More than any other nationality, the British are passionate about birds.
We spend £200 million every year on feeding them in our gardens, and the country’s bird protection charities have more members than all of its political parties put together. Meanwhile, an army of amateurs and professionals studies every move that they make.
Stephen Moss, producer of the BBC Four series Birds Britannia, selects 25 birds and the defining moments that reveal how these fascinating creatures have inspired our culture and turned us into a nation of birdwatchers.
1. Blue tit
Birds can tell us much about changes in society, and the blue tit, one of Britain’s best-loved species, is a case in point. Its trick of opening milk bottles to sip the cream, first reported in 1921, was a learned behaviour that died out by the 1980s due to a decline in doorstep deliveries and a shift to skimmed milk.
‘Operation Osprey’ – the military-style scheme to protect these raptors from dastardly egg-thieves in Scotland – almost never got off the ground. The RSPB’s George Waterston, who dreamed up the plan in 1959, was opposed by people who thought he was mad to publicise the Loch Garten
nest-site of one of Britain’s rarest birds. But encouraging the public to visit was a huge PR coup, and the osprey was transformed from a target for gamekeepers into a national conservation icon.
3. Great auk
Britain’s last great auk, the only flightless bird to inhabit our islands in modern times, was spotted on Stac an Armin, a remote outcrop in the archipelago of St Kilda, in July 1840. A storm blew up soon afterwards, and, thinking that the poor auk was to blame, the islanders condemned it as a witch and killed it. Just four years later, the species became globally extinct with the death of the last Icelandic individual.
4. Herring gull
This character is as much a part of the traditional British seaside as candy-floss, donkey rides, sandcastles and chips. Of all UK seabirds, it has shown the greatest ability to live alongside us, having moved into many of our cities. But it was only able to do so because the 1956 Clean Air Act prevented the burning of domestic refuse: the spread of landfill sites has been good news for gulls.
In the mid-19th century daytrippers steamed along the Yorkshire coast to take pot shots at cliff-nesting kittiwakes, devastating the species’ population. As a result, in 1869 Parliament passed an Act to protect seabirds – the first law to protect wild British birds.
In the 1940s, fulmar fanatic James Fisher enlisted the help of the RAF to survey ‘breeding stations’ of this rapidly increasing seabird. Later, he claimed Rockall
, a lonely pinnacle in the North Atlantic, for his country. Sometimes, ornithology and flying the flag go hand in hand.
7. Ring-necked parakeet
Victorian bird-fanciers were most likely to encounter this Indian parrot at the zoo or in display cases, and would have been amazed that, today, it is a frequent sight in parks and gardens across south-east England. Now the gaudy interloper stands accused of competing with native birds for nest-holes. The ‘parakeet problem’ is a reminder of how quickly a nation’s birdscape can change, not to mention our attitudes to a species.
8. Manx shearwater
The Welsh breeding population of this globe-trotting seabird inspired one of our most imaginative early experiments into how migration works. In 1936, the ornithologist Ronald Lockley took a shearwater from its nesting burrow on the Welsh island of Skokholm to Devon to see if it could find its way home. Amazingly, it did.
Long before the BBC dreamed up Springwatch
, birds and people were a staple part of its springtime output. In 1924, an early radio outside broadcast featured the nightingale’s wonderfully rich song, accompanied by celebrated cellist Beatrice Harrison. The simple but quirky event was restaged every May until 1942.
10. Mute swan
Swan meat is said to be delicious yet few of us have tasted it, though we might happily tuck into duck or goose. This reveals a curious (and quite recent) bias in British attitudes to eating birds. All of the UK’s mute swans belong to the crown and hunting them is illegal, which may be why newspapers howl with outrage when ‘foreigners’ are believed to be catching swans for the table.
11. Tawny pipit
This bird was the unlikely star of a uniquely British World War II propaganda film. Tawny Pipit depicts the valiant efforts of English villagers to defend a breeding pair of this rare species against the ‘enemy’. Ironically, avian cinematographer Eric Hosking actually filmed meadow pipits instead, since the German conquest of continental Europe meant that genuine tawny pipits were most definitely out of bounds for the time being.
12. Collared dove
Every nation sees birds differently: in Germany, for instance, the collared dove is known as the ‘television bird’ due to its aerial-perching habit, a behaviour that is seldom remarked upon in the UK. The species only colonised this country in the 1950s, after spreading west through Europe, but today its cooing can be heard everywhere – including in the background of several period costume dramas. Oops.
13. Willow warbler
One of Britain’s commonest passerines, the willow warbler is also among the hardest to identify, at least until it starts to sing. This sprite confused our forebears, too: they thought that it was the same species as the wood warbler and chiffchaff. The naturalist Gilbert White was the first to separate the trio of ‘willow wrens’ in 1767–68.