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1,001 things not to do in London: feed the birds

Posted at 6:30 pm, June 29, 2013 in Fun London, Outdoor London
Michael Hodges, Feed the birds

Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges has been dallying with danger so you don’t have to. This week’s thing not to do in London – No 671 – feed the birds

Birds, if you take time to consider their behaviour, can be shits. There is the pecking and the flapping and, of course, the crapping, but there’s also the way they strut around London as if it is them rather than us who are the real owners of the city, and that it is us, the humans, who are here on their sufferance.

And there’s the air of disapproval. How many times have you been doing something and have stopped only to find that you are being watched by a bird? (Usually something that you shouldn’t be doing, like drinking those pre-mixed gin and tonics straight from the tin on a railway platform that is also occupied by a crocodile of yellowbibbed nine-year-olds on a school
trip to the British Museum.) And did the bird look pretty unhappy about what it was seeing? I would guess it did, for the London bird is not only swift to judge, he is humourless. Ask yourself: have I ever seen a
happy bird in London? Not a sneering or a mocking bird, or a cackling-with-glee-at-someone’s misfortune bird, but just a genuinely content, wellbalanced, at-one-with-nature-and-the-world sort of bird? Thought not.

That said, unless you’re a hardline bird-hater, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the capital’s avian inhabitants. Their diet, for a start, is pretty boring. Take the stuff I’m feeding the mob of mallards, coots, geese and pigeons gathered around my feet on my Saturday-morning trip to the
park. Stale plain white bread, ripped up into little bits and transported in a plastic bag that has made it sweat profusely. Yuck. Yet everything with
feathers appears to love it.

Then there’s the accommodation. In the wild, a bird can settle down underneath a waterside bush and be reasonably confident that it will be left to get on with its business (literally, that being the main thing that birds do). Not in London, where humans are everywhere encroaching on the birds’ habitat. There is startling evidence of this intrusion on my immediate left where for some time the bushes have been shaking and twitching and a series of yelps and moans have been coming out. I have put this twitching and yelping down to foxes mating. And I am half right.

Now, after a final frenzy of shaking, the foliage gives up its secrets. There is a frantic commotion that scatters a previously hidden family of starlings, and gasps of pleasure are immediately followed by a burst of angry quacking. A disgruntled duck comes hurtling out of the thicket and settles in a flurry of splashes and complaints on the water where
I am casting the bread.

A man and a woman follow the duck. The man is doing up the buttons on his jeans, the woman is pulling her T-shirt back down over her bra. The mating has been human. I’m quite shocked, though given the mixture of gasp and quacks, I suppose it could have been much worse. The bird at least recovers quickly. A moorhen with a gobbet of damp Mother’s Pride that overhangs either side of its beak paddles by aloofly and the duck reveals itself to be a bully, bashing the moorhen over the head with its bill until the smaller bird releases its bread and the duck eats it.

The woman finishes adjusting her T-shirt, pushes her hair behind her ears, points to my feet and says, ‘Didn’t you see the sign?’ I follow her finger and find behind me a large sign that reads: ‘Do not feed the birds white bread.
They cannot digest it and it will make them ill.’

No one shouts. Senior citizens shake their heads, their worst fears about the younger generation confirmed here in a public park. Small children and spent sexual athletes alike look saddened rather than angry. Unspoken words of opprobrium hang heavy in the air. There he is, they seem to say: the man who fed the birds white bread.

Read more about Michael Hodges’ escapades.

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