The common hoopoe gets drunk on fermented grapes; goldfinches suffer from epilepsy; to properly keep francolins, you must keep a small crate or case within the aviary for the birds to nestle down in. These are just a few of the handy tips that Giovani Pietro Olina offers in his 17th-century handbook on bird care, Pasta for Nightingales.
This charming little tome is an English translation of a book written in 1622, called Uccelliera, which is Italian for The Aviary. The title of the English translation comes from a robust description of how to care for the nightingale: “When they are reared, grains of pasta, made as described below, shall be put in with them to one side, in little boxes or drawers.” The following pages include the promised instructions on preparing the pasta with chickpea powder, butter, almonds and egg yolk. Nightingales were apparently into some serious artisanal cooking!
This book is such a quaint window into the mind of 17th century bird lovers who at once admired the birds and couldn’t wait to sop up their meat with a side of gravy. In the foreword, H is for Hawk author Helen MacDonald writes, “The role of birds in seventeenth-century Italy can feel bewildering to us: so many species were simultaneously viewed as delightful songsters, culinary delicacies, and useful human medicine.” Indeed, the aforementioned francolin was apparently so tasty that, “You burp a francolin and boast that you have eaten goose.”
This is the type of book you can cruise along through, wading through some awkward, old-timey prose, when suddenly it pulls you up short by claiming that the bunting (and several other birds) suffer from “falling sickness.” I hit Google to find out whether birds are susceptible to epilepsy; apparently parrots can have seizures, so I learned something! I also learned the the wagtail (previously considered by me to be the cutest bird name) was sometimes called the zanytail. Check, and mate, adorable bird!
Equally delightful are the gorgeous watercolor illustrations that were originally created for seventeenth-century scholar and art collector Cassiano dal Pozzo. This beautifully printed book, with its lovely artwork, heavy paper, and handsome typesetting, is a perfect gift for bird lovers and art lovers alike.