which.

Husband retreated inwards to his own musings.

I was left digesting my newly acquired knowledge.

And what about Canary Wharf?

He looked up.

Canary Wharf.  You know, Canary Wharf.

It was possible that he did.

Is that where canaries used to be disembarked or something?

Neither of us knew.

Then we hit upon a major discovery:

The Klingon security officer in Star Trek wears a yellow uniform.

Why is this?

Because he’s a Canary Worf.


Water Babies


St Ives Harbour

What is it with the sea?

We sat watching the sea-green waves roll in, continuously  never-ending, entranced. The waves were high but not fierce, despite the windy day; perhaps the curve of the bay broke some of their force because it was likely choppy further out. The waves at our local beaches behave very differently, the coast is more exposed and the shingle and stone beaches are long, almost continuous  mile after mile, so they are not moulded by high-rising rocky cliffs and slopes; however there is a mighty shelf not too far out which seems to temper their height and which makes swimmers and other water babies cautious.

Occasionally as we sat there watching, mesmerised, our eyes were drawn to the rocky side of the bay closest to us and of which we had the best view. Towers of surf and spray crashed onto the rocks but it wasn’t the fear-inspiring crash of a storm. This evening the sea was playful and sunbeams danced on the water.

And they weren’t the only ones enjoying the water; there were other water babies too, human ones. We sat and watched those too. I confess that I was rather bemused by their antics, for as much as I loved to swim, I cannot see the attraction of becoming a human seal in rubber armoury on what was a pretty cold day for the time of year. Heads and feet were left painfully exposed and they seemed to be spending most of their time plunging head-first under the waves as each one rolled in, which to my mind wasn’t quite the point of surfing. I understood surfing to involve surfing, riding each incoming wave triumphantly. There is a kind of attractive glory to that but watching them plunge under to lessen the break upon them made me uncomfortable, reminding me of all the vulnerability and risk that water poses to us.

A little later, we moved on to a sheltered harbour. Relatively sheltered, that is, because the waves, although tempered by the harbour wall and the natural shape of the opposite cliffs, were causing the small boats anchored there to rock, not bob, with each roll. A rock that at times was more of a lurch and once again, I was reminded of man’s vulnerability and found myself, yet again, wondering at those for whom the sea has always bewitchingly called.

Water is the story of human civilisation, great cities and cultures have risen and fallen with the availability of water. Or, perhaps ironically, the over-inundation of water. Humans depend on water for everything: to drink, to give them food to eat, to water the animals they tame and use, to give them building materials, to give them opportunities to trade.

As I watched the small dinghies rock in that sheltered harbour, I thought of how peoples, not so long ago really, went to sea in vessels not much bigger or much more secure. Great trading networks were founded by the determination of people in small, vulnerable vessels; great discoveries and voyages of exploration were undertaken by the determination of people in small, vulnerable vessels. And I wonder why. Being in a boat, even on a proverbial millpond, holds little attraction to me. I see the vulnerability and the risk. I fear water.

But so many don’t. I have great respect for those who chose to go to sea even as I baffle at their choice. We still depend on those who go to sea; those who transport the goods that feed our insatiable hunger for material things; those who transport the actual food for our actual hunger; those who catch the food. Presumably the sea calls to them, it sings a song of enchantment in their genes, it lures them. And lures never end well. The sea is to be respected.

But feared? Perhaps. Because as I watched those gentle harbour waves, I realised too how unstoppable, how uncontrollable those waves were. And that is what I fear; to me water is a powerful force, one that can never be dominated or mastered by mere humans, however experienced or knowledgeable. We are nothing against its strength, we can be swept along by it just like the tumbling weed or the churning sand. And however mighty or impressive the civilisations that we keep on building, it can all be swept away by one wave, like a sandcastle built too far down the shore.

I am not a water baby; I keep my distance, admiring the beauty and charm of a simple, single wave but still deeply conscious of who is more powerful.

