A Feathery Tale

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little piece for the ‘Albertopolis Writing Circle’ – a compact gang of people from the institutions around South Kensington (The V&A, Natural History and Science Museums, the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College, etc). The idea is to create stories our professional lives touch on.

This thousand-word piece was my first contribution, which was received quite well, but I think the organiser of the group has some grand idea of us writing long features and producing a book together (rather than just providing support for any works we bring). So, I’ve decided to share it here. I hope you like it.

 

Nests

Between lunch and the deep afternoon, I regularly take a walk in Hyde Park. Though the path and the trees are familiar enough to me, there is only one pair of animals I recognise. Where the Long Water and the path meet side-by-side and by height, a couple of coots have made a nest. It’s stacked up close to the water’s edge, up against one of those poles that gulls like to line up on and provide photographers with perspective.

Sometimes one of the coots will gather bits of twig and pond paraphernalia and pass it to the one smothering the eggs (I read that the parents share the incubating), who will dutifully tuck it in somewhere. I can’t tell if it’s patch and repair or fortification. Once I saw the one sitting on the nest shift and rise and gently nudge the eggs.

The couple and their nest have been there at least eight weeks. Seeing swans glide by with their adolescent broods, I looked up the incubation period of coots. They’re only supposed to settle on their eggs for two or three weeks before the chicks arrive. Why haven’t my coots’ eggs hatched?

*

Coddled within the Chiltern Hills lies the market town of Tring, a convenient city escape for the London crowd and home to the eccentric baby sister of the Natural History Museum. My visit there is part behind-the-scenes tour, part business with the Bird Group. A vast purpose-built climate controlled vault of a building stores the majority of the bird collection, largely represented by skins. Organ-emptied and sawdust-stuffed bodies of birds lie in drawers with feathers still resplendent. Here lie endangered owls, extinct woodpeckers and Darwin’s finches.

Below three floors of stacks and rows of skins lies the spirit collection – whole birds dipped in alcohol and yellowing in jars. Often their feet and beaks point skywards, their elegant necks bent around with the curve of the glass. A menagerie of budgerigars from the 1920s lies squeezed together in a liquid solution that hasn’t yet dulled their colours.

Next door, the anatomical stores collect jumbles of bird bones. Some are made up into skeletons posed as if alive. Most are not. Beside the preparation lab, beetles reduce bodies to bones. The completed consumption of a thrush looks like a pile of toothpick shards surrounding a clean, light skull.

The eggs and nests are beside the library. Cuckoos don’t make their own nests, so their eggs are displayed tucked in between those of their step-siblings. Cuckoo mothers leave solitary eggs in the nests of other birds, who become their unwitting ‘hosts’. Some of the eggs are well camouflaged, closely matching the colour and pattern of their hosts. Others are hard to miss. British cuckoos have a hard time matching eggshell blue, whereas Finnish varieties are better at blending in, with near-perfect pastel shades.

It’s an arms race, says the Head of the Bird Group. He flaps his hands and gesticulates his speech, rolling and unfolding a printout of the latest research. When cuckoos find a new host, and lay their eggs in the nest of a new species, they don’t match their eggs very well. But then, the new parent birds don’t expect intruders. If their largest egg is the only one that hatches, what are they to do but feed it?

Cuckoo chicks will hatch before their nest-mates, and kick them out. If parents can recognise the intruder eggs, they throw them out before they have a chance to make themselves only children. So the hosts make more precise eggs, more distinguished from cuckoos’. Then the cuckoos make more accurate matches. So the hosts make more unique egg signatures. Eventually, the cuckoos are outclassed, and move on to a different host species. But it has taken generations of host parents a lot of time, energy and loss to rid themselves of their parasites.

After the tour, I sat down to business with the Bird Group. The Head fusses until I’m not sure if he’s genuinely angry or just a vocal personality, but his colleagues laugh it off so I relax. I want to ask him about my coots, but I run out of time and nerve. What could I do anyway? How do you tell birds that their babies are dead and they should move on?

*

But it’s a while before I can take my walk and see the coots again, and it plays on my mind. I invent a reason to email the Head of the Bird Group and ask him about them. It does indeed seem, he says, that their eggs are addled. According to the dictionary, for eggs ‘addled’ means rotten. They will desert the nest at some point he says, but it may take a bit of time.
The next week I have a free lunch hour and strike out for the park again. I calculate it’s nine weeks since I first saw the nest, from a photo I took at the time. As I approach the familiar spot I see the nest is still there, coot perched on top. The structure seems larger, wider. The partner on patrol passes the nest-warmer a strand of pond vegetation, which is promptly added to the stack.

As the bird rises, I see a flash of red beneath its black breast.

A lone and lost duckling worries nearby, peeping and pining for its parents. I stand still and watch the scene, willing the nest-bound coot to shift and afford me a better view. I want to wade into the water and force a look. The coot on patrol ferociously chases away a pair of mallards, probably the lost duckling’s parents. They were really too far away to be a threat, but the coot is merciless in its defence.

Finally, the bird atop the reedy fortification rises, and bends its neck towards a tiny head that reaches up, topped by a vibrant red crest.

The nest is not empty or addled. I don’t know if they laid a new clutch or this one egg survived and hatched from the original brood, but one thing is certain: my coots are parents.

Following this, I have been to see my coots and am happy to report the baby, and it is just a single baby, is doing well:

Coots

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