I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist. If there really is a secret cabal running the affairs of the world, like the Bilderberg group, the Rosicrucians, or the Illuminati, they are so obviously incompetent that they deserve our sympathy, not our fear. I used to think the whole concept was just an idle fantasy. A fun but harmless thing for superannuated teenagers and lonely computer engineers to cling to, to while away the long, dark hours round midnight.
And then I heard about Pantone. Pantone is a real company that does stuff with colour that makes creative types happy. And on the side, twice a year, they gather together “representatives from various nations’ colour standards groups” for a “secret meeting” in a “European capital”.
Am I the only one who’s picturing this as a Cold War espionage movie? A man in a grey trench coat lights his face an eerie red for half a second as he drags on his cigarette in a darkened alley.
A woman in a pillbox hat with porcelain-pale skin and bright red lips loiters at a bar, surreptitiously scanning the crowd.
And what do they gather together for, this secretive little group? They are choosing, I kid you not, “The Colour Of The Year”. This year it’s Emerald. Last year it was Tangerine Tango. It all sounds a little silly. But it’s not. It’s a Very Big Deal.
Billions upon billions of dollars rest on that one seemingly innocuous decision. The fashion houses buy into it. They design their clothes around it. Product and packaging designers buy into it. Brace yourself for a wave of Emerald green perfume bottles and hand-cream jars. Advertisers buy into it. Merchandisers buy into it. Magazine editors buy into it. Interior decorators buy into it.
A bunch of strangers in a conference centre in Munich have decided what colour the world is going to be this year. They have chosen what colour the dresses will be at the Oscars. They have chosen the colour of the handbag you’ll be buying from Wal-Mart this year. And we are all going to listen!
Am I alone in finding this odd? Did you know your country had a colour standards group? Who chooses these people? Are they elected? Do they work for the government? Why do we listen to them? How on earth did they end up with such immense (if slightly odd) power? What If I don’t want to wear emerald underpants this year? Is there some sort of enforcement arm? Will they be coming round my house in the dead of night, armed with some colour swatches and some cans of paint?
Why am I telling you this? Because I want to write about birds. And I’ve found another conspiracy. An even stranger one. There is a shadowy, nameless, faceless group of conspirators who gather in secret every few years to arbitrarily change the common names of South African birds. You can pop out into your garden to throw some apple to the Grey Louries, only to find that you’ve been feeding some Go-away Birds instead. Because a bunch of strangers said so.
I’m not a troublemaker. Especially not when a sinister, khaki clad goon could be staring at me through a pair of powerful binoculars from the shrubbery as we speak. But I have some questions. Who the hell are these people? Who chose them? Who gave them such immense power? And most of all, why the hell are they doing this?
I have heard a couple of tepid half explanations bandied about. Mostly to do with “preventing confusion”, and “bringing uniformity”. Super! A group of strangers sat around a table and said “Right! From now on, half the birds that people have been calling Francolins will be called Spurfowl. The Grey Lourie will become the Grey Go-away Bird, and the Woodhoopoe will become the Scimatarbill. That should clear up a few things round here!”
I am mystified. This doesn’t happen with anything else. Representatives from “various nations’ furniture standards groups” don’t gather in underground bunkers near Vienna and decide that too many people are becoming confused between chairs and cheers, and that from now on the things we are all sitting in will be called “buttock elevators” to “prevent confusion”. Why birds?
Do they get paid? Because this is nice work if you can get it. Here are some of the profound and meaningful changes that have been made in the last few years:
The “African Scops Owl” was changed to the “African Scops-Owl”. That was a big day. The champers flowed like water. Delegates went home with hands chafed and bruised from all the high-fives.
The splendid-sounding “Blue Throated Sunbird” emerged as the “Plain Backed Sunbird”. Clearly there is not a poet among their numbers. Nor do they have a comedian. The “Knob-Billed Duck” has turned into the “Comb Duck” and the fabulous “Jackass Penguin” is now the “African Penguin”.
They might just have a chef, though The “Cinnamon Dove” held onto its foodie theme, and is now a “Lemon Dove”.
Their actions are not without unfortunate consequences, either. The change from “Stanley’s Bustard” to “Denham’s Bustard” must have left the Stanley family sitting round a table and staring morosely down at their beers, while the Denham’s donned party hats and formed a tequila fuelled conga line.
Drugs might be involved. The “Grey Phalarope” mysteriously morphed into the “Red Phalarope”. I find it difficult to imagine how the confusion arose. The colour changes are not always so radical, though. How many hours of spirited debate went into changing the “Bronze Sunbird” into the “Bronzy Sunbird”? I can just imagine a plump, florid man rising from his chair in voluminous khaki shorts and waffle-top socks and striking the table with his fist. “Fine!” he roars, binoculars swinging in agitation. “I’ll concede that it is not bronze. But I defy you to tell me it’s not kind of bronzy!”
And with that brief introduction out of the way, let’s have a look at a few more birds from South Africa’s Lowveld. Yes, good people, I’m afraid it’s time for another Lowveld ecosystem post.
The Hangover Bird.
Hangovers are not fun. Down in the Lowveld in midsummer, they are even less fun than usual. When we were old enough to fully take part in such things, we used to go down to the bush for New Year’s Eve. We used to get together for a huge party up at the communal pool. Great fun was had by all.
