When a baby bird changed the story

bunting

The scene was perfect. A trail of animal footprints led the children to a magical woodland hideout, decorated with vintage bunting and complete with toadstool seats resting on a large tarpaulin. It was beautiful, whimsical and utterly controlled.

Then, as the children gathered on their multi-coloured wooden toadstools, to listen to a story, it happened. From the heavens above (well the generous canopy of an oak tree) a fat, naked chick fell. It landed with a disconcerting thud on the tarpaulin. It wasn’t cute, it was prehistoric and grotesque. Everyone gasped.

The chick writhed for a short moment and then became still. The shock of the fall had killed it. No one moved but the atmosphere was electric. This wasn’t what everyone had paid £4.50 each for. Then, as if one, the children sprang to their feet and crowded round to look, all thoughts of the nice story forgotten.

It was a woodpigeon chick, probably about four days old. Still covered with a scruffy yellow down, its pink skin showed through. The eyes were grey and bulbous and the beak was misshapen and over-sized for its scrawny head. This little chappy was not going to be featuring on a greetings card anytime soon.

We don’t normally see baby pigeons (in fact, a common nature ‘google search’ is ‘why don’t you see baby pigeons?’). This is because they only fledge when they are almost adult sized by which time only those who know what they are looking for can tell they are youngsters. Something had obviously gone wrong for this baby. Indeed, sometimes a parent bird will eject an ailing chick from the nest in order to prioritise healthier siblings.

Next the questions began. ‘What is it?’, ‘Is it dead?’, ‘Can I make it better?’ and finally, ‘Can I touch it?’. Some parents pulled their little ones away at this point, but I said to my two, ‘yes, you can touch it’. It was soft and felt nicer than it looked. ‘It’s a bit warm’ said my son.

‘I’m ever so sorry,’ said the lady who had been about to read the story. She promptly swept the chick into a dustpan and placed it discreetly behind the woodland hideout. While she sprayed and wiped the tarpaulin, I dutifully got busy with the disinfectant gel on our hands and then we returned to our seats. All was back in order.

The story was lovely and mainly kept their attention, although I did notice a few glances upwards, as if the trees were going to deliver another ugly chick to us. As for myself, well I couldn’t help but smile. Everyone had signed up for Nature Lite but they had got the real thing, in all its grim, sad, but fascinating glory.

PS. First published in the EDP and EADT

PPS. photo not from this particular event but it sets the scene nicely 🙂

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Someone spat on the rose bush

My book has some strange things in it – the kind of yucky, weird things that children find absolutely fascinating. The odd and wonderful way nature works, just outside our front doors, brings my family endless entertainment, giggles and fun.

Just yesterday, I heard someone complaining that the local teenagers kept spitting on her rose bush as they walked by to catch the bus. That really would be on a par with dog fouling, but when I investigated a little, it became clear that it wasn’t actually human grog (sorry, that word came to me from my teenage years), but something altogether more interesting. It was the frothy foam that surrounds the froghopper nymph, which really does look exactly like spit!

If you gently probe the froth, you will find the tiny, bright green young froghopper looking a bit disgruntled at being disturbed (well, I think it must be disgruntled but it is very hard to see its little face).  It surrounds itself in the foam as protection against predators. It is known as ‘cuckoo spit’ because it is seen around the time (now) that the cuckoos are calling – not that many of us hear them these days, but that’s a whole other story.

I was keen to feature the froghopper in my book, but how to capture its weirdness? Luckily, the book’s very clever illustrator Stephanie Laurence was able to help. Here is the froghopper in all his weird glory, thanks to Stephanie

P.S. My photo of the illustration is a bit dark but you get the idea.

froghopper