Features Archive Life Thru a Lens 2010

October – Why birds? by Stuart Croft – Field Officer for the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction

It’s a question that I’ve been asked many times: why do you watch birds? Until now I’ve been unable to come up with a simple, in-a-nutshell answer, as it’s always been difficult to sum up all the various reasons why birds attract my attention. I suspect if the question was asked to a variety of people who spend their time to a lesser or greater degree engaged in the activity of birdwatching, each would come up with their own, different response.

As a small child I can remember being fascinated by all wildlife from the familiar ‘cabbage whites’ in the back garden to the exotic big game of the African savannah, broadcast to our living room through the miracle of television. But then something happened. My focus switched. Though still interested in all nature’s forms, I began to notice birds more than I ever had before. In the garden I provided food and nestboxes to attract them; to bring them within range so that I could observe their variety and gain an insight in to their lives. I began to explore further afield and soon appreciated that different types of habitats attract different types of birds. And whilst viewing those browsing impala and stalking lions, I would become distracted as I tried in vain to put a name to that inconspicuous flycatcher or plover, which invariably remained anonymous in the corner of the frame. I was hooked.

But why should this happen? What is it about birds that can have such an enduring effect on me and the many others who gain pleasure from watching them? Perhaps it’s worth exploring some of the possibilities. Firstly, birds are everywhere. It takes no effort at all to find them. Unlike some other groups of wildlife, which can be a challenge to observe, they are very accessible. And then there’s the sheer variety – over 10,000 species worldwide. In the UK the list is a little smaller (approaching 600, though less than half this number breed here). Even so, when all the many different plumages relating to season, sex and age are taken in to account, not to mention moult patterns, calls, songs, movements, behaviour and breeding ecology, there’s more than enough to sustain a lifelong interest with no fear of ever knowing it all.

Without wishing to state the obvious, birds fly! This can attribute them with a certain transitory, elusive quality; a feeling that at any moment they will be gone, never to be seen again. It is this ephemeral nature that drives the most hard-core of rarity hunter to pursue the most far-flung vagrants the length of the country, at the drop of a hat. Such birds are gold dust – see it now or perhaps never see it at all! The thrill of finding such birds oneself can be euphoric; equivalent to, or exceeding, your team winning the cup, or your numbers coming up on the prize draw. It’s all relative though. Equal delight can come from finding what may be no more than an uncommon species for the first time on your local ‘patch’, as it can from discovering a national, once-in-a-lifetime rarity on an offshore isle at the extreme end of the country. Either way, they both record indelibly on the minds of those with an interest in such things.

Not only do birds fly, but some undertake extreme journeys with unfailing precision. We have only relatively recently worked out how they do it. Centuries ago it was thought that the reason for the absence of swallows in winter was because they hibernated in ponds; a fanciful notion maybe, but no less remarkable perhaps than the truth of long-distance migration. The ability of a bird, weighing just a few ounces, to find its way from one side of the world to the other and back again to the same spot the following year is awe inspiring. Even more staggering is the fact that, when a bar-tailed godwit (a wading bird similar to a curlew) sets off south after breeding in Alaska, its next view of land is not until it finds New Zealand where it will spend the winter. That’s a non-stop, nine day journey of 7000 miles, without food or rest! Such epic journeys highlight the wonder of bird migration and confirm how utterly well-adapted birds are to their airborne lives with not a sat-nav in sight!

But maybe the answer to my question is more prosaic. Birds can be such attractive, entertaining creatures to watch – simple as that. They come in a multitude of shapes, sizes, patterns and colours that defy the imagination and their day to day antics can be captivating. Anyone who has watched the family lives of sparrows cannot fail to have been uplifted, seeing the youngsters as they beg, gapes open wide and wings fluttering to a blur, in their desperate attempt to get that next morsel from mum or dad.

It is this ability that birds have to touch our emotions that makes them such firm favourites with so many of us. The swallow provides a fitting example. The sight of the first spring bird dashing full of purpose to reach its destination is joyous and in contrast to the somewhat wistful air that accompanies those end-of-summer, pre-migratory gatherings on overhead power lines. Like crotchets on a stave they assemble, before the urge to head south takes over and they are gone for another year.

The sounds they produce can be even more evocative. The raucous cacophony of a 30,000 strong gannet colony can overwhelm. Once heard, just listening to it with eyes shut conjures up visions of countless Dulux-white forms and pungent odours. Though sadly, only very rarely heard these days in Cornwall, the song of the nightingale has no rival. Eulogised by poets, to experience this songster in full flow without distraction, has to be one of the most enthralling performances given by any bird in the UK.

And the best thing about all this is that it is free to anyone who cares to look. You don’t have to be an expert or even know what the bird is that you are looking at to enjoy it. And it can do you good too. Not only does it promote exercise and fresh air, the sight of birds going about their daily rituals, if only viewed through a closed window, can do wonders for the powers of recovery for anyone who is house-bound or hospitalised for any length of time. Even the Government has identified the quality of the natural environment as a key indicator for sound health and well being. So, less drain on our over-burdened NHS – yet another reason for enjoying birds and all other wildlife.

Having watched birds for fun for most of my life, I consider myself very fortunate to watch them for a living too. They continue to surprise and provoke questions to which I may never find satisfactory answers, but that doesn’t bother me. As long as there are birds to see, that’s what really matters. So, getting back to the original question: why birds? Maybe I’ve found my short, concise answer: because they are amazing! Why would you not want to watch them?

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