SMOKE: Flipping Birds The Bird

Originally published: 7 February 2005

You'd be hard pressed to describe me as a bird-lover. I have an obsessive hatred of birds and have had for as long as I can remember.

As with most cases of severe, extreme hatred, to find the source of it requires a trip back in time.

I'd never much minded birds until my father introduced me to the concept of watching them. He was (and still is) an avid bird-lover, and if there was only ever one book on any of our vast bookshelves it was always going to be Robert's Birds of Southern Africa - a leather-bound tome of huge significance to my father, containing hundreds of drawings of birds along with their descriptive characteristics.

But my dad went a step further - he had cassette tapes of bird calls. Birds tweeting and chirping and generally creating a cacophony of madness, complete with a David Attenborough-style voiceover announcing each new bird call in hushed tones of reverence.

The only time I was ever able to listen to that tape with any sort of enjoyment was during a particularly nasty neighbour war with Mr DaJoia - a fat, wet-with-money geezer who considered himself a far superior species to the ragtag mob who lived next door.

I can't remember what DaJoia had done but I suspect he was making a loud noise at times when he shouldn't be. Pleas for his silence were met with derision.

So my dad got his Bird Calls of Southern Africa tape, bunged it into the tape deck of our kombi and parked it right next to DaJoia's fence.

Then he opened the window, wound up the volume as far as it would go and left DaJoia with a Sunday afternoon full of bird noises.

As far as I can recall DaJoia never made another sound after that.

Only my dad could ever have had a tape full of bird calls - this is the man who still keeps a copy of an old 78 rpm record which is a recording of the 1973 Indianapolis 500. Just car after car driving past at annoyingly high volumes, for an hour or two.

The point was that my dad was armed with all this bird knowledge for one of his favourite hobbies - birdwatching. Armed with binoculars, Robert's Birds of Southern Africa and no doubt a forbidden pack of Camel Filters or Senior Service flatpack, my dad would disappear into the afternoon somewhere and spend hours identifying birds.

He took me with him on a couple of occasions and I tried to drum up some enthusiasm, but hour upon hour of looking through binoculars at dry bushveld was the most mindnumbingly boring thing I have ever - to this day - done.

Occasionally a bird would get bored of doing nothing and would escape the tall grass in a rustle of wings, but by the time you could identify where it was and swing the wildly swaying binoculars to try and spot it, the bastard would be gone.

My dad would mutter gravely into his beard - consumed by the problem - and after a studied thumbing of pages backwards and forwards the subject would be identified with a confident, triumphant and slightly dark declaration of its species and genus.

None of the little swines ever escaped identification by my dad, although quite what he did with the information remains a mystery to me.

Thus began my hatred of anything of the avian persuasion. When I was still young I merely disliked them, but as time wore on - and I was forced to engage more with them - a deep loathing began.

One particularly unpleasant memory springs to mind and although I tried to suppress it the moment it made its intentions clear, there's just no stopping a runaway traumatic memory once it gets going.

It was 1994 and I had just finished a run of shows at the Grahamstown Festival. I was supposed to get a lift back to Cape Town a week before the festival ended but the car I was sharing broke down and I was stuck in the town for an extra week.

One morning I woke up at around 9am and headed straight down to the Village Green and into the nearest beer tent, where I remained until evening fell. I then found my way up the torturous hill that leads to the Grahamstown Monument where numerous parties were happening, and spent most of my night drinking with strangers.

Somehow I ended back down in the town at around 5am and it was a typically freezing winter's morning. I was too far gone to remember where I was staying and most motor funtions were operating well below par, so armed with nothing but my trusty black overcoat I lay down on a bench by the side of the road and fell into a coma.

I awoke with a red film in front of my eyes and an evil dwarf with a pickaxe inside my head, trying to hack his way out of the top of my skull.

The sun was shining in my aching eyes, my tongue was stuck to my palate, my face was covered in marks from resting it on the wooden slats and noisy traffic was driving by a few metres away.

But that was the good part - the bad part was what woke me up.

It felt like something was poking me awake and just as my eyes were starting to clear I felt it again - a sharp prod in the hip. Turning over I got the fright of my life - perched on the armrest of the bench was an enormous bird (it looked like a seagull but couldn't have been one) who was sizing me up for another stiff beaking.

Half-hanging out of my overcoat pocket was a sandwich and to this day I can't for the life of me remember who put it there and why, although I assume I got a case of the munchies at some stage the day before and instead of eating the sandwich I must have put it in my pocket.

And that fatass bird was sitting there pecking at me like I was a corpse, obviously delighted at his unexpected breakfast.

I've always been reasonably convinced that I'm going to die staked out in the desert somewhere with buzzards wheeling overhead (far too many Louis L'Amour novels) - that day I got a taste of what it's going to be like. I've been the carrion, man.

That's as up close and personal as I've got with birds, but in general I find them annoying. I worked at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront for a year and used to take my lunch sitting outside at the tables outside KFC - the seagulls there were so brazen they would actually come and perch on my table while I was eating.

If I drove them away it would only serve to inform them that here was a bloke who obviously had something special to hide - the call would go out and within a minute I would be surrounded by flocks of seagulls all sitting at a safe distance, watching my every bite with drool dripping out of their beaks.

If I took too long eating they would start chucking and cawing, and invariably one ringleader would set the others off until the lot of them were shifting dangerously on their perches, staring intently at me and creating a racket that would put Bird Calls of Southern Africa to shame.

I would get more and more enraged at this invasion of my privacy and many a startled tourist or casual day tripper would be walking past, only to come across a tableau of madness: a wild man screaming at a coven of birds who were screaming right back at him, engaged in a life or death struggle over a Streetwise 2 (with extra piece) or a half-eaten Cheese and Pine Rounder.

I hated those bastards like you cannot understand. After time learned that the best way to avoid them was to switch my allegiance to Aris Souvlakis and his excellent beef schwarmas - inside the main concourse.

I won that battle, but I'm a long way from winning my war. They're still out there, you see, and they're always, always watching. Waiting.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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