Friday, 29 March 2013

Unintellyjent, indyjestible distortion

Last winter, when I wanted to stock up on the Niger seeds that attract Goldfinches and occasional Lesser Redpolls to my bird feeders, I made a point of buying them from a market stall that labelled them as such rather than from a large store that offers “nyjer” seeds. This crass distortion of the word is both unintellyjent and indyjestible, and I personally shall stick intransyjently to the original spelling. 

Niger seeds are so named because they come from a plant that has been widely cultivated along Africa’s Niger river as an oilseed crop. We are oblyjed to the US bird seed industry for the bastardised spelling. Allegedly to clarify pronunciation, the change reflects squeamishness about Niger’s similarity to “nigger” — even though the river’s name seems to be derived from the oryjinal Arabic Ni-Ghir rather than from the Latin for black. 

Confusion may have occurred because the tiny Niger seeds are themselves black. They are the fruits of Guizotia abyssinica (Asteraceae), an annual herb related to the sunflower. It is indyjenous to the Ethiopian highlands but now cultivated elsewhere, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. In many places, it is an important oilseed crop. Its seeds typically contain about 40 per cent oil, with a fatty acid composition mainly of linoleic acid.

In its native Ethiopia, Niger seed supplies 50 per cent of all cooking oil. It is also used in soap and paint manufacture, as an illuminant in oil lamps and as a lubricant. The protein-rich meal that remains after oil extraction is widely employed as an animal feedstuff, a fertiliser and a fuel.  

Niger seeds have also been used in traditional medicine by the aboryjinal peoples of Nigeria (Nyjeria?) and the Republic of Niger (Nyjer?). The oil is applied to treat rheumatism and burns, and a paste of the seeds is used as a poultice to treat scabies. 

Niger seeds imported into Britain as bird food are now dilyjently heat-sterilised to stop them germinating. However, earlier neglyjence means that Guizotia abyssinica can be found growing bellyjerently across some tracts of southern England. 

Thursday, 28 March 2013

A pharmacist with a lot to answer for

The Common Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, is found naturally across Europe and western Asia. It is abundant in the UK in winter, when dense flocks of visitors from the east can sometimes be seen at dusk wheeling across the ashen skies before settling down to roost. 

As a pharmacist, I wish to apologise for the actions of a fellow pharmacist 120 years ago. It is thanks to the efforts of this eccentric and misguided New Yorker that the starling is now also to be found coast to coast across North America, as far south as northern Mexico and as far north as sub-Arctic Canada and Alaska. 

The starling’s New World population is now estimated at more than 200 million. In the US, it is generally reviled and is officially branded as a serious pest. It is accused of damaging crops and harming native bird populations by aggressively competing for nest cavities.   

The pharmacist who must take the blame for all this is Eugene Schieffelin (1827–1906). He was a leading light in the American Acclimatization Society, which was founded in 1871 by a group of wealthy New Yorkers who had been trying to introduce European flora and fauna into North America for economic and cultural reasons. The society wanted to establish European birds that were “useful to the farmer and contributed to the beauty of the groves and fields”. These species included the Skylark, Starling, Blackbird, European Robin, House Sparrow and Chaffinch, all of which were released into the city’s Central Park with the approval of the park commissioners. Apart from the House Sparrow — now also found throughout North America — none thrived, even the Starling.

But Schieffelin, the society’s chairman and driving force, was determined to try again and in 1890–91 he released another few dozen Starlings into Central Park. From these few are descended today’s many millions.

Some say that Schieffelin, a Shakespeare enthusiast, wanted New Yorkers to experience every wild bird mentioned in the Bard’s plays. But there is no convincing evidence for this, and apart from the Starling, which the playwright mentioned only in Henry IV, Part 1, he would have had to introduce nearly 50 species, including even the Ostrich.

Colourful winter visitor

The Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) is a plump, colourful, starling-sized bird that breeds in the coniferous woodlands of northern Scandinavia. In most winters a few migrate to the east coast of Scotland and northern England but occasionally they arrive in huge numbers and spread out across the country. In 2011-12 and 2012-13 Britain saw two of its biggest ever Waxwing irruptions.

You do not have to be a birder to get excited when Waxwings turn up in your garden. They quickly attract attention with their distinctive sandy-pink plumage, a large punkish crest, a black bib, yellow tips to the tail feathers and white markings in the wings. 

Their name derives from the bright red tips to the secondary flight feathers. These resemble a splash of the red sealing wax that ancient pharmacists (like me) will remember using to seal the white demy paper in which they once wrapped prescription medicines.

In winter Waxwings feed mainly on berries. They are fond of rowan and hawthorn but are also partial to cotoneaster and other garden shrubs. They are often seen in tight flocks that spend much of their time calling loudly from the tops of tall trees but then suddenly drop into a bush full of berries. After feeding frantically for a few minutes, sometimes completely stripping the bush, they return to their treetop vantage points. In January 2012, near my London home, I watched a flock of about 250 feeding in this way — until an urban Sparrowhawk swooped in and scattered them. 

Although they have a nervous manner, Waxwings can be remarkably approachable. They will usually let you sidle up to within a few feet of them before they fly. With patience, you may even be able to tempt them to feed from your hand.

In Britain, Waxwings have a reputation for frequenting supermarket car parks, feeding from the berry-bearing trees that are often planted in such places. I suspect that our commoner berry-eating birds, being more timid, are deterred by the dawn-to-dusk presence of shoppers and so leave the fruit on the bushes for the bolder visitors from the north. 

Mystery of the toxic quail

Common Quail (by Callie Jones)
Some 3,500 years ago, according to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt into the wilderness. When they became hungry and demanded flesh to eat, God sent a wind that deposited quails for miles round their encampment. But when they gathered and ate the quails, “the Lord smote the people with a very great plague” (Numbers 11:31–33).