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A Song


Being a Bird Parent - Blue Tit Baby on Head

There is a certain song that I recognise, the faint piercing notes can be quite a distance away but my ear always picks it up.  But it’s not just my ears, it’s a song that will always speak to my heart.  I try to whistle a few notes back, despite the fact that I have never been able to whistle.  I whistle whilst standing in the street, even in middle class neighbourhoods.  It embarrasses my husband.  But then I catch him whistling the same notes too.  (He can at least whistle though).

They say that a smell, a taste, a noise can transport you immediately into the past.  I know that this song will always be in my heart and whenever I hear it in the future, it will take me back to this summer gone and to a little bird called Manky.

Manky-bird has a very definite hold in our hearts.  It is his song and the song of his kinsmen that we hear, sharp notes echoing through the trees.  Even when we are on the other side of town, we pause and listen, sometimes whistle back.  It’s not likely to be one of our babies that far away but we are captivated all the same, watching for the slightest movement.

But the truth is that we probably will never know how Manky-bird has fared.  Hopefully, she is still faring.  I ask my husband if the blue tit we’ve just spotted has painted toes and we both laugh and stare hard, squinting, trying to focus on fast-moving, tiny legs, whilst knowing that nail varnish does not last forever.   Maybe we should have used a better brand?  Long gone, the tell-tale painted legs, worn or weathered or scratched.

Often I feel guilty, I find it hard to believe that we did enough to give them the best chance in the world, I feel that somehow we should have or could have done more.  It breaks my heart.  Especially when I think of our losses.

But then husband reminds me that from the moment we intervened, they survived a little longer than they would have done anyway.   And I guess we can only do our best.  And do our best for at that time only.  Hindsight always has sharper vision but we were first time parents and all we could do was our best.

(It’s so nerve-wracking for human parents when their offspring learn to drive and get their first wheels, I wonder if bird parents are distressed when their fragile little chick takes to the air for the first time?)

(And isn’t it funny how I still say he for Manky?  She was a little girl, just slower to develop so we couldn’t be sure, but she never sprouted the little funky hairdo of the males).

There is a male blue tit who struts on the telephone wire at the front of the house.  We really need to seal off the holes because we really can’t cope with another birdy summer!  We watch him too.  I think it could be the daddy blue tit from the spring, he’s got quite a pronounced quiff going on.  We watch him from the kitchen window, sometimes the spare bedroom window.  Watching, wondering, hoping that he hasn’t taken up residence again.  He is usually silent but we spot him anyway.  I know that one of the neighbours has been throwing bread on the front grass so maybe that’s why he’s visiting so close to the house.

There is a small flock of birds flying around the back gardens at the moment, some sparrows, some bob-tails (I think most people call them wagtails), some blue tits …  I know.  We stand out on the balcony whistling like nutters.  I just have to hear one note and my heart, I don’t know, soars?  But faint tears come to the corners of my eyes too.  It’s a bittersweet song.  Because we will never know.

A week or so ago, a blue tit actually came to our bird feeder in the garden.  We watched.  (We can spot a blue tit now at quite a distance, trust me).  A little, sprightly thing, perched nearly upside-down by the hole of the seed feeder.  We watched.  It pulled out the seeds, spat the ones that it clearly did not approve of onto the ground and ate the ones which took its fancy.  We looked at each other and wondered.  Wild birds don’t tend to be fussy or picky, you know?  So we grabbed a tripod and camera and set it up for the perfect shot, closeup, just in case there was any paint on the legs, you know.  But it didn’t come a-visiting again.  At least not that we noticed.  And even sentimental me has to draw a line at sitting in the window for twelve hours at a time.  Life gets in the way.  I am not a bird watcher, it seems.

But we’re still wondering.

Manky has a Strong Grip

Wordless Manky


Manky is probably the most photographed blue tit in the world, ever.  But hey, at least he/she/it’s cute!

(I’m experimenting with a new (to me, at the very least!) feature.  You can click on a photo to view it in a ‘carousel’ where you should be able to comment and ‘like’ each photo individually.  Well, that’s the idea anyhow.  Feedback welcome!)

