Bill Bailey and Herbert the Palm Cockatoo
Mark Robert (‘Bill’) Bailey (born 13 January 1965) is an English comedian, actor, singer, and musician. He is known for his role as Manny in the sitcom Black Books and his appearances on the panel shows Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Have I Got News For You and QI, as well as for his stand-up comedy work. He plays a variety of musical instruments and incorporates music into his performances.
Here is a clip of the fabulous toe-tapping Bill Bailey in action:
“Nature is painting for us
day after day pictures of
infinite beauty, if only we
have the eyes to see them”
This writer, illustrator, and musician is a gift to mankind and his joyful picture of nature is what we desperately need now to keep our sanity intact and our faith that the light of HOPE is just around the corner. I let him take over as no one can do any better.
Here are some extracts from his book “Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds”.
The ARCTIC TERN
This slender and rather beautiful seabird is a migration marvel.
It’s smartly attired, with a bright red bill and feet, a back cap atop a slate-grey back, the whole outfit finished off with long tails like trailing streamers. Its delicate appearance is misleading though, as this is an extreme endurance bird capable of a globe-spanning voyage.
Recently, an Arctic tern made the headlines with the longest ever bird migration. A tiny transmitter weighing about the same as a stick of gum was attached to its leg and tracked the entire mind-boggling journey from Northumberland to the Antarctic and back. That’s a round trip of 59,650 miles. That’s more than twice around the planet. It took the best part of a year, so it’s not like the Bar-Tailed Godwit’s non-stop marathon, but it’s still a phenomenal trek.
The Arctic tern is an almost identical twin of the common tern, which also migrates a huge distance, but only to West Africa (West Africa? Pfft, that’s nothing compared to the Arctic tern’s polar adventure). I say almost identical because there are some subtle differences. The common tern has an orangey-red beak with a black tip, while the Arctic is pure blood-red, and its tail streamers are slightly longer. They both tend to fly with their heads angled downwards, which marks them out against forward-looking gulls.
The Arctic Terns are mostly found in the north of England, Ireland, and almost all of Scotland with large populations on Orkney and Shetland. In fact, I remember being in Scapa Flow one summer, gazing out over this famous shallow bay of the Orkney Isles. Against a blue sky, a flock of Arctic terns was dipping down to the surface of the turquoise sea, the vivid, treeless green of the bay’s edge framing the image. I stood on the shingle beach, watching these black-capped sea swallows as they flitted and squabbled, their grating calls bouncing off the gently lapping waves.
As if this couldn’t be improved, I was then handed a cup of tea and a caramel wafer. I experienced a moment of pure happiness.
A familiar sight in our gardens and streets, blackbirds have adapted very well to living near us, and often become quite tame.
Male blackbirds stake out their territory in their first year, which they will keep for the rest of their lives. Blackbirds are quite solitary birds and tend not to have much social interaction. Maybe that’s why they like hanging out with us.
One day a neighbour brought round a tiny blackbird chick that he’d found on the pavement. it was in a bad way, and the fact that it was very young made it worse. It was clear we’d have to nurse it back to strength.
I wouldn’t normally recommend hand-rearing an orphaned bird as it’s tricky and the best care it will get is obviously from its parents. And if the chick is flightless but fully feathered, mum and dad are probably nearby, so it’s best not to get involved at all. But in this case, with a tiny unfeathered fuzzball with both eyes clamped shut, no sign of the nest or the parents, we humans were its only hope.
We named him Pluto.
He was doing well, and we made him a makeshift portable nursery out of a cardboard box. He needed constant care, so when I was performing at the Hay Festival, Pluto had to come too and hang out backstage. He sadly missed Benedict Cumberbatch – he was too busy stuffing himself with the mealworms we’d brought along. When he was old enough, we let him go in the garden, but he still returns most days, hopping around looking for a snack. Blackbirds don’t tend to travel far from the nest, and Pluto has got used to the high life. Why forage around all day, when there’s always a free meal at the Baileys?
PS from me, I have over the years had many great friendships with blackbirds. They would bring their baby for me to babysit it, and they would eat in the kitchen on the newspaper-covered floor, sometimes even on the table, and would come through the cat flap to check on breakfast progress, and sing to me in the garden on hot summer nights. One of the nicest birds to have in your garden.
The BLUE TIT
First things first: let’s just for a moment deal with the word ‘tit’. Since the nineteenth century, it has been used as a slang word for breast, but its origins come from early fourteenth-century usage meaning ‘small’ or ‘a small creature’. Hope that clears things up.
