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.

No comments:

Post a Comment