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The International Writers Magazine: European Birds

Birds I Have Loved
Brendan O A Harding
From the black and white cranes of Estonia to the endangered lammergeyers of northern Spain birds have always held a fascination for travel writer Brendan Harding. In a village in rural Hungary he found another which brought a smile to his face.


Birds seem to have a special place in my travels. Whether it was my first time to see the fairy-tale shapes of black and white cranes nesting on the chimney stacks of Estonian farmhouses, or the dark silhouettes of lammergeyers hanging on the thermals over the mountains of Northern Spain, or even the long-legged striding of a secretary bird on the plains of Africa, each one is burned indelibly in my memory.

In a village in rural Hungary (whose name I can blame several bottles of Slivovitz for forgetting) I happened across an ethnological museum. 'Hooray!' I said, punching the air sarcastically before paying the meagre five-hundred Forint entrance fee, an ethnological museum, just what I wanted. It never ceases to amaze me the things I will do to while away a few golden hours in the depths of my travels (the Swedish museum of Police batons is still one of my all-time favourites).

Eventually, having wandered my way through the various scintillating exhibits of farm machinery, livestock husbandry, contraptions for weighing and measuring pumpkins and a plethora of dolls, animals and religious paraphernalia fashioned from corn-husks I found myself alone in a silent walled garden. With closed eyes I sat enjoying the sunshine and the Hungarian tranquility when a curious sound caught my attention – Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo went the sound – rather like an old gentleman pouring scorn on the tall-tales of a friend. I followed the sound deep into the garden. Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo went the sound again. The garden was shady with neat rows of juniper bushes and cherry trees lining its landscaped avenues. Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo, the strange sound continued. I was intrigued. Could it be the sound of a local resident finally driven to distraction by the sight of one corn-husk creation too many?

Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo. I felt sure the sound was getting closer. Then, in the short grass beneath a maple tree I saw him, a Hoopoe. If you think his name is strange in English just try it in Latin – Upupa Epops – sounding more like the noise a doting father makes playing peek-a-boo with his child than the scientific moniker of a rather beautiful and elegant little bird.

Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo he said looking in my direction. When he saw me he immediately raised his brilliant crest of orange, black and white head-feathers. It was the first time I had seen a hoopoe in the flesh (or in the feathers, if you insist). I didn't know which to look at first; its startling crest, the symmetry of its black and white barred wing feathers or the pale pinks and oranges of his under-parts. Its sounds ridiculous to say this now but the truth is – for me at least – he stood there beneath the branches of a spreading maple tree with all the regality of a king throned beneath an awning of luxurious green velvet. My first hoopoe.

If only I could get a little closer I thought, trying to ready my camera as quietly as possible. With a series of audible beeps like those of a drunken robot singing a sea-shanty, my camera sprung to life. Mr Hoopoe heard it too. I raised my camera to capture the moment but even as I pressed the shutter I knew I had missed it. The hoopoe flew through the air in a surprisingly floppy flight; a cross between an overweight butterfly and a plastic bag caught on the wind. And then he was gone.

But I had seen my first Hoopoe and I needed to tell someone. Not being a native speaker of Hungarian, or even an interested student for that matter, I decided to keep it to myself until I found the right opportunity. True to form it wasn't long until I found a willing ear in a local bar. Over several glasses of mind-bending liquor I told my story to Frank of the beautiful Hoopoe I had seen. His majestic stance, his regal crown of colour, his loping flight and most of all his surreal voice.

"Bastard Hoopoe!" my new friend cried banging the counter. Bastard Hoopoe! I was beginning to think he believed I had just insulted his mother, sisters and every female relative he's ever had or was ever likely to have. "Bastard Hoopoe!" he shouted again. I noted where the nearest exit was located and planned my escape route. "It's a bird I'm talking about" I said in a calm voice, "just a bird."

"Bastard Hoopoe!" I was now quite sure he was intent on violence. And then he spoke again, "they eat the berries from my father's bushes; cherries, strawberries, blackberries, plums." Now was not the time to point out that a plum was not considered a berry where I came from. "I hate them all," he continued, "they are ugly thieving birds that destroy everything."

With a friendly pat on the back I ordered another round of drinks and we agreed to disagree; after all what did I know about the problems of Hungarian farmers?  – two hours in a small ethnographic museum doesn't really qualify one for such matters. Eventually our conversation turned to more important matters; Hungarian goalkeepers, beautiful women, time travel, the price of beer in Budapest night-clubs and other intellectual trivia. At something-o-clock I left the bar, enlightened and eager for the approaching morning when the train to Zagreb would arrive and whisk me away.

As I left the village, my head throbbing like the heartbeat of a hummingbird, the train passed slowly by the place I had seen my Hoopoe. I strained from the seat with the fleeting hope I would catch just one more glimpse of the beautiful little bird, but he was nowhere to be seen. Instead, in his place in the museum's garden, a long line of eager American tourists waited anxiously in the brilliant, morning sunshine to be enthralled by the endless list of wonderfully exciting things which can be fashioned from a simple, discarded, corn-husk. And so, to Zagreb...

© Brendan O.A. Harding October 2010
Award-winningTravel Writer//Columnist

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