Saturday, 21 January 2012

Canine consternation

Near my home on the edge of London is a large undulating area of rough grassland, ancient hedgerows and mixed woodland — a haven for wildlife. I used to enjoy peaceful walks there, away from the noise of the traffic on the surrounding roads. But it is tranquil no longer.

Years ago I would meet the odd dog owner escorting a well-behaved pet, but nowadays I pass growing numbers of noisy dog walkers who have no idea how to control their charges. They shriek at their pets, even though the animals clearly have no intention of obeying their strident commands. Instead, the creatures run about wherever they please, sometimes racing over to me to put their muddy paws on my clean clothes. Instead of an apology, all I get is: “He only wants to be friendly.”

Adding to the annoyance are those dog owners who spot an acquaintance across the width of a meadow and proceed to start a shouted conversation clearly audible to anyone on the far side of the next field. To make matters worse, it is also increasingly common to encounter dog-walkers screaming into their mobile phones.

But the biggest change has been the rise of the paid dog walker, who arrives with a vanload of pooches collected from owners who cannot be bothered to exercise their pets themselves. These “professional” walkers all seem to know one another and often meet for a loud chat, which is constantly disrupted as they break off to yell at individuals among the 30 or so dogs rampaging around them.

The increasing canine commotion may well have contributed to the disappearance of wild creatures such as rabbits and partridges from the area in recent years.

Perhaps there should be a law forbidding dog walkers from unleashing their charges unless the animals have been properly trained. Personally I would like to see them all put down. But who would then look after the dogs?

Birds and rock musicians

Billy Fury statue in Liverpool's Albert Dock 
Large suburban cemeteries can be attractive to birdlife. They offer nest sites and feeding grounds with minimal human disturbance other than during the occasional burial ceremony. So when I popped into north-west London’s Mill Hill Cemetery in September on the lookout for passage migrants such as Spotted Flycatchers, I was surprised to come across a crowd of middle-aged, leather-jacketed bikers. They turned out to be visiting the grave of Ron Wycherley, better known as the 1960s rock star Billy Fury.

Few of Fury’s fans in the 1960s would have known that he too was a keen birder, nor that he had been ill since childhood as the result of contracting rheumatic fever during a rain-soaked bird-watching trip. The disease weakened his heart and he was constantly in and out of hospital. His illness eventually put a stop to his live performances, though not to his birding.

Fury also became involved in wildlife conservation. This included spending time in 1967 living in a caravan in Cornwall, caring for seabirds affected by the infamous Torrey Canyon oil spill. After heart surgery twice during the 1970s, Fury died of heart failure in 1983 at the age of 42.

Those who picture rock stars as drug-raddled reprobates staggering drunkenly out of seedy clubs at sunrise might be surprised to learn that a number of current British rock musicians are responsible citizens who share Billy Fury’s keen interest in birding. Two indie rock groups named after birds are fronted by birders — The Doves by Jimi Goodwin and The Guillemots by Fyfe Dangerfield. The 1980s indie pop group Housemartins was named after the favourite bird of its founder, Paul Heaton, who is now a solo singer.

Other birding musicians include singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins, Guy Garvey of Elbow, Marc Riley of The Fall, Martin Noble of British Sea Power and Bill Drummond of The KLF.

Their interest in birds has influenced these musicians’ compositions. Between them they have penned songs or instrumentals titled “Redwings”, “Starlings” and “The Great Skua”. Their song lyrics have mentioned birds such as Black-headed Gull, Blackcap, Blackbird and Flycatcher. Guillemots tracks have even featured recordings of the Robin and the Red-throated Diver. And when an Elbow album won the 2008 Mercury prize, singer Guy Garvey announced that he would spend his share of the prize on image-stabilising binoculars.

Why should there be such a strong link between rock music and birding? I don't know. But at least I am confident that songs written by these British birders are unlikely to make mistakes such as placing city-shunning Nightingales in Berkeley Square or linking North America’s Bluebirds with the white cliffs of Dover.

Why Simon Barnes is a bad birdwatcher

I was recently given a copy of ‘How to be a bad bird watcher’ by the Times journalist Simon Barnes. (No, I don’t mean he gave it to me — I mean he wrote it.)

I had always thought of Barnes as a “good” rather than a “bad” birdwatcher, since he has for years been writing interesting and knowledgeable pieces about birds in the Times and in the RSPB’s Birds magazine. So I was surprised to see that his book makes a fundamental error with the naming of common birds.

Since the book’s aim is to offer general guidance on how to enjoy birds, it does not actually mention many species by name. But it does includes three references to the “great-crested grebe”. The insertion of a hyphen in this name is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The hyphenated structure suggests that the bird is a grebe with a huge crest. But the Great Crested Grebe was given its name because it is the largest of several European grebes that display crests in the breeding season. Admittedly the GCG’s crest is more prominent than those of the Horned (Slavonian) Grebe, the Black-necked Grebe and the Red-necked Grebe, but it is the size of the bird, not the size of its crest, that gave it its name.

(Note the correct use of hyphens in the names Black-necked Grebe and Red-necked Grebe in the preceding paragraph. These are two species that in summer can be distinguished because one has a red neck and the other has a black neck. The hyphen makes this clear. Without a hyphen the names would imply a black grebe with a neck and a red grebe with a neck.)

Barnes’s book also mentions the “great-spotted woodpecker”, a monicker that suggests a woodpecker with large spots. Wrong again. The Great Spotted Woodpecker was given that name to distinguish it from two other species, the Middle Spotted Woodpecker (found only in continental Europe) and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. The names are confusing enough anyway, since none of the birds appear spotty, but the inclusion of that hyphen only increases the confusion.

Does all this matter? I think it does. This is partly because the correct use (or non-use) of hyphens provides a more accurate description of the species. But also, in the internet age, it is increasingly important to employ officially recognised names when making entries into databases or when researching such resources. If you search a database for “great-spotted woodpecker” you may find a handful of entries that include the unwarranted hyphen, but a search for “great spotted woodpecker” will detect the bulk of the entries for this bird and thus provide more detailed and more accurate information about it.

So, Simon, you have produced an interesting book that should help birding beginners, but it could have been a little better.