Sunday, 25 December 2016

A rotten Christmas Robin

Every year the Royal Mail issues a collection of Christmas postage stamps. Its set for 2016 depicts six of the corniest Christmas clichés — snowman (2nd class post), robin (1st class post), tree (£1.05), lantern (£1.33), stocking (£1.52) and pudding (£2.25). 

Unfortunately, the representation of the Robin on the first class stamp is far from first class. The image may be roughly the right shape for a Robin, but the bird has been given a breast of a garish pillar-box red rather than the more subtle orange-red of a real adult Robin. Even worse, the chocolate brown around and below this bib is quite wrong. In real life the Robin’s colourful breast patch has a delicate bluish-grey margin either side of it, and the bird’s undercarriage is whitish from the belly to beneath the tail, shading into pale reddish-brown on the flanks. Only the upperparts and wings are actually brown.

The stamp also gives its Robin yellow legs, a yellowish bill and a conspicuous white eye with a tiny black pupil. In fact the legs and bill should be brown and the eye is entirely black, surrounded by a fine white eye-ring. 

Examining this rotten representation of a Robin set me thinking about why the bird has become a Yuletide symbol. One alleged origin for its association with Christmas lies in maudlin folklore linking its red breast to either the birth or the death of Jesus. One legend says that when ickle baby Jesus was in his manger in the stable, the fire lit to keep him warm began to die down. A little brown bird flew in and flapped its wings to make the embers glow and re-ignite the fire. A stray red-hot ember flew from the hearth, landing on the bird’s breast to make it glow bright red. An alternative version has the fire flaring up and the bird scorching its breast by placing itself in front of the fire to protect the baby Jesus. In either case, Mary supposedly declared that the reddened breast was a sign of the bird’s kind heart and that the bird and its descendants would wear a red breast proudly for evermore. 

Equally nauseating is the story that when Jesus was dying on the cross a Robin flew up and tried to remove his thorny crown. But it was not strong enough and its passionate attempts led to its breast being stained red with Jesus’s blood. 

A more plausible origin for the Robin’s association with Christmas derives from the nickname “Robin” given to Victorian postmen because of their red tunics. (Red is, of course, still used by the Royal Mail on its logo, postboxes, vans, etc.) Because people expecting Christmas mail eagerly awaited the arrival of the red-breasted postman, some greeting card artists illustrated their cards with images of postal delivery. However, one artist decided that instead of drawing Robin the postman, he would draw Robin the bird with letters in its little beak. The trend caught on and, as Victorian tastes grew more extravagant, Robins were even slaughtered to provide red feathers for decorating cards.

But despite these alleged origins, it may be that the Robin's association with Christmas is simply because, like Yuletide evergreens such as holly, ivy and mistletoe (which become more obvious once deciduous plants have lost their leaves), it is more noticeable at this time of year. Robins become more conspicuous by December partly because UK numbers are boosted by birds from colder climates migrating to Britain in the autumn and partly because, unlike most garden birds, the Robin draws attention to itself by singing regularly in the winter.  

Incidentally, the name Robin is a fairly recent acquisition, only officially accepted by the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1952. The bird’s Anglo-Saxon name was Ruddock, but by the Middles Ages it had become known as Redbreast. In the 16th century there was a fad for giving common birds personal names, so that the Daw became Jack Daw, the Pie became Mag (Margaret) Pie, the Wren became Jenny Wren, tits became Tom Tit, etc, and the Redbreast became Robin Redbreast. Over the years, Jack Daw and Mag Pie condensed to Jackdaw and Magpie, and the Wren and the tits dropped their adopted forenames. But the Redbreast went on to lose its “surname” and become just plain Robin.

Monday, 19 September 2016

The migrant Greylag is no laggard

The Greylag (Anser anser) is a large grey goose, the Anser ancestor of most domestic geese and the bulkiest of the geese found in Europe. It can be distinguished from other grey geese by its large head, thick neck, dull pinkish legs and heavy pinkish-orange bill.

In the UK, truly wild Greylag occur only as winter visitors to Scotland and Northern Ireland, to which they migrate in autumn from their breeding grounds in Iceland. Elsewhere, particularly in eastern England, the Greylag has become established as a resident species after being released in suitable areas. These non-migratory birds tend to be semi-tame and can be found around gravel pits, lakes and reservoirs, just like the introduced Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese with which they often associate.

By now, the more prescient readers will have noticed that I call the species Greylag rather than Greylag Goose. That is because I have always understood that the “lag” part of the name is an old word meaning goose, so that referring to the bird as Greylag Goose is tautological. 

But recently, after coming across a couple of Greylag at my local birding patch, where they are not regularly found, I started wondering whether I was right about the origin of the name. So I checked a range of online dictionaries (via the wonderful OneLook metadictionary) and was surprised to find that only two sources seemed to agree with me. 

One of these, the mighty Oxford Dictionary, states that the name has its origin in the early 18th century and that lag is an old dialect word for goose, of unknown origin. The other, Wiktionary, says that lag is an old name for a goose “derived from the call used to move such animals along”. Oxford agrees that “lag” was formerly used in calling or driving domesticated geese but suggests, not unreasonably, that the call was derived from the name rather than the other way about.

But apart from those two sources, every online dictionary that ventures to offer an origin for the name states that “lag” is a reference to the bird’s supposed habit of remaining in Britain relatively later than other migratory wild geese before setting off for its breeding grounds. 

This claim seemed to me to be nothing but crass folk etymology, since I was not aware of any evidence for a delayed spring migration for this species. So I decided to check. And what did I find? I came across a study carried out for the British Trust for Ornithology suggesting that, rather than lagging behind other wild geese, Greylag actually tend to leave their winter quarters in Scotland significantly earlier than their grey goose relatives. 

Combining records for Scottish departures and Icelandic arrivals between 1950 and 1997, the study reported that the greatest Greylag movement was from April 11 to 15, compared with April 17 to 21 for White-fronted Goose, April 25 to 28 for Brent Goose, April 26 to 30 for Pink-footed Goose and April 27 to May 1 for Barnacle Goose. 

I rest my case. Far from being castigated as a slowpoke, the wild Greylag should be lauded as a migratory pacesetter. Labelling it a laggard is clearly wrong. The Oxford/Wiktionary etymology must surely be right and the other dictionaries are all mistaken. 

So I am justified in continuing to call the bird just a Greylag rather than a Greylag Goose.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Farewell, Einojhani Rautavaara

From a somewhat belated obituary in The Times of 14 September 2016, I recently learnt of the death on 27 July 2016 of the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, aged 87. He was a composer I have admired since I first heard his romantic and impressionistic Cantus Arcticus, subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, which is probably his best-known work. 

Many years ago, when I was still unaware of any Finnish composers other than Jean Sibelius, I was scanning the Radio Times and came across details of a Radio 3 performance of Cantus Arcticus. Intrigued by the reference to birds, I recorded it on cassette tape and listened to it over and over again.

I know now that the work originated in 1971 in a commission from the University of Oulu for Rautavaara to write a cantata for performance at the following year’s degree ceremony. However, after accepting the commission, the composer discovered that the university choir was not up to scratch and so decided to replace them with the best voices in the world — those of wild birds, and specifically those from the area around the city of Oulu. 

Oulu is on the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia in northern Finland, close to the Arctic Circle. Rautavaara ventured out into the chilly landscape surrounding the city and recorded bird calls and songs both within the Arctic Circle and in the Liminka wetlands, a few miles south of Oulu. He then interwove these sounds into the orchestral texture of a three-movement work that also requires various wind instruments to mimic bird sounds.

The work’s first movement, Suo (“The Marsh”), opens with two solo flutes, which are gradually joined by other wind instruments and the sounds of marshland birds recorded in spring. I recognise some of the commoner bird sounds and I have read that the recording also includes Terek Sandpiper and possibly Ortolan Bunting. I would love to hear an expert’s analysis of all the birds on Rautavaara’s recording. 

In the plaintive second movement, Melankolia (“Melancholy”), the featured bird is the Shore Lark, but birders might not easily recognise it because Rautavaara brought its call down by two octaves to give it an eerie “ghost bird” effect. The mournful bird sound is accompanied by tender string figures.

The third movement, Joutsenet muuttavat (“Swans migrating”), features the calls of migrating Whooper Swans. As the movement progresses in a long crescendo, the texture becomes gradually more complex and the calls of the swans are multiplied to create the impression of swelling numbers. Finally both the bird calls and the orchestra fade away as if lost in the distance.

Cantus Arcticus is a majestic work that conveys a wonderful image of big skies, wide open spaces, bleak marshes, chilly winds, etc. If listening to it does not send a shiver up your spine then there may be something wrong with you. 

NOTE (1): for anyone who may be interested, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s name is pronounced EH-ee-noh-yoo-hah-nee RAH-oo-tah-vaah-rah.

