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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

INDOOR MEETING - What did Birds ever do for us? Stephen Moss

What Did Birds Ever Do for US?
21 November 2018
Stephen Moss, in this thought-provoking lecture, started by stating unequivocally that we Brits are more obsessed than any other nation with birds. For example, RSPB membership numbers over a million, LPO (the French equivalent) numbers 38,350.
When the BBC decided to make a series, with which Stephen was involved, called Birds Britannia, they divided it into four programmes:

1. Garden Birds
2. Waterbirds
3. Seabirds
4. Countryside Birds

1. Garden birds
Stephen asserted that these came top of our list of 'obsessions' - viz: Big Garden Birdwatch! Stephen suggested that this tells us something about ourselves: we love 'sweetie' birds, but hate those with traits like our own, such as gulls. Even so, this obsession is a surprisingly modern phenomenon, dating only from around 1948. Until the 1920s, house sparrows were truly abundant but, by the 1960s, their catastrophic demise was even noted in Parliament when the question 'Why?' was posed. The answer seemed to be a shortage of insects, caused most likely by atmospheric pollution. If so, then what was this pollution doing to us?

2. Waterbirds
The near extinction of the great crested grebe first drew attention to waterbirds and their habitats. As Stephen pointed out, it proved easier to protect these habitats than the farmlands that are needed to produce food. And so wonderful reserves like Minsmere, Titchwell and our own Ham Wall flourished, with the consequent arrival of avocets, bitterns and egrets.
The example Stephen chose to focus on was the return of the osprey to Loch Garten. Initially, great secrecy was deemed the best way to protect this one nest. But this approach failed: the nest was robbed again and again. So quite the opposite approach was tried: huge publicity! The ospreys' arrival, the number of eggs laid and hatching of the chicks made the headlines. Visitors were encouraged to visit in their thousands and viewing was made rewarding by installing hides and telescopes. In other words, the public became the ospreys' guardians.
3. Seabirds
Another twist in the story of the Brits' love of birds is the out-of-proportion length of our coast: its twelve thousand miles holds over seven million sea birds! Stephen called it 'Our Serengeti'.
Our relationship with seabirds is an ancient and turbulent one, like our relationship with the sea itself - a story of conflict, exploitation and, finally, understanding.
4. Countryside birds
From news reports of the first sighting of the swallow and the call of the cuckoo to the poetry of Keats, we Brits have used birds to mark the seasons. And, like the demise of the house sparrow, this interest meant that the huge decline in bird numbers did not go unnoticed. And the reason became apparent: loss of woods, heaths and marshes to agriculture, and, of course, use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.