Tag Archives: Birds Britannia

Birdie Books!

4 Sep

“To live in a silent world would be a really dreadful thing”
Andrew Motion

The above quote is taken from a book I’ve just finished reading, Birds Britannia by Stephen Moss. This particular passage contemplates the gradual disappearance of countryside birds and considers the great loss that would be. The writing points out that this loss would not only be felt in our wider sense of ecology but it would also manifest itself in our hearts and minds. This is kind of the essence of the book – almost every page directly relates our relationship with our feathered friends to our sense of self.

Birds Britannia

Birds Britannia covers the worlds of Town and Garden Birds, Water Birds, Sea Birds and Countryside Birds, illustrating beautifully the history of our interconnectedness with these different British landscapes and the creatures we share them with.

Moss provides some amazing anecdotal insights into the lives of birds, for example the dirty Dunnock. Yes it may look all brown and ordinary to you but this tweetie-pie is a sex machine. Let’s put it politely; these birds are known to ‘breed’ in groups – if you know what I mean. Chicks within broods will often have different fathers; in fact it’s not uncommon to see two males and a female in one nest.

Dirty Dunnock pen sketch by Ella Johnston

Then there’s the Avocet. Who’d have thought this funny looking little wader is one aggressive mo-fo who, when defending its territory, will take on a bird twice its size? The Avocet also provides a nice little wartime story. During World War Two, a stray bomb tore a hole through the Havergate Island sea wall, resulting in water from the tidal river flooding-in and in turn creating a perfect habitat for Avocets. In the Spring of 1947 the Avocets came and started to breed – apparently people saw this as some kind of sign; a metaphor, if you will, for British servicemen coming back home from overseas. There was even a sign drawn in mud on the sea-wall saying “Welcome Home Avocets”. The bird is also used on the RSPB logo.

Avocet pen sketch by Ella Johnston

The book takes us through the history of birdie Britain and how our story (class, agriculture, industrialisation and war) can change and affect our view of particular birds. There are also several scary, cautionary tales, one of which is that of the humble house sparrow. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that these guys are now on the RSPB red list.

Poor little sparrow pen sketch by Ella Johnston

The book is also rich with fascinating human, as well as bird, stories – it features some fascinating characters in the fields of ornithology and conservation. There’s tales of Ronald Lockley who set up the first bird observatory in 1933, a great account of the Victorian women who essentially founded the RSPB, the POWs whose study of birds went on to inform the conservation movement, Edward Grey the liberal politician that went bird watching with Roosevelt and the Great Peter Scott…

Often cited as the Patron saint of conservation, Scott (who’s Dad was Scott of the Antarctic) is a fantastic character. His story is lovely, charming and a real pleasure to read. He is also credited in the book as one of the first people to recognise the importance of preserving habitat as well as species.

This latter point is particularly poignant today as Moss depicts the plight of one of my favourite birds – the Puffin. I declare an interest here as a couple of years ago myself and Dr B went to observe them while we were in Iceland – we both fell in love with these comical little creatures and they have a special place in both our hearts. However it appears that you may not be able to see a Puffin in the British Isles for much longer…

We love Puffins! Photo by MW Bewick

The book highlights that in recent years Puffin chicks have starved to death because of a shortage of land eels. This is partly due to over-fishing but also a result of climate change (marine temperatures increase at a more rapid rate than land). In fact the reduction of food supply has led to a reduction of sea bird numbers breeding in Britain over the past few years.

If all this sounds a bit heavy I assure you it isn’t – I read the book in a few quick sessions. It’s a real romp – written with warmth and affection for its subjects (human and avian). Experienced twitchers will know a lot of the info contained in the book but Birds Britannia is a beautiful way to get budding birders excited and whet the appetite of amateur social historians. Essentially it’s a thoroughly enjoyable jaunt around ourselves, taking learnings from the natural world that we may do well in heeding.

I’ll leave you with this: did you know that two out of three British households feed wild birds in our gardens? And we spend over £150million in doing so? I’m one of these number – here’s my bird table.

My bird table!

So why do we do this? I think the book sums up my reasons for doing so perfectly…

“For many people this simple act of kindness to our fellow creatures is the entry point into a deeper relationship with wildlife as a whole; a relationship that may span their entire lifetime.”

Let’s hope so!