NOTE (2): My recommended recording of Cantus Arcticus is a version by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra with the Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, found on the Ondine label. Almost as good is a low-price Naxos recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by another Finn, Hannu Lintu (whose surname happens to be Finnish for bird). If you don’t want to buy a recording you can find several versions to listen to on YouTube. Musicians may like, which lets you follow the sheet music while listening to a recording by the Deutsche Radiophilharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppend. If you like pretty images, try, in which the RSNO recording is accompanied by a live kinetic painting by Norman Perryman, apparently representing the Finnish landscape. At you can watch a video of a performance by an excellent amateur orchestra, the Calgary Civic Symphony. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Great Crested Grebe and the Plumage League

In 1970, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds introduced a logo in the form of a graphic representation of the head of an Avocet (or a Pied Avocet, if you like, to distinguish it from three New World species of Avocet). 

The Avocet was an apt choice because over the previous couple of decades the RSPB had played a major role in re-establishing this species as a breeding bird after its extinction in Britain in 1893. However, an equally suitable logo might have been a Great Crested Grebe, because without this species the RSPB might never have been founded. 

Although previously well established in Britain, the Great Crested Grebe almost disappeared in the 19th century. Why? Because of wholesale slaughter in the interest of ladies’ fashion. Smart ladies in the Victorian era loved to wear large hats with wide brims decorated in elaborate creations of silk flowers, ribbons and colourful feathers — and sometimes even the stuffed skins of entire birds. 

Because of its exotic head and neck plumes, the Great Crested Grebe was one of the species slaughtered to meet this fashion. Thanks mainly to plume-hunters, Britain’s breeding population plummeted until, in 1860, just 42 breeding pairs were recorded. 

In 1889, from her home in Didsbury (now a suburb of Manchester), Emily Williamson set up the Plumage League to campaign against the use of feathers in hat-making. She was concerned at both the cruelty of plume hunting and its severe effect on the population of some species.

The league had just two simple rules: (1) “that members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection”; and (2) “that Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purpose of food, the ostrich only excepted.” (The Ostrich was excluded because its tail-feathers could be harvested without harm.) 

As the British species most at risk from plume hunters, the Great Crested Grebe was one of the league’s main concerns. Non-British birds being decimated by plume-hunters included the Roseate Spoonbill and various species of egret, flamingo and bird of paradise. By the time the league was founded, the fashion industry had almost extinguished some of these birds.

In 1891, the league merged with a similar protest group established in Croydon by Eliza Philips, who hosted regular “fur, fin and feather” meetings at her home. They called the merged group the Society for the Protection of Birds. The organisation went on to be granted a Royal Charter in 1904 and has subsequently grown to become the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe, with more than a million members. In 1989, on the centenary of Plumage League’s foundation, a plaque was placed on Emily Williamson’s former home to honour her work.

Thanks to the campaigning begun by Emily and Eliza, there are now more than 5,000 breeding pairs of Great Crested Grebe in the United Kingdom, spread across most of England, lowland Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The extinct Dodo that never even existed

Everyone has heard of the Dodo — that large, flightless relative of the pigeons that was found only on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius and became extinct in the 17th century. 

Known to science as Raphus cucullatus, this docile and inquisitive bird was first recorded by Dutch sailors in 1598. Because of subsequent hunting and habitat destruction, along with predation by mammals introduced by man, numbers rapidly dwindled and the last widely accepted sighting of a Dodo was in 1662. Although there were some possible later encounters, it is generally agreed that the species was fully extinct by the end of the 17th century. 

Yes, everyone is aware of the Dodo. But few people have heard of a close relative from the volcanic island of Réunion, which lies 225km (140 miles) west of Mauritius. This bird, the Réunion Solitaire (Raphus solitarius), has a unique feature — not only is it also officially extinct, but it seems never to have existed in the first place! It was, however, accepted as a second species of Dodo until as recently as the 1980s, and it still appears in some official lists of extinct birds and is described on a number of websites. 

Image of a Réunion Solitaire, based
on 17th century written accounts
 The Réunion Solitaire is known only from old written descriptions and pictorial records. Travellers' accounts from the 17th century describe a large white bird that could fly only with difficulty. One account specifically referred to it as a Dodo. It is perhaps not surprising that illustrators in Europe who had not seen the bird for themselves produced images depicting it as a white variant on the better known Mauritian species. 