Less fun was had on New Year’s Day. It’s hot, for a start. Stupidly. It’s not unheard of for the temperature at dawn to be up around 30 degrees Celsius. And then it starts to get hotter. It’s bright, too. Even on a good day the sun glares down brightly enough to bring an ache to the back of the eyeballs. But those aren’t the real problem. This is the real problem.
It’s called a Woodland Kingfisher. It’s beautiful. It’s a handsome little bird with a two-tone beak and patches of turquoise on its back and wings so bright they would make those Pantone guys weep. Like many of the Kingfishers in the Lowveld, it doesn’t actually live on fish. It may take one or two every now and then, but it mostly lives on insects. It must be pretty good at catching them, too, because it seems to have rather a lot of free time on its hands. Time to sing. In the loosest sense of the word.
Waking up with a hangover in thirty degree heat is not fun. Your eyes feel like rough stone balls scraping around in a rusted metal cup. Your mouth feels like an old dog has slept in it and left his blanket behind. All the moisture in your body seems to have soaked through into your sheets, wrapping you in a damp, clammy cocoon. Your hair is as damp as your mouth is dry. Any light that finds your eyes burns down into even the darkest corners of your mind. And then you hear it.
“CHIT, CHIRRRRRRRRRRRR!” It’s loud. It’s shrill. It’s piercing. It’s unspeakably early. And in ten seconds, it’s going to happen again. “CHIT, CHIRRRRRRRRRRRR!” And ten seconds after that. “CHIT, CHIRRRRRRRRRRRR!” It is, in fact going to happen every ten seconds for what feels like the rest of your life. You can drag yourself off for a much needed shower. “CHIT, CHIRRRRRRRRRRRR!” You can force a greasy breakfast down your parched throat. “CHIT, CHIRRRRRRRRRRRR!” You can bury yourself back down in your clammy cocoon with a pillow over your head. “CHIT, CHIRRRRRRRRRRRR!”
Two hours later, with the temperature pushing 40, even the most rabid vegan would be on their knees and begging for a shotgun. Instead, all you can do is promise never to drink like this down in the bush again. ‘Til next year.
There are other kingfishers down in the Lowveld. Many look a lot like the Woodland, like bright little shards of blue and green glass, but there are others too, bigger, duller birds that really do live on fish. One of them, the Pied Kingfisher, is one of the only birds apart from hummingbirds that can hover without a headwind. Which is pretty handy when you want to fish out over the middle of a large dam.
This is a Fork-Tailed Drongo. It’s not very big. It is quite striking, mostly because it perches out in open, prominent spots. It also has what can only be described as balls of steel.
Many birds will gather in loud, noisy groups and mob birds of prey or snakes in their territories. This usually involves hopping around close to the threat and making a lot of noise. Not the Fork-Tailed Drongo. He will press home the attack. People have seen them knocking feathers out of Eagles ten times their size. And just for good measure, they are not averse to attacking people, either.
Don’t get carried away with admiration, though. The Fork-Tailed Drongo is a liar and a thief. Many birds mimic the calls of other birds. My parents used to have a bird in their garden that would mimic the telephone, sending them scurrying off to answer phantom calls. In some places the Fork Tailed Drongo has learned to imitate the alarm calls of the Suricate, a type of mongoose. He will follow behind a family of foraging Suricates, waiting for one to find and subdue a particularly juicy snack; a large beetle or lizard. Then he will swoop down, shrieking out the Suricates’ alarm call and sending them scurrying off for cover while he settles in to enjoy the abandoned prize.
The Songbird. Not.
Nature doesn’t waste energy. If a creature has evolved an effective method of achieving a goal, it’s unlikely to need another. Cheetahs can run blindingly fast. But they cannot run far. Elephants can knock down trees to get at the juiciest fruit and leaves, so they’ve never evolved the ability to climb. But if you want to see the best examples of this, look at birds.
If you’re sitting out in your garden and hear a beautiful little snatch of lilting birdsong, you might want to go and find the singer. You’re going to need a bit of luck to find him, though, because he is likely to be a drab, inconspicuous little thing. Why waste preciously energy growing bright, showy feathers when the ladies are lining up to hear your solo performance. This works for people too. Mick Jagger is not an attractive man.
It works the other way, too. Pop down to your local exotic pet shop and check out the Hyacinth Macaws. They are breathtakingly beautiful. Take some earplugs with you too, though. Their “song” will leave you with a thin trickle of blood flowing out of your ears.
Lilac Breasted Rollers are not quite as pretty as Hyacinth Macaws, but they’ll do. They’re a mix of slightly faded blues and pinks and, dare I say it, lilac, but when they fly, they reveal a patch of turquoise as bright as any Woodland Kingfisher. They are lookers.
And they know it. They like to find the most open, prominent perch in their territory and spend most of their time perched there, waiting to swoop down onto any little creature ill-advised enough to reveal itself. They don’t need to hide away. Despite their showy outfits they’re easily as tough as the Fork-Tailed Drongos, and they too are not averse to taking on hawks and eagles.
It is is quite fun if you find yourself a telephone line out in the bush. On top of every second or third pole, you will find a Lilac-breasted Roller, sitting there like a fallen shard of the African sunset. And if you’re lucky, they might sing to you. They sound like Oompa Loompas with sore throats.
And that, good people, is it for now. I’m not done yet, I’ve still got some cool sounding things like Oxpeckers and Babblers and Hornbills to go, but if I’m finding my own post too long I cannot imagine what you must be thinking. Part two will follow soon, unless a crack team of Emerald clad Pantone assassins get to me first.