I am become an Authority on Birds. It happened in this way.
The other day we heard the Cuckoo in Hampshire. (The next morning the papers announced that the Cuckoo had been heard in Devonshire–possibly a different one, but in no way superior to ours except in the matter of its Press agent.) Well, everybody in the house said, “Did you hear the Cuckoo?” to everybody else, until I began to get rather tired of it; and, having told everybody several times that I had heard it, I tried to make the conversation more interesting. So, after my tenth “Yes,” I added quite casually:
“But I haven’t heard the Tufted Pipit yet. It’s funny why it should be so late this year.”
“Is that the same as the Tree Pipit?” said my hostess, who seemed to know more about birds than I had hoped.
“Oh, no,” I said quickly.
“What’s the difference exactly?”
“Well, one is tufted,” I said, doing my best, “and the other–er–climbs trees.”
“Oh, I see.”
“And of course the eggs are more speckled,” I added, gradually acquiring confidence.
“I often wish I knew more about birds,” she said regretfully. “You must tell us something about them now we’ve got you here.”
And all this because of one miserable Cuckoo!
“By all means,” I said, wondering how long it would take to get a book about birds down from London.
However, it was easier than I thought. We had tea in the garden that afternoon, and a bird of some kind struck up in the plane-tree.
“There, now,” said my hostess, “what’s that?”
I listened with my head on one side. The bird said it again.
“That’s the Lesser Bunting,” I said hopefully.
“The Lesser Bunting,” said an earnest-looking girl; “I shall always remember that.”
I hoped she wouldn’t, but I could hardly say so. Fortunately the bird lesser-bunted again, and I seized the opportunity of playing for safety.
“Or is it the Sardinian White-throat?” I wondered. “They have very much the same note during the breeding season. But of course the eggs are more speckled,” I added casually.
And so on for the rest of the evening. You see how easy it is.
However, the next afternoon a more unfortunate occurrence occurred. A real Bird Authority came to tea. As soon as the information leaked out, I sent up a hasty prayer for bird-silence until we had got him safely out of the place; but it was not granted. Our feathered songster in the plane-tree broke into his little piece.
“There,” said my hostess–“there’s that bird again.” She turned to me. “What did you say it was?”
I hoped that the Authority would speak first, and that the others would then accept my assurance that they had misunderstood me the day before; but he was entangled at that moment in a watercress sandwich, the loose ends of which were still waiting to be tucked away.
I looked anxiously at the girl who had promised to remember, in case she wanted to say something, but she also was silent. Everybody was silent except that miserable bird.
Well, I had to have another go at it. “Blackman’s Warbler,” I said firmly.
“Oh, yes,” said my hostess.
“Blackman’s Warbler; I shall always remember that,” lied the earnest-looking girl.
The Authority, who was free by this time, looked at me indignantly.
“Nonsense,” he said; “it’s the Chiff-chaff.”
Everybody else looked at me reproachfully. I was about to say that “Blackman’s Warbler” was the local name for the Chiff-chaff in our part of Somerset, when the Authority spoke again.
“The Chiff-chaff,” he said to our hostess with an insufferable air of knowledge.
I wasn’t going to stand that.
“So I thought when I heard it first,” I said, giving him a gentle smile. It was now the Authority’s turn to get the reproachful looks.
“Are they very much alike?” my hostess asked me, much impressed.
“Very much. Blackmail’s Warbler is often mistaken for the Chiff-chaff, even by so-called experts”–and I turned to the Authority and added, “Have another sandwich, won’t you?”–“particularly so, of course, during the breeding season. It is true that the eggs are more speckled, but–“
“Bless my soul,” said the Authority, but it was easy to see that he was shaken, “I should think I know a Chiff-chaff when I hear one.”
“Ah, but do you know a Blackman’s Warbler? One doesn’t often hear them in this country. Now in Algiers–“
The bird said “Chiff-chaff” again with an almost indecent plainness of speech.
“There you are!” I said triumphantly. “Listen,” and I held up a finger. “You notice the difference? Obviously a Blackman’s Warbler.”
Everybody looked at the Authority. He was wondering how long it would take to get a book about birds down from London, and deciding that it couldn’t be done that afternoon. Meanwhile he did not dare to repudiate me. For all he had caught of our mumbled introduction I might have been Blackman myself.
“Possibly you’re right,” he said reluctantly.
Another bird said “Chiff-chaff” from another tree and I thought it wise to be generous. “There,” I said, “now that was a Chiff-chaff.”
The earnest-looking girl remarked (silly creature) that it sounded just like the other one, but nobody took any notice of her. They were all busy admiring me.
Of course I mustn’t meet the Authority again, because you may be pretty sure that when he got back to his books he looked up Blackman’s Warbler and found that there was no such animal. But if you mix in the right society, and only see the wrong people once, it is really quite easy to be an authority on birds–or, I imagine, on anything else.