Réunion’s “Dodo” was given the name Solitaire because it seemed to prefer the solitude of the mountains — although it is quite possible that the bird had only become confined to mountainous areas because of heavy hunting by man and predation by animals that man had introduced. 
Hypothetical restoration of the Réunion
Ibis, based on subfossil remains, 17th
century written accounts and extant
relatives in the same genus

Records indicate that the Réunion Solitaire was driven to extinction by the early 18th century. However, no remains of a Dodo-like bird have ever been found on Réunion, and it is now generally accepted that the solitaire was not even closely related to the Dodo. Since 1974, subfossils of an extinct ibis have been unearthed on Réunion, and it appears that this bird was the real solitaire. The Réunion Ibis was first scientifically described in 1987 and was given the specific name Threskiornis solitarius. Its closest extant relatives are the African Sacred Ibis (T aethiopicus) and the Malagasy Sacred Ibis (T bernieri).

Although Réunion never had its own Dodo, the Mauritian species did at least have one genuine cousin. This bird lived on Rodrigues, the last of the three major volcanic islands in the Mascarene Archipelago, some 620km (385 miles) east of Mauritius. The Rodrigues Solitaire was described and drawn by François Leguat, leader of a group of French Huguenot refugees who were marooned on the island from 1691 to 1693. Like the Mauritian Dodo and the Réunion Ibis, this bird also fell foul of human hunters and introduced mammals. It probably became extinct some time between the 1730s and 1760s.

François Leguat’s drawing of the 
Rodrigues Solitaire — the only 
known drawing by someone 
who observed the bird in life
Apart from a handful of other contemporary descriptions, including Leguat’s detailed account and drawing, nothing was known about the Rodrigues Solitaire until a few subfossil bones were found in a cave in 1789. Since then, thousands of bones have been excavated. They have allowed taxonomists to decide that the bird was certainly a near relative of the Dodo. However, it was not close enough to be placed in the Raphus genus and it was given its own genus, Pezophaps (meaning “pedestrian pigeon”). But Raphus cucullatus and Pezophaps solitaria are close enough to share an extinct subfamily, the Raphinae, within the large pigeon family, the Columbidae.

The Columbidae family features about 310 species. Sadly, the Dodo and the Rodrigues Solitaire are among no fewer than 10 family members to become extinct since 1600, which is the conventional date used for estimating “modern” extinctions.

Return of the crane

During a recent short break in Cambridgeshire, my wife and I visited a wetland nature reserve. As soon as we reached the car park overlooking the site I noticed two large birds flying across the reserve towards us. As I scrabbled for my binocular they dropped down into the wet grassland about 200 metres away. But even before I could train my lenses on them, I realised to my delight that they were cranes — the first I have ever seen in Britain. 

Common Cranes in Cambridgeshire

While I was trying to photograph the distant birds, I met a binocular-toting dog-walker and asked her if cranes were regular visitors to the reserve. She told me that a pair had successfully bred a few years ago and then stayed on, sometimes joined by a few other birds. 

(I will not identity the site, since I suspect that the conservation organisation responsible for it does not want publicity. There is certainly no mention of cranes on the reserve’s website pages.)

The by-no-means-common Common Crane (Grus grus) is mainly a long-distance migrant, breeding across northern Europe and Asia and predominantly wintering in northern Africa. It is one of Britain’s rarest birds, normally encountered only as a scarce passage migrant in spring and autumn. 

The Common Crane bred in Britain in the Middle Ages, but land drainage and hunting led to its disappearance as a breeding bird by the start of the 17th century. But then in autumn 1979 two birds appeared in Norfolk at Hickling Broad and stayed on rather than continuing south. Three years later they raised a single chick — the first successful breeding in Britain for about 400 years. Over the following few years, they made further breeding attempts. Other birds stopped off from their migration to join them and a few of them also stayed on. And Hickling Broad now has a resident flock of about 20 birds, with two or three pairs breeding successfully each year. 

This natural success in Norfolk stimulated a scheme called the Great Crane Project, in which the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust have sunk hundreds of thousands of pounds into persuading hand-reared cranes to breed in the Somerset Levels. The RSPB alone currently has a target of raising £1.5 million for this dubious project (see 
According to the RSPB website, the rationale for this horrendously costly scheme is that the small Norfolk Broads population “remains isolated” and cranes therefore “need a big helping hand” to recolonise their other former wetland haunts. But does the Norfolk population really “remain isolated”? And do cranes really need an extravagant “helping hand” elsewhere? 

