Monday, 16 March 2015

Electing a national bird

Back in 1961, readers of The Times voted the Robin as their favourite bird. Since then, this species has unofficially been seen as Britain’s national avian representative. 

And now, more than 50 years later, we have been asked to vote for an “official” national bird. I do not know what makes this choice “official”, since the entire process seems to have been devised by David Lindo, a publicity-seeking London bird-watcher who likes to be known as The Urban Birder. Whatever makes the choice “official” seems to be only inside Lindo’s head.

Long list
In Lindo’s poll, voters were in late 2014 asked to nominate their six favourite choices from a list of 60 species. The list included some weird options. 

Some of the suggestions were not even native British birds. For example, the Pheasant was introduced to Britain — admittedly centuries ago, possibly by the Romans — and the Ring-necked Parakeet, now common in south-east England, is descended from cage birds that escaped or were deliberately released into the wild only some 50 years ago.

Other long list species were birds that have declined to the point that they are at risk of disappearing completely from the UK, such as the Hen Harrier, Turtle Dove and Cuckoo. OK, so Mauritius has the Dodo as its national bird, but should the UK choose a species that is heading for national extinction?

The Waxwing was another ludicrous inclusion in Lindo's list. It may be a pretty bird, but it is not British. It is a Scandinavian bird that visits Britain in winter, but rarely in significant numbers. We did have large irruptions in 2011–12 and 2012–13, but in a typical winter — such as 2014–15 — we are lucky if the total influx gets anywhere near four figures.  

And the Barn Owl? Why choose a bird that is found in every continent except Antarctica but has seen a significant decline in its UK population over the past couple of centuries as a result of persecution and changes in farming practice? Should we be celebrating our failure to preserve this beautiful bird?

And was it a joke to include the Feral Pigeon, a disease-ridden pest also found almost worldwide?  

Several other suggested species should perhaps have been avoided because they are already the national birds of other European countries — Mute Swan (Denmark), Golden Eagle (both Germany and Italy), Kestrel (Belgium), Oystercatcher (Faroe Islands), Swallow (Austria and Estonia), Nightingale (Croatia) and Blackbird (Sweden).

Short list 
From the 60 birds on the long list, a shortlist of the 10 most popular suggestions has been drawn up, with final votes for the national bird invited from 16 March 2015 to 7 May 2015 (a date chosen cringingly to coincide with the UK parliamentary elections). The 10 shortlisted species, alphabetically, are: 
  • Barn Owl
  • Blackbird
  • Blue Tit 
  • Hen Harrier
  • Kingfisher
  • Mute Swan
  • Puffin
  • Red Kite
  • Robin
  • Wren

The choice of the three birds of prey presumably reflects national guilt over the way these species have across the centuries been persecuted to near-extinction. But that is no reason to elect any of them as a national symbol.

And what on earth is particularly British about the Puffin, Kingfisher, Wren, Blackbird and Blue Tit? The Puffin breeds in clifftop colonies round much of the North Atlantic but spends most of the year in the open ocean. The Blackbird, Blue Tit, Kingfisher and Wren all occur across most of Europe and much of temperate Asia.  

In my opinion, the only shortlisted birds worthy of consideration as our national bird are the Robin and the Mute Swan, even though these too can also be found across Europe and in parts of Asia (and the latter is already the national bird of Denmark). I’ll tell you why:
  • Robin  Only in the British Isles is the Robin a familiar bird of parks and gardens and relatively unafraid of people. Indeed, it is seen in Britain as the gardener’s friend, and many bird-lovers buy mealworms and other food to put out for it. In contrast, Robins in continental Europe are  wary birds, tending to skulk deep in woodlands, because for centuries they have been hunted and killed, like many other small passerines. 
  • Mute Swan  The Mute Swan also has a special place in British hearts. It can be found on almost any stretch of fresh water and is often bold enough to take food from the hand. This familiarity with man is probably because swans in Britain were for centuries domesticated for food, with all birds being the property of either the monarch or one of two London livery companies. Unlawful killing was a serious offence. But in continental Western Europe hunting was largely unrestricted, and Mute Swans were almost wiped out between the 13th and 19th centuries. Apart from birds introduced to ornamental waters, Mute Swans on the continent, like the Robin, tend to be wary of people. 

