JUNE 2017 - A bird in the hand...

A bird in the hand…

 …is better than seven in the letterbox. This is about birds. Not the frock variety; the feathered ones. I apologise for abusing an old metaphor, but all will be revealed in due course. Birds are impressive things, and not only old buffs with Barbours and Ross binoculars appreciate their existence; some find them a most excellent sport. But Tortellini are pitiful things if not in a chicken stock, and I am very partial to certain birds, with or without the orange. Though not exactly a game bird, I’ve never heard of anyone actually bagging a feral chicken for such a purpose, but then they rest in trees, and eggs, if they lay them, are not known to bounce!

Once upon a time, not so long ago, you could find Ostrich on the menu in Tuscan restaurants. It was all very à la mode, being in ancient times a traditional course for Senators, and Roman’s in the money. As it was denied to the plebeian class, I suppose that shows some sort of social progress. It’s no good consulting that doyen of basic Italian cuisine, Pelligrino Artusi, on this matter, as his overindulgence of capers in vinegar would hardly serve for a one hundred kilo ostrich – about the weight of a burly builder. Instead, one needs to delve into the foggy, archaic world of the Roman gourmet, Apicius, to find the exotic ‘aliter in struthione elixo’ or ‘sauce for boiled ostrich’. It was definitely not the way to go. He hanged himself when he found he only had the equivalent of eighty thousand pounds in the bank, a sum too little in Imperial Rome to finance his Epicurean tastes. At least he left the reasons for his downfall in a fascinatingly egoistical cook book: ‘Apicius de re Coquinaria’, as a warning to us all. My wife, more intrepid than I, deigned to try Ostrich once, commenting that it had a passing resemblance to a chicken. I didn’t enquire further.

I have my own ostrich story, and as I imagine there can’t be many who have, it’s worth a spin. At the turn of the nineteenth century my grandfather had an ostrich farm in South Africa. I suppose you could say that at the time he was in the haute couture business. Such plumes had been the swank of the town in all the fashionable cosmopolitan places. They’d been in demand by those high stepping ladies since Regency days when they might extend their presence by another five feet, even at the risk of catching fire from a candle lit world. However, in spite of that, they were a danger before they even left the bird! Uncle Frank came foul of one of them while out riding with my aunt. He’d dismounted to investigate something interesting, and had wandered some distance from the horses. His sister’s cries and shouts made him look up to see a female ostrich hell bent on beating the daylight out of him. Doing the obvious thing he raced back towards the horses. Not a good idea, when the bird can reach nearly forty miles an hour, giving Usain Bolt more than a run for his money. Worse, far from burying its head in the sand, it’s a bellicose belligerent with Velociraptor like claws that can unzip you like a leather wallet. Apparently, the rule in such situations is to hit the ground, flat as a pancake. Which Uncle Frank promptly did when he felt her breathing down his neck. The bird, not to be denied, equally promptly sat on him, and would not move, even with my aunt’s horse being driven at her. Uncle Frank, to put it politely, was in the proverbial. My aunt, could do nothing, but post-haste, make the one hour ride to raise the alarm. It was some time later that a rescued Uncle Frank arrived home bruised, pecked, much chastened, and a little worse for wear. The moral of this story is – if the recipe for tortellini says ‘first catch your struzzo’, give it a miss, and wheel out the Carbonara!

But we are not here to discuss genealogy, which in most cases is best forgotten. No. As I said, this is about birds. Italian ones in particular, though most have English cousins, which is not surprising given they can fly prodigious distances with a tendency to leave a little something feathered behind.

The Robin and the Great Titmouse – not the newtoni in this case, but the major major – are permanent residents in our garden. They are joined occasionally by sparrows and buntings, the former unruly hooligans, the latter very timid. We only seem to have one Robin, being very territorial, who lives in a hole in one of the terrace walls; a neighbouring Blackbird pair, who in searching for grubs, scruffily send the soil all over the ironstone paving, and for certain, a pair of Great Tit’s, of which more shortly. As for vagrants, we have Buzzards accompanied by absolute silence of the pre thunder and lightning sort, and very discreet Golden Orioles, who like famous actors, are mostly trying to be invisible among the ornithological pleb’s, while standing out like a banana among the kiwi.

Actually, to be precise, we have three blackbirds, of which two are brown. One of these females might be an ornithological Mae West, and certainly has a buxom shape of the: ‘come up and see me sometime’, sort. The other, somewhat more diminutive than the male, is very coy. It was brought to my notice that ‘jack-the-lad’ was playing fast and loose, and looking at the plump one, consider this bigamous arrangement will only lead to his comeuppance. It can’t be far off, as we can see that the double shift at filling the larder is beginning to take a toll on him.

It’s only of late that we’ve found time to consider such things at all. When we first arrived the only birds that came to our attention were aerodynamic dive bombing Swifts using the wind as superchargers, with stubby Martins, minus the Aston bit, trying hard to keep up, and a strange interloper in the abandoned gardens – a hoopoe, or in Italian upupa, which sounds like something from a brass band, poo-poo-poo, repeated with only the slightest pause between, and has a passing physical resemblance to a zebra crossing. It used to wake me up in the morning at six o’clock imitating a telephone ringing. This in distinct contrast to the owls silent flight through the olive grove, a noiseless shadow that occasionally emits a ‘ooo-hu’, one of the last calm sounds before I fall asleep. We also have Bee Eaters and Wall Creepers that are not very sociable, and keep to themselves, but I digress.

