October, 2008

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South East

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  • Life's not black and white

    Four for a boy. Five for silver...Twice this week, I've had people who love birds condemn magpies as the devil's spawn. Their hatred for these birds couldn't be any stronger. Yet, they are magnificent birds. When you look at them up close their plumage is a brilliant, pure white and the black takes on a sheen of metallic green, like oil on water. They look so smooth, sleek and clean you want to touch them, stroke them and feel their their firm, muscular bodies.

    Yes, they do eat garden birds and kill chicks in nests. So do a number of other birds and animals that don't get tarred with the same brush. This is nature. A research project looking into predation by magpies in Paris has recently been published and it concludes that while magpies do kill other birds, they are not responsible for the decline of any songbird species.

    Magpies are a convenient scapegoat. Their numbers have increased as songbirds have decreased. But magpie numbers were at an all time low as a result of persecution and changes in land management. What we are seeing is a return to traditional magpie numbers coinciding with a shift of their range into our gardens. Let's not rush to blame and condemn. Let's celebrate these unique long tailed natives.

    Don't get into a flap over magpiesWe have a long association with the magpie, they have been immortalised in folklore and verse. Almost every child knows the rhyme: 'One for sorrow. Two for joy." There are all sorts of superstitions requiring you to bow or spit to ward off evil if you see a magpie. Yet, farmers liked magpies because they would help protect crops from pests by eating insects and rodents.

    Magpies build superb domed nests and are the UK's biggest bird to do so. I think their problem is the way they walk and look. They seem somehow arrogant and aloof. Characteristics that we, generally, don't like. We can all imagine them acting out Daphne du Maurier's short story, The Birds, made into an effective horror movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Magpies are self-aware too. They are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. How smart is that?

    Let's call an amnesty and welcome this two-toned member of the crow family into our lives. We don't condemn lions or cheetahs for being meat eaters, and we ourselves slaughter millions of animals to eat every year. The magpie is a splendid and clever wild bird that deserves as much respect as you'd give a blackbird, a hedgehog or an ancient oak tree. If you really want to help you garden birds, don't scapegoat magpies. Sign-up for our Homes for Wildlife project and use you garden to support more wildlife.

  • All hail the imperial sparrow

    House sparrowThe BBC's week long focus on invasive species certainly got people talking, which is always good. Let me throw a brick into the debate. As our ancestors explored the globe and created new trade routes, they took house sparrows with them. The descendants of those early sparrow settlers are now invasive species in other countries.

    House sparrows are probably the world's most successful introduced bird. Originally they were just found in Europe and bits of Asia and North Africa. Now, you'll come across them in the Falklands, South Africa, North America, Hawaii and New Zealand. In fact, they occupy a quarter of the earth's land surface. Pretty impressive for a tiny brown and grey thing.

    Our UK house sparrows are vanishing. Will we one day have to re-introduce them from those colonies we established elsewhere? I hope it never comes to that. Would you miss them if they were gone? I certainly would and judging by the responses of people who've visited our sparrow-watch on the South Bank in London, many of you would too.

    Our Aren't birds brilliant! event on the South Bank is incredibly timely. It's the golden anniversary of the sparrow being declared public enemy number one in China by Chairman Mao. In 1958, he declared war on the imperial invader and ordered peasants to bang and shout to prevent sparrows landing and colonising China. He wanted them to be kept in the air until, exhausted by constant flying, they dropped dead from the skies.

    Does this make the commune living sparrow an emblem of market driven democracies? Is its fate linked to the success of our western economies? The answers are respectively no and sort of yes. Just because Mao didn't like tree sparrows nicking grain doesn't make it a capitalist emblem. As for being linked with the economy; sparrows, do fare better in poor areas. They've pretty much vanished from London's rich financial heart - The City. However, I doubt very much that the present financial crisis will result in soaring house sparrow numbers.

    To achieve that, we need to convince planners, architects, land managers and gardeners to do more for wildlife. Sparrows need seeds, bugs and dense shrubbery for shelter to survive. Encouraging people to do more for them requires lots of campaigning and letter writing. We're conducting new research in London on how to save sparrows. It involves growing different types of grass in public parks to support them. Whatever the outcome of the study, the more articles and letters we write highlighting the actions we can all undertake, the faster we can bring about change. Another case of the pen being mightier than the sward.

  • Small change versus small changes

    A swarm of swifts... a summer memoryGlobal credit crunch and climate change are vying for position in the newspapers but it's concern over our finances that gets the most column inches, meanwhile I shuffle into the shade in my garden because it's too hot in the sun. 13 October and it's 23 celsius!

    The plants and wildlife in my London garden must be more confused than me, although it was such a nice day I did find myself looking upwards to see if there were any swifts. They are long-gone on their winter migration but it felt as though one would scream into view at any moment.

    What's a gardener to do when the seasons no longer play by the rules? I'm being led by nature, taking it a day at a time and creating a new and unique schedule to meet demand. I've noticed the garden needs more water than usual at this time of year, thanks to an extended growing season. Birds are less active than you'd expect because they've a continued supply of natural seeds, berries and insects. This weather favours slugs and snails, so they've kept me busy. I've had Daddy-long-legs buzzing about the house and lots of ladybirds, but I've also got a leaf miner on my apple trees. I desperately need some cold weather to get rid of them.

    Some commentators have been suggesting that the credit crunch is good for the environment. Their argument hinges on people cutting back on spending and travel, which will help reduce emissions associated with climate change. There is something in that argument, but the flipside is that people will look for bargains - cheaper food, cheaper travel and cheaper goods. As a general rule of thumb, cheaper in this context can mean greater environmental harm. Look at Jamie Oliver's new TV show. People with few resources scrape by with poor diets and convenience food. They're not doing their health any favours. Producing cheap food increases demand for industrial farming with some inevitable environmental loss; buying UK produce also supports UK agriculture. Tackling the spin-off from poor diets and the health impacts from predicted climate change dwarfs the cash being thrown at our global financial markets.

    A new EU report estimates deforestation alone is costing between $2 to $5 TRILLION, while a new UK Department of Health publication, Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK 2008, warns that air pollution and heatwaves will bring new threats of heat exhaustion, respiratory issues and increased danger of disease. Alarming stuff. But is it relevant to the RSPB, you bethcha.

    We can't conserve birds in isolation. Birds are part of the global environment and reflect its condition. Creating a healthy environment for them, means creating a healthy environment for us all. To achieve that we need your help. If you do spend less on things, spend wisely. A new fridge with an A-rating for energy efficiency will cost more at the point of sale but brings long-term savings and creates fewer greenhouse gases.

    Look out, male sparra coming in to landSadly, nature doesn't come with a price tag nor an energy rating. If it did, we'd all be conservationists. Let's keep an eye on the small change but endeavour to make changes in our lifestyles too. It's a sign of the times that at the end of this week we'll be showcasing a flock of sparrows in Central London. House sparrows were once so common they were considered a pest. Now, they've vanished from the heart of London, but not thankfully not yet from Londoner's hearts. Come and see them on the South Bank - it's free but ... priceless.