Later, ancient Greek and Roman writers also described sickness after consuming quails, and severe illness still occasionally afflicts quail-eaters — sometimes killing elderly victims. 

The sickness, known as coturnism, is caused by a toxin in the fat and flesh of the wild European Quail, or Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix. The toxin causes rapid breakdown of skeletal muscle (rhabdomyolysis), leading to muscular weakness and producing breakdown products that damage the kidneys and may lead to acute renal failure. Other symptoms include vomiting, respiratory distress, excruciating pain and paralysis. Sufferers who recover may take 10 days to get over the symptoms. 

The whys and wherefores of coturnism are a mystery. Although there are various other species of quail, only C coturnix has been implicated in the syndrome. And the toxicity occurs only during certain stages of migration and by no means in every bird. 

European Quails are tiny game birds that feed on seeds and insects. They spend the summer in Europe and the winter in sub-Saharan Africa. They follow two main migratory routes, with some crossing the Mediterranean at its eastern end and others at its western end. Toxicity in birds using the eastern flyway occurs only when they migrate south in autumn, while in those using the western flyway it occurs only during the northerly movement in spring.

It has been suggested that coturnism is caused by alkaloids (coniines) in the flesh of birds that have fed on the seeds of hemlock, Conium maculatum. But hemlock cannot be responsible for all cases because it is not in seed in spring when western flyway birds are toxic. The quails must therefore derive their poison from other food sources. 

Another plant named as a suspect is the annual yellow-woundwort, Stachys annua, which sets seed in the various parts of its range at the same time as the quails become toxic. Its seeds have been found in the digestive tracts of quails that have caused coturnism, but investigators have as yet failed to identify any toxins in the seeds. 

Definitive research is needed before the mystery of coturnism can be fully explained.

A nightingale sang . . .

The Nightingale is famous for its song, but I suspect that few Brits have knowingly heard one singing. The bird is a scarce summer visitor to southern England, where it usually keeps to dense woodland well away from human habitation. Since the males sing only for a few weeks, and mainly during unsociable hours, they are not often heard.

Contrary to popular belief, Nightingales do not sing only at night and they do not always skulk out of sight. From mid-April until early June, after which they are too busy feeding their young, male Nightingales will usually sing most mornings, sometimes out in the open on the top of a bush.

The Nightingale’s astonishingly varied song consists of a succession of rich whistles, trills and gurgles that no other British species can match. The song is so multifarious that a bird can sing for two hours before it begins to repeat any phrase.

Any attempt to transliterate the song has to be inadequate, but one of the best attempts was made in 1832 by the poet John Clare, who heard one singing outside his window. He transcribed the song as: “Chew chew chee chew chee / chew — cheer cheer cheer / chew chew chew chee / up cheer up cheer up / tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug / wew wew wew — chur chur / woo it woo it tweet tweet / tweet jug jug jug”.

I have been privileged to listen to a Nightingale singing its little heart out in suburban London — in a public open space only some six miles from Berkeley Square and about the same distance from anywhere you might be tempted to describe as rural.

The bird arrived in April 2007. Although its song had to compete with the noise of the traffic on one of London’s busiest roads, it managed to attract a mate and the pair nested in a tangle of brambles close to a picnic table and just yards from the park’s main footpath, which forms part of the Capital Ring walking route encircling inner London.

To protect the birds from unwarranted disturbance, the local birding group made a decision not to broadcast the news. Those in the know avoided loitering near the nest site so as not to draw attention to the birds.

To the delight of this privileged in-crowd, the birds reappeared in 2008 to raise another family. But sadly they failed to return in 2009.

Incidentally, the song “A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”, published in 1940, is not based on a genuine occurrence of the species in central London. Indeed, it was written in a fishing village on France’s Medi­terranean coast. Any bird heard singing at night in Berkeley Square is likely to be a Robin — a species that can often be heard throughout the night in London’s well-lit streets.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Why Countryfile needs a bird expert

I enjoyed the recent BBC Two five-part series on The Great British Winter (4-8 March 2013), made by the Countryfile team. But I was puzzled by a couple of clips of feeding geese in the fourth episode, which concentrated on estuaries and was mainly filmed around Morecambe Bay. 

While the presenter (Ellie Harrison) was visiting the cabin home of a driftwood artist somewhere on the edge of the bay, the cameras showed the view of the seashore from his balcony and then cut to a close-up of two feeding geese, without any mention of them in the commentary. Later the presenter visited Leighton Moss nature reserve, 4km inland from the bay, where she sat in a hide with a local expert who pointed out waterfowl such as Teal and Wigeon. During this sequence the cameras again cut to the same two geese, clearly in exactly the same place as before, and again without any mention.

So the programme implied that the same two geese were seen in two different locations. And on both occasions it failed to identify them. This might have been forgivable if the geese had been common birds, but they were in fact Emperor Geese and representatives of a near-threatened species. 

The Emperor Goose breeds in the coastal salt marshes of Alaska and Siberia and winters around the northern Pacific Ocean. Its global population is less than 75,000. No Emperor Goose has ever been known to reach Europe unaided, and sightings of escapes from collections are virtually unknown in Britain — apart from a small breeding flock of about a dozen birds that has in recent years frequented the bleak shores of Walney Island, on the north-western edge of Morecambe Bay. The geese that were shown twice during the Countryfile estuaries episode are presumably from this flock. Information about them would have improved the programme.
This is not the first occasion on which Countryfile's programme-makers have included footage of a rare bird without realising that it was worthy of comment. On more than one occasion I have seen rare birds misidentified — notably a White-tailed Eagle described as a Golden Eagle and a feature on the Common Tern that included a film clip of Arctic Tern. The Countryfile team clearly needs the assistance of an expert birder.