Ok, we’ve done winter warmth, religion, technology, Christmas and information. What’s next?
When I was young, we often had birds in the back garden. Mum used to throw out breadcrumbs and stale bread for them. We regularly saw blackbirds, thrushes, robins, starlings and sparrows. They were just about the only birds I knew as a child, although I would recognize crows, ducks, geese and swans.
I am going to have to get more technical to fill out a whole blog post. As a post-retirement birder, I can say quite a lot about changes over the last fifty years, from what I know with a bit of help from Wikipedia and other sources.
A lot of birdwatchers list all the birds they see every year. As I start this January, I know that some, such as thrushes, will be much rarer than they were fifty years ago. I will spot others easily, like egrets, which would have been impossible in the 1950s.
In true birding fashion, I will now stick to proper species names with capital letters. So a sparrow is a House Sparrow, a crow is a Carrion Crow, by thrush I mean Song Thrush and the only common egret is a Little Egret. (In most cases species names should be understandable for overseas readers. American readers should note that a Robin is not an American Robin.)
Let’s get one thing settled before I go on. It’s now called birding, not birdwatching – because we listen as well as look.
Most birders will say that it’s all about habitats. Each type of bird needs its own type of habitat. You can have the right habitat and not find the birds, but without a decent habitat, you won’t see them. Habitat is mainly about climate, vegetation and food sources but there is more.
Birds need somewhere to live and eat but, for a long-term purposes, they need the ability to breed. They need suitable nesting sites, food appropriate for a young family and an absence of predators. With seasonal birds, they need a good summer habitat and a good winter habitat.
Let’s have a look at a few types of birds. First some species which are now much rarer.
Skylarks and Farm Birds
I remember in my youth going on walks with the Youth Club on most bank holidays. We would stop at a pub for lunch and sit outside in the sun. (We were too young to be drinking alcohol!) My vivid impression from those days is hearing the constant song of Skylarks in the sky above us. This bird is still quite common but, after a severe decline in the 70s and 80s, it is much less common that it used to be. I might see or hear one or two on a country walk, but I may walk for miles without a sighting.
This is not the place to go into farming methods but the changes in suitable habitats are effectively produced by changes in farming methods. (I might do farming next week. Maybe not.)
There are other birds associated with farming that have suffered similar or worse declines in numbers. Yellowhammer and Linnet are now scarce and Corn Bunting are very rare.
[We should perhaps call partridges farm birds but their numbers are effectively controlled by the field sports community, who both breed them and shoot them. The Grey Partridge used to be common throughout England but has suffered a dramatic decrease in numbers. The Red-legged Partridge is now the preferred target and its numbers have increased.]
The Lapwing (outside the UK, it’s the Northern Lapwing) used to be described as a farmland bird, as it bred throughout England on farms. Changes into more intensive farming have seen this bird decrease to a very rare breeding bird. It is still seen in large numbers at wetland areas as a visitor or passage migrant.
To some extent, what we call garden birds have also declined. In terms of habitat, the garden has changed, with increasing use of insecticides, but building changes are also relevant. The House Sparrow generally nests in the rooves and eaves of houses. More sturdily constructed houses now provide less easy access to suitable nest sites.
The Tree Sparrow, a similar species, has declined much more dramatically and has now disappeared from large areas of England where it used to be common. As I hinted above, Song Thrushes are now rare as garden birds.
Think positive. Let’s look for birds on the increase.
You are all thinking that with a name like Canada Goose, this bird is new to England. Well, blame them on King James II and his waterfowl collection in St James’s Park, London. That was in the late Seventeenth Century, a bit before my time! I just put them in for a bit of history.
These are a little more modern. They were introduced in the mid-Nineteenth Century. I would not describe them as common but they are now generally widespread within England.
The Rose-ringed Parakeet, also called Ring-necked Parakeet, was unknown in the fifties. Nobody quite knows where they came from but they were first seen in the London area in the late sixties. Perhaps a few escaped. Perhaps a few were released deliberately. But they liked the habitat. With annual breeding, a few birds can increase rapidly. Now there are tens of thousands, mostly around Greater London, but still spreading.
The (Eurasian) Collared Dove is renowned for being dispersive. At the end of the Nineteenth Century, its range was Asia, Turkey and further East. It spread steadily through Europe reaching Norfolk in England in 1953, then it spread gradually westwards and is now common throughout Britain, estimated at about a million pairs of birds! It has also extended its range to the East of Asia, and has been introduced to the USA!
Red Kites and other Raptors
(They used to be birds of prey. Now they are called raptors.)
Red Kites, formerly widespread, had been almost eliminated by persecution by the fifties. From the 1980s some small populations have been reintroduced in several places and helped by daily feeding of wild birds. It is now possible to see several hundred of these birds together at these feeding sites. They are gradually spreading.
Buzzards were also rare and localized until about 1990, but have now become widespread and common. This is largely because gamekeepers have been persuaded not to shoot them (with the help of legislation!) The same is true for raptors in general.
It is worth noting that birds adapt easily. The Kestrel is known for its ability to hover as it looks for prey. Now they may perch on telegraph wires or hover over roads looking for road-kill. Buzzards are also now commonly seen perched at the side of motorways waiting for accidents!
Little Egrets and Spoonbills
These two birds probably owe their increasing abundance to climate change. Before 1980, Little Egrets were effectively an African species, moving to Southern Europe in the summer, very rare vagrant visitors in England. (We did have them back in the fifteenth Century.) From the mid 90s they have bred in England and Wales and have soon become familiar to birders. In many places, you are now more likely to see an Egret than our native Grey Heron.
Great White Egrets and Cattle Egrets are still rare but seen in increasing numbers. They could soon spread in the same way as Little Egrets. The same is true of Spoonbills, a similar large wading bird, now breeding regularly in England.
There are now Wildlife Trusts throughout England, more or less each defined by a county. They had started in the fifties but were then of little significance. Now, the counties each have their own trust, looking after several nature reserves, many of which are well know to birdwatchers. Membership of one county Trust gives members free access to all other county’s reserves (except Norfolk!)
These sites are significant, both in providing suitable habitats for birds and for encouraging people to watch, help and preserve birds and other wildlife. The same is true of other organisations such as the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU).
Watching birds has become a much more popular hobby, partly because many more people live into retirement seeking pastimes. Even without taking it up as a hobby, many people now have bird feeders in their gardens. Feeding birds now forms a part of every Garden Centre.
It is noticeable that the predominance of feeders now forms a significant habitat. There are birds, like Chiffchaff and Blackcap, which used to be considered summer visitors. They are now seen through the winter, mostly around feeders in people’s gardens. (Climate change may also affect these birds.) Other birds such as Reed Buntings and Water Rails are now regular visitors to bird feeding areas in winter.
I haven’t covered all the changes, just a few to illustrate that birds seen in the UK are now quite different to those that would have been seen just fifty years ago. I have put in more pictures than normal because I have tens of thousands of bird pictures on my computer! All pictures for this blog are mine, all taken in England or Wales.
I looked a little at Swahili on retirement before turning to golf and birds. The language is full of homely sayings. The title translates literally as “Every bird flies with its own wings,” but I use it as my motto.
The next post is unlikely to be about birds or Swahili …