A SIGN TO PONDER

Seen in Franschoek, Western Cape.

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STONE THE CROWS

No, I do not mean that literally – that is the last kind of behaviour I would encourage! Rather, stone the crows is a phrase generally understood to be an exclamation of incredulity or annoyance. Although this is not a term widely used in South Africa, it occasionally springs to mind when crows squawk and gurgle as they fly over my garden or settle in one of the tall trees before being mobbed by some of the smaller denizens of the area.

Until about five years ago, crows of any kind were more often seen in the area known as Burnt Kraal and around the municipal dump, both on the outskirts of our town. Now I see both Cape Crows and Pied Crows daily in the suburbs – occasionally even a White-necked Raven.

The Pied Crow (Corvus albus) is the most common and widespread all over the country.

It is easily recognised by its white breast and neck, both while flying or when it is on the ground. They have been recorded as being on the increase in South Africa, partly because of the availability of nesting sites on electrical poles coupled with roadkill as an available source of food. Any traveller along our network of roads will attest to this. The Pied Crow is highly adaptable in terms of the food it eats, which includes an omnivorous diet of fruit, seeds, small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. They are known to raid the nests of birds for either eggs or nestlings, so it is no surprise that the Fork-tailed Drongos nesting the fig tree regularly chase one off the property. I wonder if they say stone the crows, wishing they could do this literally!

Pied Crows also remind me of a song we used to sing in primary school. It began:

Aai, aai, die Witborskraai!

Hiervandaan na Mosselbaai

–Oompie wil na Tannie vry,

maar Tannie trek haar neus opsy.

You might find this an interesting site to visit:

http://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za/fitz/research/programmes/maintaining_global/pied_crows

The Cape Crow (Corvus capensis) used to be called (and is still widely known as) the Black Crow – perfectly understandable as it is a glossy black all over.

It is a common resident in grasslands as well as in the drier regions of the country. They are ubiquitous in the Addo Elephant National Park, where we saw flocks of close to fifty scattered across the veld in the vicinity of Carol’s Rest and elsewhere. They too are omnivorous birds, feeding on insects, small reptiles, birds, frogs, seeds, fruit and carrion.

BEAKS VS BILLS

A topic that crops up in conversation every now and then is ‘when does a bird have a beak and when is it more apt to call it a bill?’ One would think it is clear: a Village Weaver has a beak and a Spoonbill obviously has a bill! What is the distinction then?

I can no longer recall from where I noted this information, but according to this source beak is the general term applicable to all birds, although it usually refers to raptors, and when striking or pecking is in question. The terms beak and bill are often used interchangeably for crows, finches, and sparrows. Bill on the other hand is almost exclusively used for sunbirds, pigeons, waders, and web-footed birds. There does not appear to be an official difference and it seems that these terms are synonymous; their use might according to personal preference.

Trevor Carnaby in his very useful book, Beating about the bush: Birds, describes a variety of shapes of beaks that are adapted according to the feeding requirements of the different species of birds. There is an interesting discussion on this topic at https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/natureshomemagazine/archive/2017/08/24/beak-or-bill.aspx

What do you think?

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Secretary Bird

Boubou

Ostrich

Cape Weaver

Red-necked Spurfowl

Egyptian Goose

FRAGMENTS OF ETYMOLOGY

You might find these snippets gleaned from one of my old notebooks interesting:

Etymological origins of surnames:

Place/geography: Wood and Ditchfield

Occupation: Smith and Fletcher

Kinship: Jackson. I was unaware that Hodge can be an abbreviation/nickname for Roger –apparently it was aeons ago. The surname Hodgson therefore means ‘son of Roger’.

The lecture I attended dispelled the myth that Mac is of Irish origin, while Mc belongs to the Scots. It turns out that Mc is simply an abbreviation for Mac, both versions mean ‘son of’ in Gaelic.

Diminutives/nicknames are interesting too:

Moegs or Muggle for Margaret.

Perkins is the diminutive of Peter (!), which is where the name Peterkin comes from.

