Thursday 5 May 2011

A history of birds

My involvement in Transition Norwich stems from a concern for the environment, which in turn sprung from a lifelong love of wildlife. Every moment is enriched by an awareness of the wild world. To see flowers or butterflies, or recognise the song of a familiar bird, is to live a day more fully. The world is both bigger and more close when my attention is centred outside human things.

I was delighted, in December, to look up from my Christmas shopping and see a peregrine gliding between the rooftops. Norwich seems a more precious place to me for its cradling this beautiful bird and her single egg. I look at her on the webcam every night before I go to bed, to be sure she is sleeping safe.

Gardening in the spring, I was disorientated by the distant cat-call of a bird that I know only from holidays. Buzzards are only slowly reaching across the country as they re-establish themselves. My parents didn't see buzzards unless they travelled far to the West or North. I saw buzzards whenever we travelled further than Birmingham. The next generation in Norwich has the chance to get to know them as a common bird again.

Red kites are spreading again too. Britain now holds 7% of the world's red kites. It would hold more if people would stop poisoning them, but to concentrate on the positive for a moment: Britain had only a handful of red kites in the early 1900s, and now, after an intensive and expensive release program (worth every penny, in my book), it has around 2000 breeding pairs.

Why were these birds so rare?

Peregrines were one of the birds worst hit by the use of DDT as a pesticide. Tiny quantities of DDT were ingested by small birds which ate insects. The small birds accumulated DDT in their body fat. As the birds of prey ate large numbers of these small birds, they ingested much larger doses of DDT. The effect of DDT on birds of prey was to inhibit their ability to create egg-shells. The shells of their eggs became much thinner and so their young did not survive to hatch. But we learnt about that and we stopped spraying DDT indiscriminately in our field. So peregrines now fly among Norwich chimneys again.

Buzzards were rare for a number of reasons. As eaters of carrion, they too suffered from DDT. Then some bright spark decided that the best way of 'controlling the rabbit population' would be to infect them with a hideous disease. As rabbit numbers decreased, so did the buzzard population. On top of this they were shot and poisoned in their thousands by gamekeepers. But eventually gamekeepers worked out that buzzards had only a very limited impact on their game and generously allowed the buzzards to live. And now I can hear them calling from my house.

Red kites? That's possibly the saddest story of all. From Chaucer and Shakepeare's valued carrion eaters, protected by law for their value in keeping our streets clear, to virtually extinct in Britain. Queen Elizabeth I passed a law in 1566 that allowed Churchwardens to pay a bounty:
“one penney for the head of every Woodwall [Woodpecker], Pye [magpie], Jaye, Raven or Kyte.”
The British Kite population was practically extinct by the beginning of the 19th century, clinging on only in a small area of Wales. But we valued this small population and tried to help it expand. When it became clear that it couldn't, we re-introduced 5 populations from Spanish and Swedish stock. And Red Kites were recorded as the 53rd most common garden bird in this year's Big Garden Birdwatch.

So, if I believed that we had learnt from all those mistakes, the picture would be a positive one. Birds back from the brink, humans newly awake and caring. But I don't think we have learnt. I think equally terrible mistakes are being made today. Afterall, the RSPB itself expects that those beautiful, expensive, glorious re-introduced red kites will be extinct in this country by the end of this century due to climate change. It's not, however, climate change I want to blog about this week. It's a different (if interlinked) mistake: Palm Oil.

1 comment:

  1. Writing just as two Egyptian geese have landed n the adjacent barley field and a marsh harrier is cruising over the marsh. Most farmland birds, however, are not faring well, in spite of all our knowledge. Worth reading Mark Avery's words on this as he departs RSPB: