Nature 2015 February

Hilltop Villages Noir

I was staring out the window desperate for some inspiration on what to write. It was cold, grey, wet and windy. ‘Bleak’ came to mind and that rang a bell.

It was but a short jump to find the verse…

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”

A neat summary for this day in early January and one for which I need to thank Christina Rossetti. Still mesmerised by this sinister outlook, the one benefit I concluded about the eggshell white sky and leafless trees is that birds alighting on trees or in flight can be seen better at this time of year than any other.

I grew up in the black and white times of the ‘50s with a father that got me interested in wildlife during expeditions out from London to the Home Counties. We busied ourselves shaking trees and bushes for butterflies and moth larvae, poking around in ditches for pond life and, the most exciting of all, surprising anything that lurked under any abandoned and usually rusty corrugated iron. In this way a growing knowledge of insects and other arthropods, reptiles and amphibians developed apace. Meanwhile, birds pretty well passed me by, so I grew up without the nous required to identify birds. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Fast forward to 2015 and further study of the monochrome landscape through “the square window”, as Brian Cant or Floella Benjamin might say, reveals as yet indistinct outlines of several different birds. Distinguishing one from another is usually through having an idea about their songs and calls, or their flight patterns, or silhouettes, or their habits. All this sounds straightforward and dandy but I found it too much to bite off, at least all in one go. So I found a better approach was to pick just one bird you know visits your garden. Using, say, a song thrush, read how it is described in a field-guide. When spotting a thrush, see if you can match-up the distinguishing features that make a thrush unique: brown top (wing) plumage and buff white underside spotted with dark brown. Call sounds like “Come-out, come- out, come-out” and if you are lucky it might be cracking snail shells on a patio.

Though closely related, it differs a lot from the blackbird (male: black plumage and orange/yellow beak, female: brown tailing off blackish), on a dull day when colours are washed-out they can look very similar and are easily confused. So noticing the more subtle differences in profile is needed instead of colouration. Now read up about the mistle thrush: looks very like a song thrush but is slightly bigger and has larger and more well-defined breast spots. Now use the bit of new knowledge to separate one from t’other.

Now move on to distinguishing all the members of the tit family. Blue and great tit are easy and coal tit and long-tailed tit OK, but try comparing a willow with a marsh tit. This can be tough. I recently found a great little book to help me which I highly recommend: ‘The Helm Guide to Bird Identification’ by Keith Vinicombe. Another good challenge is sorting out the corvids -ackdaws, crows and rooks. These birds are epitome of ornithological noir!

* * *

From around 1937 until her death in 1976 Agatha Christie lived in the Chilterns near Wallingford. During both WW1 and WW2 she worked as a volunteer in a hospital. Her time was well-spent. She acquired an intimate knowledge from questioning doctors of the effects of different drugs on patients and to what extent poisons, when administered in certain doses, might remain undetected by pathologists. These days such conversations would raise some suspicions, but apparently Agatha was such a charmer that her gruesome interest in the macabre went unnoticed. A quote from her sums up her approach which produced 30 poison-based murders out of the total of 66 people dispatched in her novels. She once wrote “Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime.”

Agatha’s murderers tended to purchase their poisons from the high street chemist, however the plants from which many are derived can be found all around us. Most poisons are either still derived from, or at least were originally extracted from, plants and fungi. Favourites of Agatha included aconite, aka wolfbane or monkshood and deadly nightshade (the Anglo-Saxon name was dwale, which translates as ‘stupefying drink’). It is also the source of atropine, an ophthalmist’s favourite, but deadly in your cocoa.

We are familiar with foxgloves but digitalis products such as digitalin and digitoxin can keep the heart pumping or stop it. We are familiar today with what can be produced from relatives of the common poppy which, in Christie’s time, were only just becoming unacceptable drugs in everyday use. The Hilltop Villages were a major damson and cherry-producing area. The stone in the fruits of the Prunus family were a key source of cyanide, which was Agatha’s favourite poison. Taxine was a more exotic killer, apparently more difficult to detect, which is extracted from the fruit of the yew tree. Conine was another cleverly disguised poison obtained from hemlock, a relative of celery and angelica. The serious point to make about all these plants and their poisons is that there is no risk if you don’t ingest them. Botanical Noir!

* * *

I guess with the arrival of February that if worms, woodlice and beetles and their soil-loving companions were sentient beings they would be worrying that their peaceful existence was soon to be disturbed by the emergence of badgers and foxes – for whom up to 70 per cent of their diet is invertebrates – and shrews, who need to consume between 2-3 times their body weight each day to survive overnight. No wonder we can wake up each morning at this time of the year to little piles of topsoil and scrapes of leaf litter in our gardens. It’s murder on a major scale. Animal Noir!


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