Birdwatching without innocence

Birdwatching is reputedly a wholesome, innocent pastime. But it can be a richer experience than that.

Some years ago, an ornithologist of my acquaintance, while looking through his telescope in Van province in Eastern Turkey, saw bimaculated larks, crimson-winged finches and black-bellied sandgrouse. Then he saw an elderly male shepherd engaged in congress with a sheep. Later, comparing notes with professional colleagues, this ornithologist learned that unusual incidents while birdwatching are almost commonplace, though seldom mentioned in scholarly journals.

Seldom, but not never.

In 1983, Michael Gochfeld and Joanna Burger published a report in the Lancet. The duo, based at Rutgers University in New Jersey, describe how one thing led to another during a birdwatching jaunt in the forest. “A man and woman were walking in the foothills near Santa Barbara, California. The woman, having defecated behind a bush, wiped her perianal area with leaves, later identified as poison oak (Rhus toxicodendron). Having been told what the leaves were, she showered and washed vigorously some 90 minutes after exposure. The couple had sexual intercourse about three hours after the exposure.”

That simple sequence of events produced a medically historic transference….

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.