Tuesday 2 December 2008

Flight or Invisibility?

(Maison des Oiseaux)
The American writer John Hodgman regularly played a game on the American Life radio show called 'flight or invisibility'. He would try to trap various celebrities by asking which of the two superpowers they would prefer, as to him there is a right and wrong answer. As he explains, “flight is the hero; selfless and confident and unashamed, while invisibility is the villain.” This blog is testament to the fact that the adult me has chosen invisibility, but take me back to my childhood and I would have instantly grasped the wings.

For a long stretch of my youth, one of my major interests in life was birds. For a young boy, what’s not to love in a beast that is the living descendant of the dinosaurs? I was a member of the YOC (Young Ornithologists Club) and had a large collection of bird books and a pair of binoculars to observe my feathered friends in the garden. I learned to recognise all of these backyard visitors, and was fascinated by their delicate forms, the pallettes of colours and of course their freedom to flitter and fly, swoop and soar. I grew out of this passion, but what we learn in our tender years stays with us throughout our lives, and I can still identify most birds either by plumage or by song.

The limited ornithological variety of Paris is not a great challenge to my skills. Just about everyone recognises a moineau (sparrow) or a merle (blackbird), but how many city dwellers would recognise a pie-grièche à tête rousse (woodchat shrike) or a jaseur boréal (waxwing) if they popped up in their urban environments? There is one place that the inhabitants of Paris can go to work on their skills though, the ‘Maison des Oiseaux’ situated in the Square Capitan next to the Arènes de Lutece.

Opened in 2007, this facility serves mostly clubs and school parties, but it is also open to the general public each Saturday afternoon from 2.30. Accessible through a small white doorway, this maison is a rather charming converted house, sitting on a little plateau overlooking a children’s play area. The principal attraction of this small space is the main room, crammed with glass cases displaying skeletons, eggs, nests and pellets. To one side, large windows overlook an external garden area that has been specially created to attract birds. Two pairs of binoculars sit waiting on a windowsill, but sadly during my visit no birds present themselves to me for observation.

Listed on a board in this room are all the birds that have been spotted in the adjoining Arènes de Lutece. Apart perhaps from a kestrel, nothing on this list seemed particularly exceptional or interesting. Would I be able to outperform them and spot one of the rarer birds? Bye bye blackbirds, I wanted to spot a stately raven! I wandered around outside, but at half-past three, not a single bird.

According to a document
created by the city of Paris, including the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, 150 varieties of bird can be seen in the city, with 75 of these being nesting varieties. Although my days of spotting and listing are long passed, I don’t believe that I can have seen more than 20 of these in my time in the city. This though is perhaps systematic of a curious French paradox. In this still largely agricultural country, nature is more abundant than in neighbouring lands but also more difficult to spot. Animals hide themselves to avoid hunters, but they also have more space to roam around in. In England, the lack of space has created a proximity to nature, with foxes, squirrels, hedgehogs and sometimes even badgers and deer popping up in urban environments.

In smaller territories animals have to adapt their lifestyles to survive in congested environments, but in France wild beasts can live as they always have. Naturally, this also applies to birds. Why would they choose to visit Paris when the city is surrounded on all sides by vast swathes of agricultural land that is sufficient for their needs? Although the document mentioned above also describes how kestrel and jackdaw tourists have made temporary homes in the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, the only true city birds are greasy pigeons and sneaky sparrows – the Piafs of this Belle Ville. These are ground feeders though; perhaps in cities having the ability to fly also means that you become invisible.


Would you rather be invisible or have the ability to fly? Give your answer in the survey!
Have you seen any interesting birds in Paris or in other cities?


Nathalie H.D. said...

I'd chose ability to fly, no doubt!

I completely agree with your comment about wildlife being so difficult to spot in France - hadn't thought of that being the reason but it makes sense I guess.

I LOVED Australia for the proximity with a wide number of colourful birds, it was magic! It's one of the things I really miss about OZ.

The large window here looks similar to mine. Too bad there was nothing to see. Don't they put seeds or fat to attract birds there?

And to answer your question in Avignon yes my window is huge. It's a 3 metre wide French window with sliding doors giving onto a a 4x3 metre rooftop terrace. When I'm at my desk I can see a large portion of sky and I love it. It's like having extra breathing space.

Nathalie H.D. said...

PS - sorry that I missed a number of your previous posts, I was in Venice with Peter (Peter's photos)for a few days. We had a gorgeous bloggers extended weekend. You'll see it all on Peter's blog when he gets home next week. Cheers

Adam said...

No need to apologise Nathalie - I'm glad you had a lovely time. It must be nice when the virtual blogging world becomes such an exotic reality!

I think they probably don't put out food for the birds as they don't want to create an unnatural environment and make them dependant on man. Perhaps they could rustle up a few worms or spiders though!

Anonymous said...

As sinister as it may seem, it would have to be invisibility for me please... I think it could often come in handy. It always seemed to for The Gemini Man, anyway. I think I'll invest in a chunky digital watch...

Marguerite said...

