As the memory of this summer’s sporting carnival fades into a pleasant haze of taut thighs and cobblestone abs, it is very important to ignore the BBC and to remind yourself that the world has not fundamentally changed. That despite the heroics of our strapping Olympians there is still a place out there for the undersized and the flabby. That the genetic lottery does not bless everyone with the musculature of Hercules and the inquisitiveness of a coal-face, and that we can’t all have a career in throwing stuff. In some realms the diminutive, the fleshy, the slow of metabolism and short of stature are still lauded, and indeed, lusted after. So console yourselves my lardy, low-legged readers – if you were a male moorhen you’d definitely be getting laid.
I have been watching moorhens a lot this year. Once-upon-a-time I worked in an office and would waste days in gazing out of the window, fantasising about working outside. Now I work outside there ain’t no windows, so I gaze at moorhens instead (Kids – try not to confuse being lazy with being in the wrong career). Anyway, moorhens lead an Amazonian existence; the usual sexual politics of the avarian world are backwards; hefty females fight for cowering males, the dominant hen winning the right to any partner she fancies. Often she will plump for the smallest and least-well built mate around. It makes sense; she will do most of the foraging and he will do the incubating – muscle is a calorie hungry commodity and fuelling it prevents that lovely soft insulating fat from being deposited. Why waste all those raw eggs feeding a Usain Bolt when what’s needed is a hot water bottle with testicles?
(This method of sexual selection may well develop in our own species. When men are no longer required to push over trees and women become the major bread winners girls will boast about their new man as one would the fuel efficiency of a car “oh e’s awfully cheap to run, I get an whole month out of one omelette.”)
After the fighting comes a very short bit of sex and a long period of nest building. I missed the sex this year, but was around to see the happy couple spend a languid fortnight stripping every leaf from our recently planted stand of Iris pseudacorus. After incorporating just four leaves into their twiggy platform, the rest hurtfully discarded, a clutch of eggs appeared. There followed an anxious three-week wait, my nights beset by fears of sterility and swimming foxes, before I finally got to see the six little new born chicks eaten by magpies. Such is nature.
But as any athlete will tell you, practice make perfect. Couldn’t hurl your pointed stick far enough? Just spend the next four years chucking stuff about and try again. Couldn’t raise any of your half-dozen offspring in the past two-days? Have another batch and try again. These birds are nothing if not quixotic; come magpies, come herons, come foxes and cats, come pike, mink, otters and rats, my moorhens shall succour you all.
The pair under my supervision are now onto their third brood of the year. Just one of batch 2.0 escaped the myriad predators and reached young adulthood, but this lone survivor affords me a view of ornithology’s most beautiful sight – moorhen sibling care. I’m currently witnessing a bird that I’ve watched and worried about since she was a defenceless black dot of fluff start instinctively taking on responsibility for protecting and feeding her younger brothers and sisters. Despite juvenile moorhens being exceptionally ugly birds, all oversize feet and mud-brown plumage, and despite the young bird misguidedly feeding the baby chicks almost exclusively on small white pieces of gravel, it is a deeply moving sight.
When winter eventually rolls into Highgate the young birds will develop the characteristic black foliage and red bills of the adult moorhen, and will leave the nest, the parents and our garden, and I’ll have nothing to gaze at anymore. Maybe I’ll even get round finishing that lawn I came out here to edge back in April. Speaking of which – sorry about the lack of horticulture this post; until next time just plant everything in moist but well drained soil. Full sun.