15th November, 2017

Junco’s, the tiniest pub in Newfoundland

How reality TV exposes nature’s life cycles, and why a whole province found delight in an unscripted anthropomorphic soap opera.

One of the regulars breaks the fourth wall at Junco’s Pub, Newfoundland.

There are millions of bird feeders in gardens and yards around the world, the majority serving local bird populations perfectly well. Many of these feeders are unremarkable, their visitors known only to the humans who installed them, and a few salivating cats. Some feeders have cameras trained on them, relaying activity to personal devices, interpretation centres, classrooms, online audiences, but as far as I know, only one televised bird feeder resembled a miniature pub.

Junco’s Pub was the tiniest pub in Newfoundland. Its creator Elling Lien drew inspiration from a classic example of Scandinavian “slow TV” called Piip-Show. Norwegian broadcaster NRK had rigged up a bird feeder to look like a café, near to several fancy bird apartments, and was live-streaming everything. Elling was captivated by what looked like giant birds in a regular-sized human environment, and how it made them relatable. This simple idea demonstrated how digital technology could be used to make nature more accessible and fun.

An unruly family of Blue Tits in one of NRK’s Piip-Show apartments.

Dark-eyed Juncos are chatty, frenetic little birds often seen in clusters near bird feeders, hopping and chirping as they forage on the ground. I like them because although they’re very familiar in North America, they’re new and exotic to me. Newfoundlanders seem to like them too. I remember my wife parking up by a house on Exeter Avenue where the owner had installed a frankly eccentric number of feeders around the garden. We binge-watched Juncos for some time, eyeballing from the car like two comically conspicuous stakeout rookies.

Equally keen to spend his time ogling Juncos was Elling. He spent a year or so collecting material to construct his pint-sized pub, building most of the props himself, including a dartboard, a Coke machine, and a working miniature TV set. Finally, he hooked up a webcam, streamed the action 24/7, and watched his view count grow.

The stream was particularly popular in Newfoundland because the audience could easily relate. Junco’s Pub felt like a typical St. John’s dive bar. A bit down-at-heel, some suspect regulars, and random junk everywhere. It’s as rooted in the region as real-world establishments like Linda’s Inn of Olde (tagline “Stories, Beers & Wood Burning Stoves”), or The Peter Easton (tagline “Pub Pub Pub Pub Pub”).

Elling and his audience began to identify leading characters, many of whom presented themselves in anthropomorphic ways, such as the comically big blue jays that always looked grumpy, and would regularly brawl and knock over bar stools. He noticed that the “ratty” chickadees seemed intimidated by bar owner “Junco Bob”, sensing his general unwillingness to tolerate patrons of any kind in his public bar. Despite all of this, a captivating romance began to flourish between two juncos, who eventually — incredibly — built a nest on the bar floor and raised two little chicks. Elling sees this whole tale as a full-blown soap opera:

"It’s a little window into their life… Like a bizarro Newfoundland Coronation Street, except with dark-eyed juncos and chickadees instead of British people."

The pub backdrop set Junco’s apart, but all webcam wildlife interests me. I’ve always been fascinated when TV shows or local institutions stick a camera in some oblivious bird’s face and share every resulting moment with anyone who cares to look. A kind of acceptable voyeurism, we see everything: the bird sex, the bird poo, the unexpected slaughter by Sparrowhawk. Unscripted and open-ended, it encourages us to get to know animals, to see them as we see ourselves, a soap opera that helps us better understand their challenges.

The two junco chicks in their nest, tucked behind the bar.

The webcam stream delivers as-it-happens, uninterrupted, scratchy real life. It’s the antithesis of skilfully edited, Attenborough-narrated Planet Earth gloss. The story unfolding in the webcam is more ordinary but no less remarkable, and it’s more tangible. That same simple tale is probably happening in your back garden, and you feel compelled to keep an eye on these creatures and their offspring; to protect them.

Sadly, Junco’s Pub has been shut since late 2016. “Tiny bird pub in St. John’s closes its doors after parasite outbreak”, headlined CBC Radio. Elling guested, explaining to As It Happens host Carol Off that bird feeders are key to transmission. That deadly parasite is avian trichomoniasis, AKA “frounce”, and it is still spreading across the province, as it happens.

It may be that Junco’s Pub will never reopen, but I will always be grateful for it, as I am grateful for Nottingham Trent University’s Peregrine cam, the seasonal BBC Springwatch cams, and the hundreds of other streaming nests, ponds, burrows and barns. Junco’s is gone but leaves its mark in the form of screenshots, GIFs, Youtube clips, and quirky news reports, because it was pure Internet; ridiculous, brilliant, informative.

As we watched life unfold in a Newfoundland bird feeder that looked like a pub, we learned a little more about the hidden soap operas in our gardens. We could relate. And as a result of that anthropomorphism, we might also have learned something new about ourselves along the way.

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