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Release has obviously always been the plan.  I may sound like a bad bird-parent but release would mean having my sitting room back, a clean sitting room where I would be able to sit and knit or work on the computer without dodging poop and being pecked at (and that would also mean that you would get to see more photos).  Release from the constant focus and commitment of being a bird-parent.  I have a lot of respect for you child-parents who are signed up for at least eighteen years of this.  (Although, hopefully your babies will master the art of bowel control one day).


Release is about letting go, the moving on from a particular episode.  Do you know what?  I don’t think that there will be release after all.  Manky will always be with us, in our hearts and in our memories.  And I am not the kind of parent who doesn’t worry.  I worry.  A lot.

Even when (and it’s looking more like a when rather than an if) Manky goes, I will worry for her (or he/it).  I’m that kind of person.  It’s why release is not an overly joyous occasion.  It might be the mark of success that she goes free but what happens after that?  Survival is a different matter.  And not an easy one.  And this Manky-bird of ours has a track record.  It’s not a good one.  (I’ll tell you about some of her hairy escapades another day but you all already know that she’s something of a miraculous survivor anyway).  No, release is bittersweet.

I suppose it’s an issue for all parents, whether of children or of birds.  How long can you protect them for?  How long do you keep intervening to keep them safe?  When Manky goes free, she could be caught by a cat within an hour.  It isn’t a pleasant thought but it’s a reality.  (Husband says it isn’t nature because cats aren’t natural, especially not the ones round here).  Have we failed her if that happens?

But is it fair to keep a wee wild blue tit in a sitting room for the rest of her life?  Is that fair or natural?  (To any of us).  No, there comes a time when even Manky-birds must face the world alone, to take their chances.  However hard or harsh that may be.

We turned our balcony into an aviary last week with plastic mesh that’s usually used over plants to keep birds out.  We also plugged up the hole to the drain pipe.  (It’s best not to give Manky too many chances).  It took two days to tempt and tease her out, we’d get her on to a shoulder, a hand or a head and slowly shuffle out of the door.  We’d shuffle out with her on us but then she’d realise what the game was and dart back inside to safety, clinging to the curtain and looking out with big eyes at the world beyond.  You would have thought that there was a force field in place where that door used to be.  She’d fly towards the door of her own accord then ping back off the empty space.  Crazy bird.

It’s obviously not curiosity that’s killing this bird.

But she got there, starting with swift darts out then back in to the safety of her sitting room then spending more and more time out there, investigating the tomato plants and peeling mastic off the window trims which are waiting to go back up.  There’s a lot of things out there for a Manky-bird to peck.

Yesterday she was out and could hear the neighbours below talking so she started chatting to them like she does us then got frightfully indignant when they didn’t answer her.  She also likes to sunbathe in a hanging flower-pot, wings spread out, belly in the dirt, soaking up the sun.

Her confidence has grown.  We sometimes don’t shut the (inside) sitting room door fully because we know she likes to hear us and has never tried to get through the gap into the hall.  (She’ll sit on the fish tank, staring through the gap and will us to come to her but no more).  The other day husband was sitting in the bedroom (well, we have been relegated from the sitting room) when this bird suddenly darted through the door!  He had a hard time persuading her to go back out the window on to the balcony.  She wouldn’t let him catch her either (which kind of bodes well).  This morning Manky rose with the dawn (she’s always been a bit of a layabout, I was up before her the other day) and was chirruping to the seagulls.  She didn’t pay us any attention until we started getting up and having breakfast.  Then she put in her own requests.  We told her to wait, as we always do.  Before we knew quite what had happened, a little blue tit had squeezed in through the gap in the barely open windows (it’s been a real scorcher) and was scowling at us from the curtain pole.

We put her food outside yesterday too.  She still has a cube (well, actually these ones are bottle-shaped technically) of baby food daily.  Beef stroganoff, her favourite, it’s the one with the highest protein count (and that isn’t brilliantly high, an adult macaroni cheese ready meal, worryingly, has more protein in) and it isn’t chicken.  There’s something wrong about feeding chicken to a blue tit.  Very wrong.

