It was Mike that noticed something astonishing about the fody. We noticed over a week or two that our fody was becoming ill. It’s beautiful strident plumage was weakening, the red feathers were loosening and brown plumage was poking through from underneath. He went missing for several days. I thought we had lost him forever.
Mike, who spent many more months on the island than anyone else, was the one that worked it out. One day I was munching on flakes and he pointed out an oddly shaped sparrow in amongst the rest of the flock. He was thinner of body and the beak was a different colour. Mike said – that is our fody and he looks healthy. Apparently the males only have this wonderful cardinal red colour when they are breeding. Once they lost it they looked like an ordinary dull brown bird. And the females are that colour all year round. It was quite possible that a couple of females had been in amongst the sparrows feeding all the time but we had never noticed it. Towards the end of my time in Mauritius, I noticed our pet fody was starting to colour up once more ready for a new season of breeding.
It was a rare privilege to be so close to birds, albeit the slightly artificial surroundings of our starchy feeding station. While I had always lived near gardens that contained bird feeders, we did not set them up within an arms distance of our observation posts. Here the birds were flitting around at our feet, flying right past our noses. You get to notice some things that you would generally not consider. OK true, the life in our little compound was more boring than in some parts of the world, so you started to focus on minutiae, but I did discover something I had never considered before.
It was really a question I posed to myself. How big does a bird have to be to stop hopping and start walking? That is, when does the action of moving on the ground stop being a simultaneous action for two legs, and turns into our more familiar gait of one foot in front of the other. The little sparrows were like clockwork toys. On the ground they hop hop hopped everywhere. If they wanted to turn, they gave a twitch of their wings, maybe a flutter here, but the legs just hopped up and down and could never change direction. The fody did the same. I was not so sure of the weaver birds, they did seem to hop occasionally but they also seemed large enough to be able to manage their legs separately. The mynah walked like a lord in mourning suit, and the pigeons waddled their fat body so much from one side to the other ever time they lifted a step. Which species did what?
The other things we noticed was that birds don’t mind crapping where they eat, and this became a big bugbear with the cleaner when she came round every Saturday. More about here anon.