Friday, 12 October 2018

The mid-life crisis of an African ornithologist

“I hate birds”. 

I had to glance away from the birds of paradise I had been admiring in their glass cabinet, the first of many, and the first public gallery at the Natural History Museum of Tring to which I had made a special pilgrimage during a recent visit to the UK. This is, after all, one of the biggest (the biggest?) collection of birds ever collected during the Victorian era during which collecting and stuffing animals was a thing. The museum at Tring is the Legacy of Lionel Walter’s (Lord Baron Rothschild) skin collection fetish and it is a Mecca to any ornithologist. Here there are skins of almost all the birds of the world. So, who had made this sacrilegious statement pertaining to their hatred of birds? The dark haired, smartly dressed, dolled-up lady was making her way with similar make-up painted lady and their entourage of young children towards the mammal halls.

Mitchell from Modern Family suffers from Orniphobia: a fear of birds. Image from:
It is not the first time I have wondered why the hell I am an ornithologist. I grew up looking forward to safaris to Botswana or Pilanesburg National Park, where the box of reference material included Clive Walker’s ‘Signs of the Wild’, Keith Coates Palgrave’s ‘Trees of Southern Africa’, and Gordon Lindsay Maclean’s Roberts Birds of southern Africa (editions 5 and 6). I remember the excitement of a young teenager when one birthday I received one of the first photographic field guides to southern African birds compiled by Ian Sinclair. Later, these would be replaced by the Sasol field guides authored by Peter Ryan and Phil Hockey, both of whom would later be supervisors of mine during my post-doctoral years at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. These men were my idols, and it filled me with pride that I had struggled and pushed my way into their circle.

I’ve probably been surrounded by people that enjoy and love nature all my life. Perhaps the first time I wondered about whether my chosen occupation was really one filled with the glory I’d naively grown up thinking it was, was called into question last year when I was surveying on a farm north of Fraserburg. I’d been greeted politely in the morning by the farmer, who was interested in what I was doing and even showed me a nest made by an Acacia Pied Barbet, and where the local Pale Chanting Goshawk liked to roost. Later in the day though, I was doing a point count on the side of the road when his wife pulled up next to me after returning from town with their children. “Do you count birds for a living?” to which I replied in the affirmative. “You mean that is your job?” she replied with disbelief peppered with a hint of scorn, and on that note left me in her cloud of dust on the side of the road. Surely that scorn was only due to lawyers, bankers and marketing people for companies with dodgy environmental credentials?

From the cool reception of the farmer later in the day, I can only imagine what rant he had to endure from her for allowing such time wasters and non-productive members of society to grace their property, which naturally was providing a service to the world by keeping Checkers shelves stocked with lamb chops and mutton wors.

I have in recent years taken to asking random strangers what their favourite bird is. I’ll give a person on the side of the road a lift, basically in exchange for this piece of knowledge. People almost never have a bird at the tip of their tongues. One policeman to whom I posed the question said quite frankly ‘I don’t like animals’. Another young gentleman, with passing resemblance to a youthful Julius Malema, similarly responded ‘I don’t like birds’. To these and other struggling to answer this inordinately difficult question I normally jokingly respond: ‘Ah yes, but there is one bird that I know you love. Chicken’. And like most of my jokes, I’ll get a polite smile maybe 50% of the time. Certainly, a job as a comedian is not an option.

I’ve realised that I’m too old now to embark on the noble profession of the curer of cancer. I’d also be completely shit at being a social worker, and I’m certainly not patient enough to be a farmer, and I’m completely terrible at DIY, so anything mechanical is out. But I can recognise some bird calls and analyse data, so looks like I’ll have to stick with that.

And I’ll admit that I do what I do now for personal pleasure: holding a bird in the hand, wondering where it came from, how old it is, if its parents were good ones, if it had any affairs with the neighbours, and what its fate it will be when I release it with an aluminium ring on its leg with its measurements registered for posterity in a far-off database. My work is in happy, wild places, far from depressing news and far from the ill winds that blow with the dark political storms that cloud the horizon. Perhaps I’m not providing the world with sausages, but hopefully I’m providing information to someone one day who urgently needs to google the answer to a pub quiz question on how much a House Sparrow weighs.     

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