A common and colourful garden visitor, the blue tit has a yellow body, greenish back, blue wings and a blue cap. This may well be the most frequently observed bird in the country, and certainly one of the easiest to spot. It is seen all year round, and is particularly fond of garden feeders in the winter. you’ll often see blue tits accompanied by great tits and coal tits. You’ll hear them too: their call is a mix of whistles, trills and friendly chirrups.
One of the first birds I ever identified was a blue tit. I was about six years old, and I liked to hang out next to the stone bird table in our garden. It was actually a large cider-press stone, originally used for squeezing and collecting the juice from crushed apples. There was a channel around the edge, designed to collect apple juice, but it was brilliant fun to fill with water from a bucket, and watch it flow down the channel to an opening where it cascaded onto the grass. My mother would scatter scraps and crumbs, and I loved watching blue tits, among many other birds, revelling among this buffet of delights, marooned by my moat.
My other memory of blue tits is of them pecking the foil off the tops of milk bottles. When I was growing up in the 1970s, milk was delivered to our door in glass bottles with foil tops – and it was always full-cream milk, none of that health-conscious semi-skimmed or skimmed stuff. Back then, there was no high-speed broadband, so we had to rely on other forms of entertainment, like watching blue tits pecking the foil off the tops of milk bottles. The cream would rise to the top of the bottle, which the wily blue tits somehow knew was a great nutritional treat. Which is why many mornings you’d find the foil pierced through, or even removed and left in the bushes, folded into an origami swan. Actually, that was me.
A Blue Tit chick
PS from me, They are great helpers in the garden. They notice every tiny pest and dispose of it with gusto, sometimes knocking off the roseheads in the process while searching among the petals.
The crow, or to give it its full name, the carrion crow, is much maligned as a bad omen. Its harsh cawing is the soundtrack of every film and TV historical drama when dark deeds are afoot. It’s the ultimate in symbolic portents, shapeshifters, Game of Thrones-type dream sequences – far worse than the Barn Owl. Basically, when the crows show up, some sort of grisly death is not far off. The collective noun tells of a history of fear and suspicion: a ‘murder’ of crows.
Crows have a particularly bad reputation with hill farmers as they have the rather unpleasant habit of bothering pregnant sheep, and attacking them.
All in all, this means they are perhaps among the most unloved of all British birds.
It’s a shame, because the crow is actually a rather beautiful bird, its jet-black plumage showing iridescent purples in the sunlight. It’s also highly intelligent and communicative.
Once while asleep in a house in Devon I was woken by a tapping sound around 4.30am. Weirdly, I’d been dreaming about being in a house and hearing a tapping sound. The tapping got more insistent. I got up and walked through to the living room, the noise getting louder. And there it was, a crow tapping insistently on the glass door, exactly as if it was saying, ‘Look, I don’t have my keys, any chance you could let me in?’
I can’t help but admire them. They are fighters, and are supremely adaptable. They’re tough, street-smart scrappers in the struggle for survival. They’ve been persecuted for years – hunted, trapped, loathed, demonised – yet now they’re seen all over Britain.
The exception to their omnipresence is in the north of Scotland and Northern Ireland, where their cousins, the hooded crows, have staked out their territory. These dapper grey and black birds, known locally as ‘hoodies’, are a different species. But they’ve interbred so much that traditionally black crows may well actually be hoodies in disguise.
The way to distinguish a crow from a rook is by its deep black bill. The rook’s tends to be smaller and paler. Also, rooks like hanging out in a group, whereas the crow is often seen on its own, or maybe in pairs.
PS from me, Crows are rarely in my garden but they chase sparrowhawks and for that I am grateful.
The CRESTED GREBE
A striking and elegant waterbird, the great crested grebe – with its remarkable frondy tufts on either side of its face – can be seen on natural lakes, gravel-pit lakes and reservoirs.
Some of my fondest childhood memories were spent up at Chew Valley Lake with my family, looking out for grebes with my grandfather. The great crested grebe was the prize spot – once we’d seen one, that meant we could have lunch.
A lovely sight is a female grebe with her chicks peeking out through her feathers as they take a ride on her back.
Unfortunately, once upon a time, the ornate feathers around the crest were used in women’s fashion accessories, like hats, and the soft feathers around the throat were known as ‘grebe fur’. In 1851, a letter in The Zoologist magazine remarked that the grebe’s feathers were a ‘beautiful substitute for furs’. Many a smart lady about town would be seen in ‘grebe-feather’ adornments. Not so lucky for the grebe…
Unsurprisingly, this led to enormous demand, and again – you may be seeing a pattern emerge here – these birds were hunted almost to extinction. By 1860 there were only forty-two pairs left in Britain.