She likes her food and water high up.  She doesn’t come down to ground anymore.  It’s all good things.

Her little feet are perfectly made for perching and climbing, she can scale brick walls quite happily and has a funny little habit of hanging upside down on the washing line.

This afternoon we took down the net.  Eventually she took a couple of flights out into the big wide world.

Manky’s free.  Manky’s fledged.

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It’s a Manky Life


I can’t believe that a month has passed since four of our blue tits fledged!  It’s been a really busy month for me too and this post has been delayed too by an invasion of gremlins in my computer which meant that I haven’t been able to process any photos to share either.  Ugh, backlog of photos.  To add to the already existing backlog of photos.  Double ugh.

We still have Manky.  Manky reigns supreme (which makes me think of the phrase ‘blue tit supreme’ and that’s not a very tasteful pun at all!) in our sitting room.  No, sorry, I lied.  His sitting room.  We are welcome at his screamed invitation to come in and sit awhile with him, talking to him and let him sit on and peck at us.  We are also expected to provide food at appropriate intervals, appropriate food.

Manky has standards when it comes to food, he is a bird of particular tastes.  He has gone off the dry mealworms now and will only eat the fresh ones.  These can only be bought from a shop on the other side of town so it’s not especially easy to acquire them.  We know that he doesn’t approve of the dry ones because he was throwing them at us in disgust.  And not eating them.  There’s not much point in giving him food that he’s only going to reject.  Besides, I don’t take kindly at having mealworms of any kind thrown at me.  (Neither did I ever think that mealworms would be such a dominant part of my life, especially not the ‘fresh’ variety but Manky is definitely the top of this pack and we, his humble servants, acquiesce to his every demand).  He stills loves melon and baby food.  I worry because if and when we get to release then I’m not sure what he’s going to eat.  Neither melon nor baby food are readily available to wild birds, for some reason, and this does mean he’s going to face quite a deficit in his diet.  Fortunately things like mealworms do exist in the Real Bird World and he does pick them out of the tub himself before flying off with them.  I’ve been trying to get him to eat bird food, you know a seed mix, but you’d have thought that I was trying to poison him.  I even went to trouble of finding a baby bite food (tiny pieces instead of whole pieces) but he didn’t eat that either.  I tried sneaking a little bit of it into his baby food.  Oh dear, that didn’t go down well!  So no bird food yet.

(He’s sat on the top of my screen watching me write this post at the moment, he leans to inspect it every few seconds and if I put the mouse to the top of the screen then he’ll quite happily chase it.  Are blue tits meant to chase mice?!)

He loves mud baths (we have a really large pot plant/tree thing in one corner and for some reason all the water sat on the surface rather than sinking through the soil the last time we watered it).  He makes quite a mess.  Talking of mess, birds cannot physically control their um, poop muscles and therefore will never be house trainable.  I know this.  There is an awful lot of evidence to prove this fact too.  So gross.  If he was trainable then you can be sure that I’d have certain expectations.  As it is, visions of little bird nappies keep popping into my head.  But apparently freedom to express ‘normal’ behaviour is one of the welfare standards and that includes for pooping.  Bless his cotton socks.  He pecks at everything.  He’s got quite a fierce peck on him, you don’t expect it of a bird that size.  We found out that he like fruit loops (that neon coloured American breakfast cereal) when I caught him pecking at a friend’s child’s precious artwork.  Half of them were gone!  Our relationship dimmed for a while and the artwork went safely into a cupboard.  Then I found out the damage that he’s done to my dictionary.  Fortunately he had already gone to bed and as his bedtime is sacrosanct (dim the lights, turn down the speakers, whisper), he and I didn’t meet until the next morning when my mood was under appropriate control.  I love that birdy, I promise you that, but there are limits.  I would say that he was leaving a blue tit sized trail of destruction but you might underestimate the damage an 11g bird can do (he can balance on a greeting card).  Let’s go with blue tit scaled trail of destruction.  Well, at least the fruit loop episode proved that he’s discovering new food sources for himself.  And he’s found a new water source too, the filters on the back of the fish tank.  Fortunately there are no fish in there at the moment because I’d have hairy feelings about that.