Without any expensive hand-rearing, cranes began breeding at the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen reserve in Suffolk a few years ago, and they have also bred on Humberside and in north-east Scotland, as well as at the Cambridgeshire reserve where I saw them. There is no reason why they should not naturally continue to spread into other wetland areas across Britain without the “helping hand” of the Great Crane Project. The money splurged on this profligate scheme could surely be used more effectively elsewhere.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

On not hearing the first cuckoo in spring

For centuries, the call of the Cuckoo has been considered a harbinger of spring. The bird’s arrival was once so keenly awaited that April 14 was designated Cuckoo Day because the first Cuckoo was usually heard on or about that day in southern England. 

According to an old verse, the Cuckoo sings from St Tiburtius Day to St John's Day — ie, from Cuckoo Day, which is also the feast day of St Tibertius (a Christian martyr in ancient Rome), to June 24, which is Midsummer Day and the feast day of St John the Baptist. 

Why the June 24 cut-off? Since the Cuckoo is a brood parasite — relying on other birds to raise its young — it has no breeding territory to defend and so has no need to continue singing further into the summer. 

But today the call of the Cuckoo is far from common. The species has been in decline for 50 years or so, and since the early 1980s its population has dropped by two-thirds. In 2009 it was added to the UK red list of Birds of Conservation Concern. 

The reasons for the Cuckoo’s decline are not known. Some people have blamed it on the destruction of the habitat of the small birds that find themselves fostering young Cuckoos. However, this is unlikely because none of the main host species — the Meadow Pipit, the Dunnock, the Reed Warbler and the Pied Wagtail — is also in significant decline. 

Another possible cause is an increased use of pesticides on farmland. This may have reduced the numbers of caterpillars, which are the Cuckoo’s main prey. But other birds that feed mainly on caterpillars have not shown such a sharp decline. 

Climate change has also been suggested as a factor. Global warming has certainly shifted forward the host birds’ breeding by a few days, but there is no evidence of any link to the Cuckoo’s decline. 

With no specific evidence of problems in the bird’s summer haunts, we should perhaps be looking elsewhere. Major causes of decline may be the deterioration of conditions along the Cuckoo’s migration routes and problems within its over-wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The four-mile-high goose

Most migrating birds fly at altitudes within the range 150–600m (490–1,970ft). However, some species are known to climb considerably higher, particularly if their migration routes take them across mountain ranges. For example, in the 1950s, an expedition to Mount Everest found skeletons of Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) and Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) at an altitude of 5,000m (16,000ft) on the Khumbu Glacier.

So what is the world’s highest flying bird? Well, the record is indisputably held by an unfortunate Rüppell's Vulture (Gyps rueppellii). This hapless bird was sucked into the jet engine of a plane flying over Ivory Coast at an altitude of 11,300m (37,000ft) above sea level on 29 November 1973. 

But soaring birds such as vultures can take advantage of the slightest upward air current to reach great heights with little effort. So which is the highest flying bird that depends mainly on muscle-power? The award must go to — insert drum roll here — the Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus). 

The Bar-headed Goose breeds in high altitude wetlands in central Asia and migrates over the Himalayas to winter in northern India. Bar-heads have been recorded by GPS (global positioning system) flying at altitudes of up to 6,540m (21,460ft) — 4 miles high — and at the same time engaging in the highest known rate of climb to altitude for any bird. 

Anecdotal reports suggest that Bar-heads can fly even higher than this. They have apparently been heard flying across the summit of Mount Makalu – the fifth highest mountain on earth at 8,481m (27,825ft). And George Lowe, who supported Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, reported seeing geese fly over the top of the world’s highest mountain at around 8,840m (29,000ft). 

It was long thought that Bar-headed Geese reached these high altitude by catching a ride on the jet stream across the mountains. However, a recent study found that they prefer to fly early in the morning when there is less wind, spurning the updraughts or tailwinds that most other migrating birds would use.

So how do these birds manage to attain a height at which the air is so thin that it provides less than half the oxygen available at sea level? Not surprisingly, studies have shown that they have to flap much harder, putting in around 30 per cent more effort at altitude than at lower altitudes. But research has also shown that, in common with Rüppell’s Vulture, the Bar-head’s blood cells contain a special type of haemoglobin — the blood protein responsible for transporting oxygen around the body — that absorbs oxygen more quickly at high altitudes. 

Another factor is that the bird’s wing muscle fibres are particularly dense in small blood vessels (capillaries), which extend especially deeply into the muscles. And each muscle cell’s mitochondrion — the “powerhouse” that generates cellular energy — is found close to the cell membrane adjacent to capillaries, which reduces the oxygen’s diffusion distance within the cell.

All these adaptations show that, compared with low-altitude geese and ducks, Bar-heads have evolved beautifully to cope with thin air by enhancing the oxygen supply to their flight muscle.