Laws were passed at the end of the nineteenth century to protect these birds, and gradually the numbers went up. Ironically, it was the effects of social and industrial change in the twentieth century which really helped the grebe out. The arrival of mass car ownership and road transport led to huge road-building projects needing materials like gravel. So artificial lakes were created by flooded gravel pits, which the grebes happily moved into.
The HOUSE SPARROW
The house sparrow is one of the most widely spread wild birds in the world.
I’ve seen this industrious scamp retrieving a chunk of dropped bread from under the table of an outdoor New York restaurant, as well as scratching its ear on a hotel roof in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I’ve just reread that sentence, and realised that I have done both these things myself.
This is a bird that has really got to travel, grabbed those opportunities, and thrived. Wait, this is me again. Perhaps I was a sparrow in my previous life. That would explain my fondness for crumbs and hopping about in a distracted manner.
In the UK, house sparrow numbers have declined in recent years in urban areas; in fact, it has all but disappeared from London, and these days I rarely see one. It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of British wildlife. Where have all the sparrows gone? There are many possible explanations for this. One is that, in city areas, greenery has been replaced by car parks and other developments. It could be pesticide, sparrowhawks (who, as their name implies, like to eat sparrows) or maybe even radiation from mobile phones. Maybe they just got bored with London, fancied a change. No one knows exactly. Certainly they are not as numerous as they once were.
When it is around, the house sparrow lives quite happily side by side with humans, as its name might suggest. They seem very familiar to many people across the world, maybe because they’ve cropped up in the literature of many cultures, appearing in ancient texts, hieroglyphs, and even Shakespeare’s plays and the Bible. The famous tiny French singer Edith Piaf got her surname from the French nickname for sparrow.
There’s nothing quite like a magpie. With its unmistakable black and white plumage and its long tail, it’s a smart bird. Especially when up close, the black is revealed to have a lustrous purply sheen to it, with a glorious tinge of green in the tail.
But its dashing looks and inquisitive nature have not earned it many friends. The magpie has a bad reputation, mainly as a thief. It likes shiny things and magpie nests have often been found lined with bits of foil, rings, even car keys. Subsequently, its bold, mischievous demeanour coupled with its physical splendour make the magpie the dandy highwayman of British birds. Its stealing ways are not always so charming, though. It also has a habit of raiding other birds’ nests and stealing chicks and eggs.
But there’s no doubt that this is a winner in the bird race. Numbers are up, and from having been persecuted in Victorian times, they are now a common sight in our gardens, cities and on busy roads.
When I’m crisscrossing the country on a tour, I am constantly amazed by the sheer recklessness of these birds. Having spotted a bit of roadkill, they hop and fuss about it, pecking away on the hard shoulder of the M6. A couple of feet away – certain death. But the magpies seem to take no notice, blithely skitter-flapping about as three lanes of traffic hurtle by. This is high-risk snacking and sometimes the magpies’ luck runs out.
A Magpie Funeral
But then something amazing happens. Magpies will sometimes hold ‘funerals’ for a dead companion. If a bird is killed on the road, one will start to squawk, attracting more magpies, and some of them will actually lay blades of grass next to the body, stand quietly as if ‘paying their respects’, then fly off.
The magpie has long been associated with superstition and bad luck. So much so that I remember as a child, if you saw a solitary magpie, you had to hold your collar until you saw a four-legged animal. As we usually had a dog in the car, this was an easy jinx to break.
The image of a robin in a snowy scene adorns a million Christmas cards, and consequently this plucky pretty creature could make a claim as our most well-known bird. Robins have many collective nouns to describe a group of them, but I think the most appropriate is a ‘carol’ of robins.
It’s a cliche to picture a robin perched on the handle of a garden spade, but like most cliches, it exists because it happens so often. This image really does epitomise its tame and companionable character.
Compared to many common garden birds, the robin’s eyes are larger and darker, and this gives the impression of it being more ‘human’. Because we set so much store by visual information, this feature has, I am sure, endeared us to the robin over other garden birds. In fact, their eyes are proportionally bigger than ours!
It also appears friendly. It hops around quite happily when we are out in the garden, apparently unfazed by human company. Although they are by no means pushovers. The males are fiercely territorial and will defend their turf robustly, sometimes quite violently.
Here are two particularities about the robin: first, they are the only birds that sing consistently through the winter – while other birds are holing up, these songsters keep trilling, and the only time they pack it in for a bit is in summer when they’re moulting, and therefore vulnerable. And second, the robin has a heart rate of a thousand beats a minute, which is probably why it appears so perky and inquisitive – hyperactive even.
Apparently, many small birds have a fast heart rate, but I reckon it’s hard to say for certain. As I know with our pet bird, Jakob the cockatoo, in order to check a bird’s heart rate you have to restrain it somehow, which might result in an unnaturally rapid beat. If I was thinking ‘Aaaagh, I’m in the grip of a bearded giant,’ that would nudge my pulse up a bit too.