My own choice? Like the wise Times readers of 1961, I voted for the Robin.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Kiwis and yellowhammers

The Yellowhammer (Emberiza citronella) is a small bunting found across temperate Europe and Asia. 

Surprisingly, it is also common in New Zealand. 

But how on earth did this species get so deep into the southern hemisphere? 

The blame lies with so-called “acclimatisation societies”. In the days of colonialism, these organisations were set up in many British colonies in the belief that the local fauna was in some way deficient and could be improved by introducing species remembered from the British motherland. It is for this reason that the European Starling is now a widespread pest across North America and the rabbit has had a disastrous impact in Australia.

But Yellowhammers in New Zealand? In the middle of the 19th century, the country’s population was growing rapidly. To a large extent the settlers’ diet depended on introduced cereals. But these crops attracted insect pests such as caterpillars and black field crickets. 

Back in Europe, insectivorous bird helped to keep such pests under control. But Kiwi settlers had cleared away New Zealand’s forests, and many insect-eating native birds had disappeared with them. 

It seemed to make sense to protect the crops by introducing insectivores from Britain. But strangely, the main species chosen by the acclimatisation societies was the Yellowhammer — strange because the main food of this heavy-billed bunting is seeds rather than insects, although they do tend to use invertebrates as an additional food source in the breeding season, when they feed caterpillars and other insects to their nestlings. 

In the 1860s and 1870s, consignments of Yellowhammers were carried on no fewer than 25 ships sailing from London to New Zealand ports. A quarter of these shipments were organised by a family in Brighton, and many of the birds had been trapped around this East Sussex town.

At first Kiwi farmers welcomed the immigrants, but they soon began to realise that the newcomers actually aggravated the problem since, rather than eating the insect pests, they would feed on both the newly sown seeds and the subsequent cereal crops. 

Nevertheless, with government support, the acclimatisation societies continued to promote the introduction of Yellowhammers until 1880, when public pressure forced the rejection of the final shipment. (It was sent on to Australia, where Yellowhammers — unlike several other introduced Old World passerines — failed to thrive.)

From then on, New Zealand treated the Yellowhammer as an unwelcome immigrant and encouraged efforts to wipe it out by shooting, poisoning and egg collection. But, despite a bounty placed on the birds and their eggs, it was too late. With no major competitor among native species, the Yellowhammer rapidly became established. 

Today the Yellowhammer is a common inhabitant of open country across much of the NZ mainland and many of its offshore islands.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Rediscovery of a supposedly extinct bird

Hallelujah! A small Asian bird believed to have died out more than 60 years ago has recently been rediscovered.
Jerdon’s Babbler (Chrysomma altirostre altirostre) is an LBJ ("little brown job") about the size of a House Sparrow. It was initially described in the 19th century by a British naturalist, Thomas C. Jerdon.
Although his main interest was the birds of India, Jerdon discovered his eponymous babbler in 1862 in Burma (or Myanmar, if you must). At the time the bird was common in the grasslands of the country's flood plains. However, this natural habitat was doomed to gradual destruction by rice cultivation and the expansion of Burma's urban population.
Until its recent rediscovery, the last recorded sighting of a Jerdon’s Babbler was a single bird that was “collected”— does that mean shot or just trapped? — on  9 July 1941. This date, of course, was at the height of the Second World War. Soon afterwards the area was occupied by Japanese troops, rendering further scientific investigation impossible. 
Since the 1939–45 war, Jerdon’s drab little Burmese bird has been assumed to be extinct, although related subspecies — which may well be in line for reclassification as distinct species — have lingered elsewhere in Asia.
But the good news is that Jerdon’s Babbler has now been rediscovered. The expansion of rice paddies and a growing human population mean that Burma’s floodplains now bear little resemblance to the landscape that Jerdon studied. However, some tiny remnants of habitat suited to the babbler have managed to survive. 
In 2014, a research team surveying the remaining grasslands recorded a distinctive bird-call. When they played back their recording in the field they were rewarded with the sight of an adult Jerdon’s Babbler. Over the following days they also found more birds at other nearby locations. Using mist nets, they trapped several more babblers and obtained blood samples and photographs to confirm their identification.
It is always heartening to learn about the re-emergence of a creature assumed to be extinct. The rediscovery of Jerdon’s Babbler gives us us hope for the recovery of other Asian species that may have pessimistically been consigned to extinction.