My Italian husband was already crazy about birds when I first met him. At that time he still had stories about duck hunting in his ancestral village in the southern Appennines. He would take up a gun and go tramping around with his cousins in the sparsely wooded mountains of Molise. There wasn’t a lot to do there back then, apart from going to the local bar and playing card games. So going after the little game left in those arid hills that had been inhabited for millenia was a pretty good pastime, for men, at least.
The idea of enjoying natural areas and observing wild creatures for their own sake might not come easily to people, male or female, who make a living off a hardscrabble land. We once stopped to ask a weather-beaten shepherdess who could’ve been anywhere from 60 to 90 which way to turn when we were driving up to the top of the mountain that looms over my husband’s birthplace. We were on a dirt road, crossing a grassy plateau graced by boulders and a few small oak trees. Small sheep were milling around us. Rocky pinnacles ringed our meadow. A few crows cawed in the distance. The herder asked us why we there and I said that it was beautiful. Beautiful? Her mouth twisted. “Chess’e’ r’diav’r!” she answered in her dialect. “This is the devil!” I only half understood the last word but I got the drift as she gestured with her crook towards all that infernal nature that had enslaved her. She had a point. She really had a point.
By the time I met Annibale (Hannibal in English), however, he had been living in a large city, Rome, for over a decade, and he hadn’t fired a shot in a few years. He, instead, was always going on about song birds. He had taken care of a wounded green finch for a week or so when he was a child. So my first Christmas present to him was a pair of prolific canaries. They lived in a cage, where the male trilled, and the couple mated often. The female, subsequently, spent a lot of time brooding her offspring. We finally decided to cook up a few unborn ones to reduce the growing avian population in our little Roman apartment. One of the weirder sights I’ve seen in my life is a canary egg cooked sunnyside up and eaten on a tiny morsel of bread.
Back then, caged birds were all the rage. Every Roman neighborhood had an uccelleria, a bird store. They were almost all run by men, who would hang out there with their buddies, shooting the breeze. You’d walk into these narrow, dank shops full of stacked up cages, and twitterings and flutterings and guys smoking and gossiping. The smoke helped cover the smell of the bird excrement, pretty much.
The Italian word for bird, ‘uccello’, is also a colloquial term for penis, by the way. I had a certain knack for picking up street talk. That’s not to say that I wasn’t trying to learn more highbrow terms too. Anyway, when a gregarious American co-worker of mine told me she wanted to look for a lovebird, I told her I was 100 percent sure that the translation probably wasn’t an “uccello d’amore”. She scoffed at me for being so nitpicky and sashayed out the door of the office we worked in to head for the nearest bird store.
The next day my colleague sidled up to me, looking a little sheepish. “Hey, what was that other meaning you were talking about…? I mean, I kinda have a feeling I was asking for a love-dick! Ha, ha. One guy said, ‘I have one for you right here, honey’, and pointed to below his potbelly!”
Now this might explain why in this country ‘birdwatching’ is just called, well, ‘birdwatching’. If you ask a casual Italian acquaintance whether they are interested in looking at ‘uccelli’, they could easily take you for a voyeur of the male anatomy rather than someone who wants to enlarge the community of aficionados of fowl.
The English word is also appropriate because they, the English, invented the whole thing: the idea of observing birds in the wild instead of only shooting, and eating them.
In northern Italy a few people still like catching and munching on little songbirds, roasted on a spit. It’s illegal but some will tell tell you they have tried this specialty. One of my students said he loved it, but his girlfriend “didn’t like getting all those little bones stuck in her teeth.”
We now live just south of the Alps and not far from the sea. There is definitely more fauna here. It’s easy to see hawks sitting erect on telephone lines running parallel to the tollroad from Venice to Slovenia, for example. The predators, mostly buzzards or kestrels, stunned us at first. How could they be perched there with all those cars and trucks whizzing by? But now we look out for these fascinating scourges of field mice.
So my husband has put aside the attitudes he used to have towards feathered, flying creatures. Hannibal no longer shoots them and tries not to eat them. Now he’s more interested in spying and stalking, another English word incorporated into Italian. Once we moved to Veneto, the region of which Venice is the capital, he started following online birding sites. Then the Venetian Birding Group was formed and we started participating in their outings.
I go along to be a good sport because I don’t know very much about the creatures we look at. I admire the big ones flying around like little airplanes. How do they do it? How do they get themselves up there? But, ultimately, who cares if it’s a tundra or whistling swan? Or a sparrowhawk or a merlin? I do admire the people that can do all that identifying, though, and I am in awe of their competence and dedication.
Birding on a cold day
In December, I agreed to go along on an outing in the Venetian plain that was reclaimed from the sea in the 20th century. The lonely low-lying area between the seaside towns of Caorle and Bibbione, east of Venice, used to be marshy and malaria-ridden. Then drainage projects were carried out and farmhouses were built. Ambitious plans were made for development. Some have been abandoned, but others still thrive. Now there are emerald green fields, even in the winter, and the flatlands are dotted with small lakes which attract all sorts of water birds. They fish in the ponds and then go over to the fields to look for grain. This is at the northern edge of the Adriatic Sea, a quiet stopping point for migrating species.
It was freezing cold that day and I dragged a ugly down coat out of the mothballs . What with global warming and changing fashions, I hadn’t used that garment for a good while. But it put up with the buffetting wind pretty well. I felt as cozy as the teals and the shovelers and the wigeons in the water, which were totally undeterred by the blasts of icy currents coming down off the Carnian Dolomites to the north.
One advantage of the low temperatures was that we never stayed very long in one place. Our leader set up a spotting scope, explained what everything was, made sure we all got a look, and then had us we move on. Now that is my kind of birdwatching.
Greater white-fronted geese and Bewick’s swans and common cranes flew over us. A common kestrel, like an extra-large hummingbird, hovered over some muddy furrows, checking for mice. A greater spotted eagle, like a flying dinosaur, circled higher up, scaring the hell out of everything under it. Great egrets stood stock still by the water’s edge, always graceful and elegant. Always eye candy, every time.
Our little group, less than 20 that day, occasionally heard some ominous sounds. There are hunting reserves along the coast, called “valli”, which are privately run and sometimes very exclusive. Thick shrubbery hide them to the point that you would never even know that a whole little world of lodges and wealthy hunters and a whole staff of helpers gravitating around lagoons full of waterfowl and migratory birds exist there until you hear the sharp cracks of gunshots. In some ‘valli’ hunters still fire from inside barrels, what Hemingway did back in the day and described in his melancholy book ‘Across the River and Into the Trees’. His alter-ego, instead of killing birds, and getting soused on Valpolicella while waiting for death to take him, might have been happier had he spent his time with binoculars and a camera.