Jack is the shortened form of John and Bill is short for William.

SCABIOSA COLUMBARIA

Scabiosa columbaria, also known as Bitterbos or Wild Scabious, is widespread in South Africa, occurring mostly in grasslands, on rocky slopes and in bushveld habitats. Scabiosa, is derived from the Latin scabies meaning ‘to scratch’ – possibly because the plants were used medicinally to relieve the itch of scabies and skin sores. The flowers attract a number of butterflies and make a beautiful show when growing en masse – it is not always easy to appreciate this effect in the grasslands though!

They are in bloom at the moment and are well worth looking out for.

References:

Gledhill Eily Veldblomme van Oos-Kaapland Cape Nature Conservation (undated).

Manning John Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa Struik Nature 2009.

OENOPHILE

It has taken me a long time to become something akin to an oenophile – not as a connoisseur you understand, but simply as someone who enjoys wine along with pleasant company. Although my parents were not regular wine drinkers, they introduced us to wine from an early age. At special dinners we were allowed what would amount to a few drops in a liqueur glass so that we could join in with the toast for whatever the celebratory occasion happened to be. I wrinkled my nose at it.

Even once I had reached the legal ‘drinking age’ and was at university, I eschewed wine in favour of beer – or a soft drink! Beer tended to be far more thirst-quenching, and therefore satisfying, after a weekend spent hiking in the Natal Drakensberg or having expended a lot of energy playing in a squash tournament.

I had recently begun teaching when we attended a work-related dinner. The brief look of shock on the face of our host has remained etched on my memory: I asked for a beer in response to his “What would you like to drink?” on our arrival. What a social faux pas! He politely handed me a beer in a tall glass with a narrow base and only then did I notice that the men were drinking theirs from beer mugs and all of the other women present were delicately sipping white wine! To my uninformed eyes it looked such an elegant drink. I felt very raw and unsophisticated and allowed my beer to last a very long time.

White wine still tends to have a sophisticated air about it. I entered the ‘adult’ social world when ‘wine rules’ were still strictly adhered to: white wine with fish and chicken; red wine with beef and lamb. The prevailing custom also seemed to be that women had white wine before dinner. My problem was that I simply didn’t like the taste of white wine!

I can no longer remember when I was introduced to red wine. For decades however, it has been my preference: robust, dark red, and not sweet. Believe me, I tried the white varieties now and then but, compared with red, I didn’t enjoy either its bouquet or its taste. Red was the way forward and that choice sometimes made me feel awkward during early adulthood.

An example of this is a formal dinner we had been invited to. Our hosts had spared no detail with either the table settings or the menus. I did not miss the slight lift of an eyebrow, however, as our host filled my glass with red wine – all the other women present had opted for white!

Happily, times have changed and now we can choose white, red, or rosé without anyone turning a hair. We can now actually enjoy being an oenophile [from Greek oinos (wine) and –phile (love)] without fear of falling foul of any ‘laws’ of etiquette.

Price and occasion still determine my range, although I admit to shifting the limit as I age and my palate becomes more appreciative of the intricacies of wine. I am also happy to choose wine according to the labels; I have become familiar with different types and brands; and I regularly take note of ‘good’ wines tasted elsewhere.

Last year the South African Post Office commemorated the local wine industry by issuing a set of five small international letter rate stamps on 6th October 2017, designed by Rachel-Mari Ackermann of the SA Post Office. I can only show you four of them: the missing stamp depicts Groot Constantia, the oldest wine estate in South Africa. The stamp on the top left shows the Groot Constantia wines, Duke of Northumberland 1791 and Grand Constance 1821; next to it is the famous South African Pinotage wine – the first bottled vintage Lanzerac wines 1959; below left shows workers collecting grapes at Babylonstoren; and lastly a collection of wine barrels.

White wine? I admit to only venturing down that path about four years ago. I still take tentative steps, many of them experimental, and take careful note of what works for me or not. I am gradually gathering a repertoire of white wine I can serve with confidence. To me, white wine is best enjoyed in summer – they still battle to find a place in my winters.