* * *
‘Look at that!’ said Uncle Geoffrey, as a large white bird wheeled overhead. ‘A seagull! And so far inland!’
‘Actually, it’s not that far inland,’ said Robert, without looking up. ‘You’re never further than 100 miles from the sea wherever you are in Britain.’
That would be positively coastal in America,’ agreed Susie. ‘The Americans would consider all of Britain more or less maritime.’
‘Still, in my young days we would have been surprised to see a seagull so far away from the sea,’ said Uncle Geoffrey. ‘When we saw gulls here we always said there must be a storm out at sea to drive a gull so far inland!’
And was there?’ said Robert.
Was there what?’
Was there a storm out at sea?’ elaborated Robert. ‘You have always taught Susie and me to check our facts and not say anything unsupported by evidence. I naturally assume that when you, as a boy, saw seagulls coming inland, you immediately rang the coastguards to check whether there really was a storm. So that you could test the theory with hard evidence.’
Not for the first time Uncle Geoffrey felt like strangling young Robert. Domestic violence takes many forms, he thought, but he would willingly commit the first murder brought on by an argument about bird life.
In any case,’ said Susie, ‘it’s quite common these days to see gulls far from the sea. They have been driven from the seaside by the lack of fish in our seas to look for food elsewhere. Not finding fish in much quantity inland, they have become scavengers instead and are often to be seen picking over the offerings on the town refuse dump.’
'Not unlike the case of the sparrow hawk,’ said Robert. ‘While the gull is being driven into the countryside, the sparrow hawk is being driven OUT of the same countryside by the disappearance of small song birds, killed off by agricultural chemicals. So the sparrow hawk goes off to the town, where there are still plenty of garden birds to be had, and where they are to be seen swooping on the suburban bird table like an American gunship on a crowd of innocent Afghan demonstrators.’
‘There is no such thing as an innocent Afghan demonstrator,’ said Uncle Geoffrey, who had actually been there and liked to sound as if he knew what he was talking about.
Hold on, hold on – there’s a slight discrepancy here,’ said Susie. ‘The sparrow hawk goes off to town to find his missing song bird diet is fair enough. But saying that the seagull comes inland because of a fish shortage and then doesn’t eat any fish when he gets here is a different phenomenon. After all, cormorants come inland because of a fish shortage and they eat fish when they get here. But if seagulls give up fish, why do they come inland at all? Why not stay by the seaside and start scavenging on the town refuse there? It would save a lot of commuting.’
Maybe only the seagull is clever enough to adapt to changing conditions,’ said Robert.
Are you calling cormorants stupid?’ said Susie angrily.
At least it sounded angry to Uncle Geoffrey. But he found it really hard to fathom these two these days. He was about to change the subject by pointing to some bird droppings stained with purple from elderberry- eating – always a sure sign of autumn! – when suddenly a buzzard which he had been half-watching dropped out of the sky like a stone, swooped and took off Uncle Geoffrey’s toupee.
My God!’ said Geoffrey, startled, while the two children stared in awe at the pate they had never seen before. ‘Well, how extraordinary! I should think that’s the first time a buzzard has taken someone’s hair off!’
We shall probably never know,’ said Robert. ‘If people have their hairpieces removed by a buzzard, they aren’t going to report it, are they? It would make them look silly. There may be thousands of cases, but all unreported. Statistics can only help when the data is adequate, you know, Uncle Geoffrey.’
As Robert walked on ahead, a toupee fell out of the sky at Geoffrey’s feet. Evidently the buzzard had not found it tasty. After he had hastily replaced it, he found Susie’s hand placed in his.
Don’t worry, Uncle Geoffrey,’ she said. ‘You’re not the only one. We’d all like to murder Robert sometimes.’
Thank you, Susie,’ he said gratefully. ‘You won’t tell anyone else about my hair, will you?’
Oh, good heavens, everyone knows already!’ said Susie, ‘It’s so ill-fitting. We often discuss it behind your back.’
Uncle Geoffrey’s feeling of warmth towards Susie disappeared as suddenly as it had come. He had often seen BBC nature films in which the elders of the pack had eliminated the young ones before they posed a threat. He knew how they felt now.