PS from me, The robin in my garden is the most dedicated gardener.
When I do any work, he supervises me all the time, watching if I am doing things properly.
He loves coming to the house for friendly company, sitting by my side when I am ironing. He likes to exchange news about things happening in the garden. Looking at the shelves full of books, he seems to be asking – what are they for?
In autumn, huge numbers of visiting starlings show up in Britain to spend the next few months making the most of our relatively mild winters. When these shivering incomers swell the ranks of our own resident population of starlings, an extraordinary thing happens. At dusk, in their favourite haunts, huge numbers of these birds take to the air, swooshing around in tight formation, before settling for the night.
I have stood and watched this, rapt, my mouth gaping in wonderment at the sight of an immense flock of starling – sometimes over a million birds – painting huge patterns against the evening sky.
The images are constantly morphing into different shapes. One second, a giant hand takes form, then a fish, then a strand of DNA, only to dissolve and fold again in this sentient cloud, this natural art installation.
This phenomenon, known as a ‘murmuration’, is one of the most spectacular displays in British wildlife, and if you haven’t seen it for yourself yet, where have you been? It’s not just the starlings deciding to show off, there is a practical reason for this – safety in numbers. A huge swirling mass of birds makes it harder for predators like peregrine falcons to focus on one individual.
One of the best known of these flock sites is the old pier on Brighton seafront. I remember one fine evening, after a huge downpour of rain, I was standing on the balcony of my hotel, breathing in the air with that post-rain zing to it. And then, without warning, the sky over the old pier was filled with what seemed to be black smoke. The sound revealed its true nature, this immense fluttering phasing in and out as it bounced off the buildings around. I watched, occasionally laughing out loud with amazement, marvelling at this incredible display.
Starlings are also skilled mimics, and will incorporate the calls of other birds into their song, along with fragments of other sounds like the ringing of a phone, the whooshing of running water, or the creak of a door closing. Their song itself is a jumble of whistles, squeaks, clicks, snatches of melody and sound effects. A bit like scrolling through the frequencies on a radio dial. Mozart bought a starling as a pet in 1784 after he heard one sing a section of his Piano Concerto in G major. His composition ‘A Musical Joke’, with its seemingly random and abrupt changes and off-key notes, was almost certainly inspired by the song of the starling.
PS from me, I could only marvel at Mozart’s delight when his starling pet would whistle whole parts of his Piano Concerto no.17 in G major. He wrote in his pocket notebook his version of the tune and underneath also the starling’s version. His following comment on the starling’s interpretation was – Das war schon! That was wonderful!
The starling’s version is shown below and simulated in the audio clip underneath.
Mozart’s actual composition is shown below and played in the audio clip underneath.
The wren is, on the face of it, quite a nondescript sort of bird.
It’s small, brown and almost spherical, with a short tail angled straight up, nearly vertical, like a lolly stick got stuck to its backside.
By small, I mean it’s the size of a decent apricot, or a toddler’s balled-up sock. We’re talking very small. Not as small as the goldcrest, but actually a bit shorter. It’s about the size of one and a half falafels. And while we’re on statistics, one mute swan – you remember, might break your arm, Mr Spalding etc., – well, one mute swan weighs the same as 1,400 wrens. Which is a tug of war I’d love to see.
It has a surprisingly loud singing voice and a complex song. In fact, in ratio to its size, it has the loudest voice of any bird in the country. It sings mainly at dawn, as this is when other males will challenge him for his territory. These diminutive crooners will compete for turf in a kind of ‘sing-off’, with the females choosing the most captivating song.
It’s a proud bird that doesn’t like getting upstaged. When it’s angry, its tiny brown body quivers with annoyance. It prances about tetchily, uttering an irritated mantra of ‘tchik tchik tchik’.
I was trying to spot White-Tailed Eagles on the Isle of Mul in Scotland one day, as you do, and I heard this disapproving ‘tchik tchik’ coming from a hedge. It really felt like it had a sarcastic tone, as if the wren was cross with me for favouring the eagles, and ignoring him. ‘Oh wow, an eagle. Great, but they are supposed to be here. What about me in this bleak and remote location. Didn’t expect me to be here, did you, beardy?’
Delicate yet resilient, they are the most widespread bird in Britain, from lowland fens, to Highland moors. They are also Paul McCartney’s favourite bird, apparently.
In ancient folklore, the wren hid among the feathers on the back of the eagle, and thus managed to fly higher, earning the name, cheekily, of King of All Birds.
All hail to the King!