Time for another nature ramble today, with Uncle Geoffrey and his faithful niece and nephew, Susan and Robert.
‘We are now at the midpoint of summer,’ said Uncle Geoffrey, as the three of them walked alongside the long grass left by the farmer at the edge of the field. In the long grass stood dog daisies, scabious and knapweed, and many other midsummer meadow flowers, including a very rare clump of bee orchids, but Uncle Geoffrey did not notice that and nor shall we. ‘I wonder if you know what that means, children.’
‘Less than six months shopping time till Christmas,’ said Susan, though she was only joking, for she was a very well organised child and had already done all her Christmas present buying for 2006.
‘Start of the football season?’ said Robert.
‘ “BBC unveils new treats in TV autumn schedule” shock headlines?’ suggested Susan.
Uncle Geoffrey sighed. Nothing was ever straightforward with these children.
‘Well, among other things it means that migration patterns are about to go into reverse. Most birds will have fledged their young by now, and, unless they have a second brood, our summer visitors will soon start to feel the urge to go home.’
‘Summer visitors,’ mused Susan. ‘Such a strange term to apply to swallows and swifts. It makes them sound like holidaymakers. Here comes the martin family, building its familiar beach hut out of mud and laying out its little towels on the beach.’
‘Perhaps we use the phrase “summer visitors” to avoid the sinister term, “migrant population”,’ said Robert. ‘If the government ever got the idea that swifts and swallows were illegal immigrants, I fear that Mr Blair might try to win tabloid support by imposing restrictions on them.’
‘How could politicians ever arouse public hatred of birds?’ said Susan.
‘Oh, very easily,’ said Robert. ‘Think avian flu. For a while we were almost persuaded that migrant birds were responsible for spreading a killer disease. In fact, the fault lay at the door of Oriental chicken farmers and their cramped, unhygienic methods, designed to bring cheap poultry to Western supermarkets. But the government is afraid of supermarkets, and has no power over Chinese chicken farmers, so they decided to blame wild birds for avian flu instead.’
‘And why didn’t it work?’ said Susan.
‘Because most people don’t know what “avian” means,’ said Robert. ‘They think it is a misprint for “Asian”. Or a posh kind of bottled water.’
Uncle Geoffrey roused himself from his coma and decided to recapture the conversation.
‘We have been out for walks in all seasons, children,’ he said, ‘so we now have experience of nature in all conditions.’
‘Not true,’ said Robert. ‘Our nature rambles all take place during daylight hours, so we have no experience of nocturnal nature. We have never spotted the night time badger on his sacred mission of spreading bovine TV.’
‘Or seen the small vans at night, speeding through the countryside, taking cheap Orientally-raised poultry under cover of darkness to the kitchens of great TV chefs round the country.’
‘Or heard a nightingale,’ said Robert. ‘Have you ever heard a nightingale, Uncle Geoffrey?’
Surprised, Uncle Geoffrey racked his memory.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Though I think I saw one once. It was a very nondescript bird, considering its beautiful song.’
‘Why should you have to be beautiful to sing beautifully?’ said Susan. ‘Think of famous opera singers. Think of the three tenors. They are mostly fat and hideous.’
‘I would put it the other way round,’ said Robert. ‘I would say that all birds who sing beautifully look dowdy and all birds with great plumage sound awful. Think of the peacock. My case rests.’
‘I suppose opera singers are migrant birds too,’ said Susan. ‘Always on the move. They swan in, take a gander round and duck out again.’
‘Very good,’ said Robert admiringly.
‘But where does our little British nightingale fit into all this?’ said Uncle Geoffrey.
‘BRITISH!’ said Robert. ‘The nightingale is a migrant too, Uncle Geoffrey. It spends most of its life in West Africa.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ said Uncle Geoffrey.
‘You stick around us, Uncle Geoffrey’ said Susan, ‘and you’ll be surprised what you learn.’
Revenge will be mine one day, thought Uncle Geoffrey, but he said nothing.
The Independent Monday June 26 2006