Feathered friends and a prickly affair

Damien Enright on bird-watching and massaging hedgehogs.

A NEW bird book reached me in the post this week. Bird-watching is increasingly popular with those who like to wander out of doors but to enjoy this book, one does not have to wander at all: Ireland’s Garden Birds — How to Identify, Attract and Garden for Birds, provides all one could need for enjoyable domestic bird-watching.

The book is written by doyens of Irish birding, Oran O’Sullivan and Jim Wilson, and published by The Collins Press at €16.99.

While it would make an ideal Christmas present, I’d be inclined to hand it over now, as winter comes in, birds flock to the bird table and are more visible as the leaves fall. The book’s great strength is its usefulness to the amateur.

The photo galleries, with a matchbox-size, full-colour picture of each of the 56 birds dealt with, will enable the novice to quickly name what he or she is looking at on the bird table. In more comprehensive field guides, many hundreds of species are illustrated and there’s no way of identifying the bird you saw other than thumbing through page after page until one finds a match.

Added to the sheer enjoyment of educating oneself, there’s the chance one will find a new vocation in providing suitable food and flora to attract our feathered friends to the domestic patch.

Oran O’Sullivan has written comprehensively on this and between himself and Jim Wilson, they have provided a user-friendly manual, sure to become dog-eared through regular reference over the years.

The second book the postman brought was a quirky little volume called A Prickly Affair. It’s published by Allen Lane in paperback at £14.99, and written by Hugh Warwick, a man whose world revolves around hedgehogs. It’s an enjoyable read if you have any interest in these prickly creatures, and it’s written in a style which will engage those with even a minor passing interest.

Warwick is an engaging writer, eccentric and idiosyncratic. He follows hedgehogs at night via a radio signals. He prefers nothing more than to snuffle around with his spiny friends, all endowed with names and each of which, he avows, has a distinct personality.

We learn a lot about hedgehogs from Hugh. For instance, that they climb, that they can swim. That they taste of pork — hence the “hog”. That they are sometimes eaten by badgers, and by humans — a Roadkill Hedgehog Spaghetti Carbonara recipe, serves four, is supplied. They can be massaged and persuaded the uncurl if you use the right technique. I wish there was an index; I have to thumb through the book again to confirm that, under the influence of Mr Warwick’s matey and often amusing prose, I didn’t dream up some of his tales. It is a meandering book in every sense: he takes us to China to a restaurant called Waiting for Godot, and gives us a literary taste of exotic cuisine. He tells us Nepal Airlines sacrifice a goat to the gods to help keep their planes flying.

Chapters are headed: What is a Hedgehog?; What do Hedgehogs Do?; Hedgehogs and Birds; Hedgehogs and People. In Part Two, we find “A Brief Interlude at the International Hedgehog Olympic Games” and in Part Three, “How we can look after Hedgehogs” and “How Hedgehogs Can Save the World”. Hedgehogs introduced to Scottish islands decimated the seabirds nesting there, so they had to be collected and flown back to the mainland.

The next time I meet a hedgehog and I want it to uncurl so that one of my small grandchildren can stroke its furry tummy. You place the rolled-up creature on your two palms and then begin to slowly draw them apart. The hedgehog, feeling the space open beneath it, uncurls and, so long as you are gentle, you can stroke its belly to its and your hearts’ content. And the fleas won’t invade you: they’re hedgehog-specific.

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

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