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Food For Free

Tony Soper Writes
27th January 1997

Our monstrous sunflower-seed feeder is dispensing full time in daylight hours, the greenfinches are in finch heaven. At this time of year they think only of their bellies. I suppose if I had enough time, I could stand outside my workroom window and hold out a handfull of peanuts and they might, if I were really lucky, find time to say thank you before swallowing another calorie-rich seed or nut.

But its a fair return for my hospitality. They provide me with endless excuses for stopping work and staring out of the window, for which much thanks. I know the purists tut-tut at the mere thought of artificial feeding, but that's always seemed to me a nonsensical approach. There are endless ways in which we deprive birds of feeding opportunities, so it makes sense to make things a bit easier for them sometimes. Anyway, I enjoy offering food and seeing who is prepared to come and sup at my birdtable.

I think I've told you about the local mute swans which think nothing of power-gliding in to land at my feet with a great splashing at the edge of the beach, in return for what's left of yesterday's bread. And about my triumph with a wintering whooper which finally plucked up courage to swan in and take Mother's Pride best-baked white bread from my gingerly outstretched hand. But I'm working towards that sort of relationship with the winter waders on the foreshore. I know that mealworms might be a lot more welcome, but turnstones will take bread. And I just know that if only I had time enough to stand and deliver, they'd take it from my hand.

Only a year or so ago, I stood on the deck of a ship as we ploughed up the Californian coast, and a party of pomarine skuas joined us. I reckoned they had a hungry look about them and sure enough, on being offered stale buns from the galley, they swooped down and took it. And I've got absolute evidence for that one, because I was watched by an incredulous RSPB man from the Scottish Office.

Not so long ago, roast swan was the accepted dish for a Christmas dinner. As royal birds, kept by grace and favour, they lent a certain air of distinction to a gentleman's estate. But, without a doubt, their palatability was a potent attraction. They fetched a fair price at market; no prestigious banquet was rated a success unless itsmenu was graced by swan. Swan meat fetched significantly more than goose, pheasant or capon in the Middle Ages. But Britain, and most particularly southern Britain, is not the watery place it was in those days, and we'd be hard put to it to provide posh banquets with the hundreds of swans that were common in years gone by, and, anyway, swans look best when they simply decorate a waterway. So cook your turkey with a clear conscience, and spare a Christmas crust for the plump cygnets which will still be following their long-suffering parents for a while yet, till they're shooed off to find a watery patch of their own.

Tony Soper

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