Birds have a penchant for getting into our house. For some it seems to be a precarious passion, like bungee jumping. They are always alarmingly black for the obvious reason that they furtively gain entry via the chimney. This is not as simple as it may sound, as the chimney very soon terminates in a stufa. Not just any old stove, naturally, but a terracotta one that functions on a serpentine system of boxes and flues. Getting out takes ingenuity, and a First from Oxford wouldn’t go amiss. Most manage it before twenty four hours are up, and finally stagger, much abused, into a specially contrived cardboard box. A half demented flying ‘sootball’ ricocheting round spotless ochre coloured walls is not a thing to be contemplated without a scuttle full of misgivings, and the builder has orders to go aloft brandishing the wire mesh. He’s been going aloft since living memory. Domani isn’t it? At nearly two thousand feet above sea level he can’t be frightened of heights. Tell that to the birds – but I did read once about a pigeon that suffered from vertigo! Meanwhile, these feathered friends are lucky we’re English, of which more anon.

Our Robin, unlike its English cousin, is not gregarious, but he knows where his worm’s buttered, and has a passion for proscuitto fat which makes my breakfast panini a tad more healthy. I tried him once on a slither of San Daniele proscuitto from Udine that had fallen on the floor. He gave that a miss, cast evil looks in our direction, and wasn’t seen for a fortnight. Apparently, their somewhat furtive manner has rather a lot to do with the fact that some locals might eat them - rotisserie style – which makes them nervous of homo-sapiens. In our early days in Italy there was a restaurant in Camucia who featured this repast in their window towards lunch time as a sort of enticement to the hungry locals. My wife was much agitated by this culinary advertisement of a skewer decorated with alternating cubes of bread, cheese, peppers, and plucked Linnets. They tell me laws are in place nowadays, but the bird population keeps falling. Locals argue that it’s all the restoration work going on. Tee dum! I’ve heard of nests in building site cranes, so consider that a little perfidious. Not all birds are so timid, despite being mostly edible. Indeed, a friend also has a Blackbird pair in his garden who perversely come for food even when his considerable physical presence is on the end of the bun. But then, he lives in the city, where they don’t go in for guns!

Observing that some birds are badly brought up – non educato as the Italians disdainfully say – and particularly bellicose in company, throwing their food all over the place, my good lady decided that with some cut bricks, plus sand and cement left over from small building works, to construct what appeared to be a gazebo in the Etruscan manner, instantly identified by its proportions. I swear it bears comparison with the finest Cyclopean masonry. Despite this robust construction, it only has room for two inside; Robin size. Much was made of its 180° vision, ideal for spotting the enemy. Our builder friend, on the strength of it, offered her a job on the spot. Only to retract it when he considered a different sort of bird distracting his workmen. All this mattered little to the Great Tits who prefer to hang on to a food net upside down, and being omnivorous, are not averse to Robin’s left over proscuitto fat. They are also intelligent in a practical sense, and on the look-out for a comfortable pad, warm and cosy, on a short lease, and close to the shops. The said bird gazebo, being on the other side of a stone wall housing the letter box, seemed to ‘fit the bill’. They moved in, deciding to furnish it themselves.

They didn’t seem interested in the idea that Ikea had a good range of soft furnishings, and they’d be more at home there. The postman, somewhat reluctantly, moved out to a substantial bag hanging on the gate. ‘The English are weird. Better to humour them,’ was written large in his knowing smile. But not only the postman. A large morose Gecko, (have you ever seen a smiling Gecko?), has residence in the gas metre box, next door, with a penchant for staying over on the ceiling of the letter box when it gets bored studying all the dials. Being a permanent resident, he views these squatters with a jaundiced eye, and retires back to the gas box in a sulk. As the Titmouse has large broods, generally six or seven, and occasionally ten or more, the letterbox suited them fine. The first batch of eggs I counted had seven. Later, the old girl managed five more, probably because seven was a bit of a crowd.                                      
Though the postman could be relied upon, we had quite forgotten the cavalier deliverers of ‘flyers’, no relation to major major. In this case a rather misnamed little booklet called ‘Convenient World’ thrust through the slot on to mother and brood. But she held her ground gamely while deliverance, in the shape of my wife, removed the inconvenient, and offending article, from her head. Her defiant answer to this intrusion was to move the brood into the corner. They weren’t going anywhere. So there! This mishap necessitated a notice taped to the letter box forbidding such casual behaviour, but encouraged crowds to view this phenomena, so probably created as much disturbance as the ‘flyer’.


In the event all five made it to the starting line. As the family ‘Paridae’ are profuse over all of Europe from Spain to Siberia, our plucky brood might end up anywhere. If they flew north they would probably welcome a little proscuitto fat, and woolly underwear! As it happens, I don’t think ours go anywhere, knowing a good deal when they see one.

I managed to catch a glimpse of their exit into the world, one by one through the letter slot and off, hell for leather, up the lane. How can they learn to fly in a room fourteen inches square? I’m told they are propelled by a bit of pushing and encouragment from their parents, along with a bit of crash landing practice. That may be so, but I can’t work out how they got back into the letter box before they passed the exam. Hopefully they won’t be seen again. Guests that would eat you out of house and home, and I’m partial to a little proscuitto fat myself.


You’d be so lucky. They’re back again this year with their twigs and moss deposited outside as well as inside. A proper cantiere as our Italian friends would say. “Five more”, I was informed, suggesting it might be the same, albeit more cautious, tenant. The postman will be pleased! And we’re not even an agriturismo!