Eat, (and) Like a Bird

Which birds are the most edible, and which are the least? During and just after the second world war, Hugh B Cott of Cambridge University doggedly pursued these questions, using means that were waspy, feline and human. His discoveries are summed up in a 154-page report called The Edibility of Birds – Illustrated by 5 Years’ Experiments and Observations (1941-1946) on the Food Preferences of the Hornet, Cat And Man. [It expands considerably on his earlier study, with a similar but shorter name, pictured here.]

In October 1941, Cott made a chance observation. While collecting and preserving bird skins in Beni Suef, Egypt, he discarded the meaty parts of a palm dove (Streptopelia senegalensis aegyptiaca) and a pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis rudis). Hornets descended upon the palm dove carcass, but ignored the kingfisher.

Cott, entranced, later offered other hornets a choice of different cuts (breast, wings, legs and gut) of about 40 different bird meats, in 141 experiments conducted in Beni Suef, Cairo, and Tripoli, Lebanon.

The hornets especially took to crested lark, greenfinch, white-vented bulbul and house sparrow. They voted (metaphorically) thumbs down on golden oriole, hooded chat, masked shrike and hoopoe, among others.

Cott conducted another 48 experiments, with 19 kinds of bird meat, using three cats (two in Cairo, one in Tripoli) as tasters…

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