Ornithology With Orwell

Older readers may remember the feature Nest Watch, which appeared on this blog in March of last year.  In it, I observed a pair of magpies painstakingly dismantling an old nest (or, as a reader suggested, a squirrel’s dray) and reassembling it into a new nest higher up the tree.  At about the time the nest disappeared from view behind foliage, the magpies seemed to have been chased away from their nest by a crow.  

Once the leaves had fallen – as leaves do – the full magnificence of the finished nest was revealed.  I have often reflected on it – and the effort that went into its manufacture – throughout the winter as I smoked a reflective gasper or two in the garden of the vanished St Mary Aldermanbury.  A week or two ago, I spotted two magpies – probably the same ones (you can see them – if you look closely – in the photograph below) making what seemed to be a reconnoitre of the nest with a view to reusing – or possibly reassembling – it when the mating season arrives.  And so, reassuringly, and at last, we begin again.    

By coincidence, I was re-reading* Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier recently when I came across this passage (he is leaving Wigan by train).  It struck me as unaccountably funny (particularly the line in bold) –

Although the snow was hardly broken the sun was shining brightly, and behind the shut windows of the carriage it seemed warm.  According to the almanac this was spring, and a few of the birds seemed to believe it.  For the first time in my life, in a bare patch beside the line, I saw rooks copulating.  They did it on the ground and not, as I should have expected, in a tree.  The manner of courtship was curious.  The female stood with her beak open and the male walked round her and appeared to be feeding her.”

Why this is funny, I’m not sure.  Perhaps the image of the tall, awkward Orwell in his workingman’s disguise peering from the window of his railway carriage, sucking his pencil and gravely noting down –

Rooks copulating – on ground not in tree

 or, perhaps, because of Orwell’s insistence on that pseudo-medical vogue word copulating (I suppose that – in spite of his natural almost-prudishness – he was still trying to be a little more like Henry Miller).

His publisher (Gollancz) changed “copulating to “courting” – Orwell agreed to settle for “treading”.  “Treading”?

Anyway, roll on the mating season.

*This can be a very irritating expression, but I have reached the stage in life where there seem to be an awful lot of books to re-read.

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