BIRD BRAIN

Fiona Arm­strong con­sid­ers whether our feath­ered friends de­serve a bit more credit for their in­tel­li­gence

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS - Il­lus­tra­tion Bob De­war

Fiona Arm­strong pon­ders the in­tel­li­gence of our feath­ered friends

Just how brainy is a bird? Crows re­mem­ber where folk hide food. Mag­pies are famed for sourc­ing some­thing shiny. It has even been proved that robins know when they’re be­ing short-changed on the bird ta­ble. But can our feath­ered friends ac­tu­ally count? The swans on my mother’s loch seem pretty clued up in the num­bers depart­ment. I call it my mother’s loch. It is in fact the water that her house over­looks. It is an or­di­nary bun­ga­low, made ex­tra­or­di­nary by the view. Any­how, this year the swans pro­duced six signets – and as they sailed gaily past her win­dow, both mother and fa­ther ap­peared to be do­ing a quick head count. There were only five ba­bies fol­low­ing in their wake. So, one of them – he, or she, I’m not that good on mat­ters or­nitho­log­i­cal – turned back and be­gan to poke about in the bushes. And there it was: the miss­ing chick. Hur­rah! A swan is a good par­ent and these en­dear­ing crea­tures give weeks of plea­sure. Watch­ing the close-knit feath­ered fam­ily glide by is a ther­a­peu­tic ex­er­cise. Birds of a feather flock to­gether. All that swan­ning around gives great joy. Then there is our neigh­bour, who keeps a brood of ex­otic chick­ens: twenty fluffy-headed Pol­ish and Bel­gian birds that run free in her front gar­den. Last week a mother with an autis­tic son came to spend time there. Af­ter ten min­utes of stroking he opened up in

Watch­ing the close-knit feath­ered fam­ily glide by is a ther­a­peu­tic ex­er­cise

a way he could not have done with mere hu­mans. For our part, the chief and I have the MacNaugh­ties. A cocker spaniel and a Nor­folk ter­rier. The ter­ri­ble two­some. Washed on Satur­day morn­ing, mucky again on Satur­day af­ter­noon. Ears full of sticky wil­low burrs, paws deep with dirt from dig­ging. De­mand­ing, yes. In con­stant need of pat­ting and hugs. Un­like a child, Barra and Rum­mie will never be able to get their own break­fast and give us a de­cent lie-in. Yet our dogs are lov­ing and drop-dead gor­geous. They keep us fit and get us out of bed in the morn­ing. Would we be with­out them? Never! But back to the birds. Thank­fully, we no longer eat swans. Not like in me­dieval times when this food of kings and queens came stuffed with seafood. In­deed, at one 13th cen­tury cel­e­bra­tion, forty cooked swans al­legedly graced the royal ta­ble. No, tra­di­tion dic­tates that the only folk al­lowed to en­joy this del­i­cacy to­day are mem­bers of the royal fam­ily. The queen is the Seigneur of the Swans. Oh, and stu­dents of a Cam­bridge Univer­sity col­lege can also eat them. Many moons ago schol­ars of St John’s used to serve un­marked mute swan at their spring ball. Hap­pily, this crea­ture is now a pro­tected species and it is con­sid­ered un­lucky to harm one, never mind eat it. But who would want to? These big birds are grace­ful and noble. They are loyal and mate for life. But do not get too close – I was once chased off the water by a pair of an­gry swans. They came at me, hiss­ing, flap­ping their great wings and mak­ing a hell of a noise. I was fish­ing for trout, but did not wait around to try to make friends. I legged it, but you try run­ning in waders. I hid be­hind some trees and it was some hours be­fore I dared go back to re­trieve the aban­doned fish­ing tackle... Per­haps I got too close to a nest. Maybe they just didn’t like the look of a rub­ber-swathed woman. Who knows? It could have been my swan song. But still here, still here…

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