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Ringing the changes to save bird species

Friday 21 August 2009

Countryside commentator John Sheard, who fears for the future of once common birds like the cuckoo and the skylark, welcomes the news that British scientists and bird watchers have joined a worldwide campaign to prevent bird species going extinct

THE CYNICS call them “twitchers,” the somewhat derogatory name for the tens of thousands of people in Britain who are regular bird-watchers. It is a phrase used by city-based media pundits in rather the same way as train-spotters are known as “anoraks.”

Whilst I have nothing against train-spotters – I was an avid member of the species as a schoolboy in the long-gone days of steam – I am today rather proud of the fact that British bird-watchers have for a century been at the heart of one of the more important conservation movements in history.

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Birds, you see, are important and not just because they are the pretty and sometimes funny creatures which enliven our back gardens with their antics at the bird table or, more likely these days, around increasingly elaborate feeding systems.

This is because a healthy bird population is a key sign of a healthy environment. Even the present Government, whose record on countryside management and support is less than dismal, have recognised this fact; “Bio-diversity” is one of those new jargon words which politicians use and the number of bird species living in any given area is accepted as a “key indicator” – i.e., a good sign – that the local environment is thriving.

The capture and ringing of birds is an integral part of the process of keeping tracks on creatures which can cover huge distances – many thousands of miles in some cases. By knowing where migratory birds go – and even resident British birds can travel hundreds of miles within the UK – allows scientists to judge not just the bird population but also reach conclusions about what is happening to nature in areas they visit.

As I have reported before, bird ringing began in Britain 100 years ago, when scientists at Aberdeen University released a ringed plover which was later found in France. It was not until 1912, however, when a ringed swallow was captured in South Africa that we knew where swallows went in the winter.

That was a mystery solved that had perplexed mankind for millennia. Some of the theories rank amongst the daftest of all country legends: at one time, folk believed that swallows buried themselves under the mud in rivers or lakes to pass the winter months – as do some frogs and toads. Perhaps someone at sometime dug out a hibernating toad and thought it was a bird!

The Aberdeen experiment was quickly taken up by the British Trust for Ornithology and since then a staggering 36 million birds have been ringed. Every year now, some 80,000 volunteers take part in bird ringing exercises in the UK which has helped the BTO build the world’s most comprehensive avian data base...

The skylark and the cuckoo once provided the soundtrack to an idyllic English summer

Now, the BTO has taken another step forward by announcing that it had joined a world-wide movement to track bird species under threat of extinction by becoming a BirdLife Species Champion, a campaign led by BirdLife International which has supporters in more than 100 countries.

Making the announcement, Dr. Andy Clements, Director of the BTO, commented: “It is incredibly important to monitor threatened birds effectively and ringing plays an important part.

“Fitting birds with numbered metal or coloured rings, renders them identifiable as individuals. Nowadays, modern technology in the form of electronic tracking devices also enhances our knowledge.”

Bird species are going extinct in many parts of the world and the situation is particularly bad in tropical areas. There, rain forest is being cleared over vast areas for logging or by burning off the make room for agriculture to feed the burgeoning Third World population. Loss of habitat is a major factor in these extinctions but climate change is also worrying ornithologists.

Here in the UK, we cannot afford to be complacent. Intensive farming over the past 50 years has posed an enormous threat to farmland birds like plovers or our beloved skylark. This situation has improved with “greener” farming methods in recent years – but I have not heard a cuckoo for several years now.

It is not just farmland birds under threat: there has been a huge and mysterious decline in house sparrow and starlings,the archetypal avian “townies”, a case which the BTO and RSPB are investigating with great concern.

The skylark and the cuckoo once provided the soundtrack to an idyllic English summer. The starling has a wonderful singing voice, a welcome way to start the day in our towns and villages, and the old Cock Sparrow provides hours of amusement with its squabbles and antics at the bird table. These are precious natural assets: the “twitchers” are doing a vital job in protecting them.

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