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Ringing the changes: a century of bird study

Friday 16 January 2009

ONE HUNDRED years ago, the first wild birds in Britain were captured and had rings with a unique number attached to their legs which, on recapture, told scientists where they had been. Our countryside correspondent John Sheard comments on a major step foreword in our understanding of how birds live.

IN AN age when the world’s wildlife and how it lives – and sometimes dies – is captured in full colour on our television sets almost every day, it is almost impossible to believe the following story.



For hundreds of years, many country folk in Britain, puzzled about what happened to the swallows when they disappeared in early autumn concluded that, like frogs and toads, they buried themselves in the mud at the bottom of rivers and lakes to pass the winter months in hibernation.

Even now, I find it difficult to believe that people could actually fall for such absolute guff but I am assured that this was a widely held superstition. And that assurance comes from one of my favourite charities, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), compiler of the world’s biggest bird life data base, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year.

The reason why I raise the matter is that this year sees the centenary of an important precursor of the BTO’s work, the invention of bird ringing in 1909, which was a vastly important milestone in our understanding of birds, where and how they live, and where they go on their incredibly long migrations.

By capturing birds in strong but soft nets and gently attaching a uniquely numbered ring to their legs we began to dispel some of the mysteries of bird migration – and found out that swallows fly thousands of miles to spend our winters in the insect-rich skies south of the Sahara Desert.

When the swallows go, others arrive, varying from many water fowl like swans and geese than come in from Scandinavia and Russia, and tiny finch-like creatures like waxwings. Even some of our winter robins fly in to spend winter here, whilst others move south within the UK.

Others, of course, just stay put to protect a food-rich patch like my allotment, where – like millions of English folk – I make special efforts to ensure “my” robin (and many other species) survive the winter. Even if the weather is too foul for gardening, I trudge down almost every day to feed them. And in what has been the coldest start to winter for 30 years (whatever happened to global warming?) I have also been at pains to smash the two-inch-thick ice in my water butts to ensure the birds have something to drink, just as essential as regular feeding.

To many foreigners, such behaviour is tantamount to madness. The French shoot and eat virtually anything that flies, including sparrows. I advise you never to go to Malta in early summer, when birds like collared doves are migrating north over the Mediterranean from Africa.

Even this Government, whose sum knowledge of the countryside could be written on the head of a pin, has finally recognised that a healthy bird population indicates a healthy environment.

If you do, take ear plugs to defend against the constant volleys of 12-bore fire and don’t stick you head unexpectedly above any wall or even a hedgerow of cactus – you could get it shot off. Go to bed early because the slaughter starts at dawn and goes on most of the day.

Why the British are so in love with birds – or all animals, for that matter – is a bit of a mystery, Perhaps it is because we have a comparatively meagre set of mammals in the wild, having killed off the bear, wolf, lynx and beaver centuries ago (although there are moves afoot to reintroduce them in the Scottish Highlands).

But whatever the cause of this affection, it has created two of the world’s great conservationist charities, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the afore-mentioned BTO. At first, their work may seem arcane but, more and more, the importance of keenly observing wildlife behaviour is being recognised.

Bird behaviour is very much affected by climate change and by observing that, scientists may be able to glean valuable insights into what might happen in future. Even this Government, whose sum knowledge of the countryside could be written on the head of a pin, has finally recognised that a healthy bird population indicates a healthy environment.

Birds are also known to possess inbuilt sensors which allow them to navigate huge distances with minute accuracy. And, in tropical parts, they seem to be able to sense on-coming disasters like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions – and fly away before they occur.

Such skills are still the subject of much speculation and demand further scientific investigation - which is why the BTO is worthy of our support. It has published a fascinating book on the history of bird ringing (see picture), jam- packed with fascinating facts like the oldest bird in Britain is a Manx shearwater which will be 51 this year. A good read – and a great charity to support!

  • Bird Ringing is available from BTO on-line sales at www.bto.org or by telephone, 01842 750050. The book costs £7.50 plus p & p.

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