Tiens Adam, me voici sous une autre de mes facettes, et je me suis choisi comme photo fr profil un des oiseaux qui est né et a grandi dans notre jardin.
Nous habitons la ville nouvelle, un pavillon entouré d'un jardin. Lorsque nous sommes arrivés, les oiseaux n'avaient pas d'endroit pour se percher, ils se mettaient sur les piquets de clôture.
J'ai un séjour dit "traversant" avec des grandes fenêtres l'une en face de l'autre, j'ai collé des affolants sur mes fenêtres, des silhouettes de vautour, car les oiseaux ont l'habitude de s'y cogner et parfois de se rompre le cou. Ce fut le cas de mésanges et de merles.Et cependant cette année, j'ai du ramasser un étourneau au plumage tacheté et une corneille à la queue carrée
Il y a cinq ans, l'année de la canicule, il y a même eu une chouette chevêche qui m'a regardée avec de grands yeux jaunes (elle a laissé sa trace grasse et quelques plumes grises sur notre fenêtre), et puis elle a pu s'en aller.

Cergie said...

Lorsque je vais dans le jardin, le rouge gorge me tient compagnie, en fin d'après midi, car il a des horaires de ministre ! Il doit faire le tour de son territoire
Nous avons un couple de mésanges bleues en ce moment. Les oiseaux vivent tous à des étages différents, ainsi ils ne se gênent pas, les mésanges vivent en hauteur. Nous avons deux couples qui se reproduisent dans le jardin, les petits sont très bruyants
Les petits rouge gorge sont silencieux, nous n'avons eu que deux nichées.
Et les merles nous mangent tous nos raisins ! Tant pis !
(Nous avons des tourterelles aussi, en été, qui boivent l'eau de notre half barrel à poissons)
J'oubliais : j'ai UN moineau ; il vit seul alors que d'habitude ils sont en groupe. Ce doit être un outlaw !

Adam said...

Cergie - ta description de ton jardin me rappel le jardin de ma mère en Angleterre. Je pense qu'elle connait tous ses visiteurs par coeur, surtout les merles qui viennent manager les raisins qu'elle leur donne. Malheureusement, elle a aussi deux chats qui apprecient aussi ces visiteurs, surtout les chardonneret élégant qui ne sont pas très 'streetwise'!

Gina V said...

Have you been to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature lately? I posted a photo from the Salon des Oiseaux a few days ago of "la voiture aux oiseaux", a found installation piece by the artist/designer Vincent Dubourg as evidence of a sad aspect of the "contemporary forest"!
And yes, free as a bird...to soar above it all!

Adam said...

Hi Gina,

No, I've never visited that museum as I've always been put off by the 'Chasse' part, but maybe I should give it a go.

I did see your fascinating photo. Any idea how old it was because the tree 'arms' looked very well developed!

Squirrel said...

Beautiful bird post, I went on bird walks with a group in Jamaica Bay New York when i was a kid--

The best birdwatching I experienced was in Ireland-- all along the west coast from furthest point south all the way up to Malin head. Donegal is amazing for birding.

regarding walking--
NYC is a city filled with walkers, as is Nyack-- Nyack has many walking and hiking trails running through town and one trail goes all the way to the GW Bridge. It is easy to walk from Nyack to the other river villages. there are soft paths esp. for that purpose.

Many people walk or bicycle in Nyack -- it is very easy to live here without a car. The famous appalachian trail runs through our county, and is easy to access. Hook Mounatin and Nyack state beach have a series of rugged trails. The county is roughly 1/3 greenspace and just 20 miles north of NYC. You would enjoy birding here I think-- too.

We used to walk from Forest Hills Queens to Manhattan on weekends for fun and have the option of taking the subway back.

I did see the most cars with dents and scrapes in Paris--I used to go there on business trips fairly often, and the traffic is amazing. I would rather walk in NYC or Paris than be driven in a taxi. I usually stayed right in the heart of Paris and needed no transport to get around.

Chicago is another city that is good to walk around in. Los Angeles and Miami are not known for walkers at all.

Have you walked in the catacombs? I enjoyed that very much. You're very lucky to live in Paris. !

ArtSparker said...

This Hodgman fellow - he sounds rather irritating. Both abilities have to do with being released from ordinary limitations and flight, as invisibility does, gives one the ability to escape. So I would disagree that one is more heroic. I would definitely choose flight, since it seems to me that all that invisibility would do would be to cause one to hedge one's bets constantly, certainly what we've seen in the U.S. is that spying on your neighbors doesn't make anybody better.

But then again, I am suspicious of the idea of heroism and also suspicious of binary thinking.

Adam said...

Hi Artsparker and thanks for your interesting comments. I think most of us would like to be invisible for a short space of time, but as was the case for HG Wells's "Invisible Man" anything more longer term is certainly not a gift, and nothing good can come of the experience.

Gina V said...

The Musée de la Chasse was reopened early last year after 3 years of renovations...I also resisted going for the same reason of being adversed to hunting, but was pleasantly surprised at how lovely it is laid out. I wrote a post about it on Parigigi..."Hunting Alexandre", if you would like to read about it before venturing there...also a link to their website on my site.

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