Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Food for thought...

There’s a rather neat trick you can do with a metal coat hanger. What you do is attach two equal lengths of cotton (about 18 inches long) to the two ‘corners’ (i.e. the ones without the hook) and then wrap the free end of one of the pieces of cotton around the end of one forefinger a few times and wrap the free end of the other piece of cotton around the other forefinger in the same way. You should now have the hanger suspended, hook down, from your fingertips - a bit like a puppet. Slowly tilt your forefingers upwards so that the cotton goes over the end of each forefinger (this is the tricky bit!) and hold it there, taught across you finger tips, with each thumb. Next, stick one forefinger in each ear (with the cotton still over the tips) and let go with your thumbs once your fingers are firmly in place. Now bend over at about a 45 degree angle from the waste so that the coat hanger is suspended (still hook down) from the cotton over the ends of the fingers, which are now in your ears. Allow the coat hanger to hang freely. Finally, gently swing it from side to side and let it knock against a radiator or something similar. The result is brilliant. It sounds as if Big Ben is ‘going off’ right inside your head!!!

Now I know this has nothing to do with birds or birding but it got me thinking about equally bizarre things that do and the same question kept popping up - how on earth do people come up with these things? Take for example eating Larks’ tongues. Apparently the Romans were quite keen, so much so in fact, that one historian suggested it may have been what caused the downfall of the Roman Empire (downfall of the Roman lark more likely!). But why on earth would anybody think to even try a lark’s tongue in the first place? It’s not exactly an efficient means of getting your daily calories, as a quick calculation will show. Even if a Lark’s tongue is better, nutritionally, than any other body tissue (which I doubt), a whole lark only weighs about 40g so its tongue can’t weigh more than about 0.2g at the most. This means, by my reckoning that you’d need to eat about 3000 tongues to even come close to the calories in your average steak. ‘That’s a lorra, lorra larks!!!’ (as Cilla would say). And what about *birds nest soup? Why would anybody think to eat the hardened saliva of a Cave Swiftlet?! Did someone just wake up one morning and think, ‘I know! If I risk life and limb and climb to the roof of that 50ft pitch-black cave, chase off the swiftlets, grab their nest, get rid of all the feathers and parasites and soak it for two hours, it might actually taste pretty good…’ It beggars belief doesn’t it? So why try it? Well, I think I may have the answer - ancient ornithological traditions!

At one time or another, most of us have probably kept mementos to remind us of particularly memorable birding finds/experiences. It might be a feather shed by a moulting raptor as it soars overhead, it might be a ring from a dead migrant we found, or, these days, likely as not, it might be a ‘digiscoped’ image from a Nikon 'summit-or-other' or similar device. Now I’m pretty sure the BTO weren’t ringing larks in Pompei in 350AD and I know for sure that when trade in swiftlets began during the T’ang Dynasty in China, 1200 years ago, Nikon were still just painting birds (cranes mostly) on bits of porcelain. All the ancient birder could do, therefore, by way of capturing a magic birding moment was to collect the odd feather. Well, that’s not quite true. He could collect the entire bird (like the Victorians did…a lot!) or, he could go one step further… and eat it!

This is not as crazy as it might sound because there is still somewhat of a tradition (in certain biological circles at least) to eat the oddest things. One of my old Profs told me about one such occasion on an overseas field trip. Undergraduates weren’t allowed in to the traditional going home party until they’d sampled the delights of a Lepidopteran smorgas-bord prepared by entomologists at the field station. The idea was to use the students as guinea pigs to test some hypothesis regarding the mimicry of distasteful butterflies by tasteful ones (and I’m not talking dress sense here…). A similar experiment had been done on young Florida Scrub Jays, I think, and these learned to avoid both types of butterflies (as did the students, funnily enough!) thus demonstrating the adaptive value of mimicry as an anti-predator strategy. All very scientific! This is not always the case however…

Take, for example, the similar ‘tradition’ of consuming one’s study species found in some ornithological circles. It’s not something I’ve tried personally, mind you, as I think cormorant and goosander would taste pretty awful, but over the years, various colleagues of mine have claimed to have eaten Redshank, Grey Heron, Kestrel and a veritable host of other ‘road kill’ during their respective studies on these and other species! Given that these warped souls not only study birds for a living but are, by the nature of things, birders too it’s not that big a leap for one or two of their ancient predecessors to be tempted into trying the odd rarity should one stray into his or her path…is it? I’m sure if you read De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) there’s a passage somewhere that reads ‘Honey I’m home! Hit a Calandra Lark with the cart on the way back from the Lyceum so I’ve stuck it in the pot with the olives…It’s a bit squashed but the tongue should still be OK. Oh, and by the way, Parcilius showed me this great trick with a coat-hanger! Learned it from an Indonesian chap soaking something ‘orrible in a pot down the market - apparently!!

*Two species comprise most current trade in birds nests for soup; the Edible-nest, or, White-nest Swiftlet Aerodramus fuciphagus and the Black-nest Swiftlet Aerodramus maximus both from Asia. The name fuciphagus means ‘seaweed eating’ as it used to be believed that this was what swiftlets made their nests from. In fact the half-cup nest is constructed entirely from saliva regurgitated as long, thin gelatinous strands from glands under the males’ tongue. The saliva then dries and bonds like quick-drying cement to the inside of a cave wall. Over-harvesting of nests has become such a problem in some areas, however, that an alternative practice of ‘farming’ swiftlets has been developed whereby ‘birds nest’ swiftlets from caves are cross-fostered with house nesting, Mossy-nest Swiftlets Aerodramus salanganus. ‘Birds nest’ swiftlets that fledge from these nests come back and start colonies on houses instead of in caves, thus relieving the pressure on threatened cave colonies.

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