(He’s now trying to ‘help’ me type, this mainly involves pecking.  Chasing the hands is such a good game!  Even his toenails are as sharp as needles).

His flying has got really confident now, he can swoop and turn mid-flight rather than just plunge from A to B.  This is a good sign of progress but he’s already losing his baby feathers, so tiny!  I worry about him moulting because I’m sure he could do with all the feather he can get!  But the adult colouring is coming through quite clearly now, much more vibrant, especially that blue.

Talking of colour raises an issue that we’re facing at the moment: gender.  We have quite happily used the male for our birds, it’s just easier.  As his feathers develop, Manky doesn’t seem to be male.  He doesn’t have the well-defined top-knot that they seem to develop quite early (Sneaky and Rocky both had it) and the adult colouring on the face definitely suggests female.  So he might be a she.  Which means we’re now rather confused about how to call the bird.  I’ve settled for an intriguing combination of he/she/it.  But Manky doesn’t recognise the expression ‘good girl‘ so I am rather having to stick to male gender terms.  Ah well.

When we go out, we put the radio on and tune it to that highly intellectual talk station so that he has something to keep him company.  It’s often the Afternoon Play.  He has very cultured tastes.

It’s a Manky life.  He seems to be enjoying it.

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Big and Little Personalities


The other day I saw an article ‘on the news’ (we read our news online, not having a television) about how they (whoever that may be) have just proven that chimpanzees or some other primate have personalities.  Um, excuse me?!  It’s 2012 and you’ve just found that out?!  I may be a bear of very little brain but I kind of thought that was obvious.  Have you ever spent any time with an animal?  Have you ever spent any time with two animals of the same species?

I don’t know why we somehow find it comforting or reassuring or ego-pumping to declare ourselves far superior than our other planet companions.  I notice it a lot.  Animals don’t have feelings, animals can’t work things out, animals don’t have personalities.  It’s a load of tosh.  You don’t have to be an ‘animal person’ to observe that they do.

I’ve just given over a couple of weeks of my life to five baby birds.  Physically they look very similar, four of them especially.  Our little runt might have lagged behind in his development, appearance-wise too.  Within seconds of making their acquaintance, you got a feeling for their individuality.  They all had their preferences.  Birdie was food obsessed.  Rocky had always been so wary of us.  Sneaky loved to perch on the ceiling light.  Feisty loved the water.  And Manky, well Manky is Manky.

If that isn’t personality what is?

There are some species that do reproduce themselves almost by a cloning technique.  I only know of insects that do it, I may be wrong.  It’s a little hard to deduce whether an insect has personality.  They all seemed governed by an overriding military-style sense of instinct, duty and dedication.  But I wouldn’t rule it out.  I just don’t plan on getting to know any bugs particularly closely anytime soon.

There was a cockchafer on our (communal) stairs the other day.  There is a difference between a cockchafer and a cockroach, you can breathe again.  I only know it was a cockchafer because my husband declared it so, myself I identified it as ‘large, shiny, beetle-type, unusual, hm’.  And wondered why it was on my stairs.  I did say that I’m not a scientific type, didn’t I?

(I later discovered that the bug my husband was fancifully calling a cockchafer this year is the common maybug, those giant armour clad frenzied worshippers at lights at this time of year.  I had never seen one looking demure).

(That was a small, random aside.  I return to my subject now).

I found it fascinating to watch our brood (and I could dedicate an entire post to Manky’s unique personality), in fact all creatures much as I don’t declare myself to be an ‘animal person’.  It’s their antics that amuse us humans so much; we attribute easily our own emotions and personalities to them.  We see humour, mischief, cunning, and planning.  If we see it, is it real?

What do you think?