Thursday 22 March 2018

Country Matters: A little 'allopreening' will do nicely…

Preen me: A male and female of the tiny zebra finch breed
Preen me: A male and female of the tiny zebra finch breed

Joe Kennedy

When I first went to Portugal about 10 years ago it was a thrill of nostalgia to hear cocks crowing, even in the centre of towns. And not just at dawn.

This was so reminiscent of an Ireland of the past when most rural homes - and some in towns also - kept domestic hens.

This was a traditional task for the woman of the house, and also made economic sense. The birds were easy to maintain. They ate practically all the surplus food from kitchens - especially potatoes - kept the insect and other invertebrate populations of gardens in check, and any store-bought meal and grain for feeding was cheap.

They also laid eggs every day; young cockerels were quickly fattened for the pot and even elderly members of the flock were reluctantly culled as 'boiling fowl' for soup, stews and pies. Little was discarded, except, perhaps, the claws.

I remember, on one of my early newspaper jaunts to New York in the 1960s, discovering an avian foot and bill in duck soup in a Chinese restaurant. My fellow diner assured me these were an indication of the genuine article and so should be savoured!

Hens around a home were often considered playthings by children who might catch them, then lay the bird's head under its wing and gently place it on the ground, where it seemed to instantly go to sleep. The trick was to see how many birds could be laid out as if dead.

Mothers were not pleased and banged pots and flapped aprons to bestir the poor creatures.

My youngest son once had a bantam jungle fowl for a pet and used to sometimes carry it about with him, stroking its neck. This colourful bird was christened Phantom, after the comic hero in a cartoon strip that appeared in this newspaper in those days.

The bird would accompany its master on trips to the village and also into a pub I might visit, where it would peck about the floor among discarded crisp packets.

The publican was not pleased if 'calling cards' were left behind!

This bird, with its shiny black scimitar-shaped tail feathers, liked to have its neck 'allopreened' -' allo' meaning other, as ornithologists refer to it. The family of the naturalist and author Tim Birkhead had a remarkable zebra finch which liked such attention. This poor bird was blind, but could recognise Tim's daughter's voice and footsteps and would immediately burst into song. It would solicit her to preen its neck, tipping its head to one side and raising its feathers.

The finch was smaller than a human thumb, but the little girl was able to preen it with a finger or withered grass stem and, as Tim has written in his book, Bird Sense, the bird "loved it, twisting its neck to provide new areas much like a human being having a neck or back scratched." Care was required for careful tickling to mimic that of a real finch.

Birds' beaks are sensitive, animate parts with numerous touch receptors and filtering systems within which enable them to fine-tune their 'allopreening', and feeding. And, as for duck bills, before they become ingredients for soup, there lies a fascinating story for another day!

Sunday Independent

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