Taboos about wild birds

In her classic account of English rural life, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson records attitudes to wild birds towards the end of the 19th century.   At a time when egg collecting was a respectable hobby, country boys would engage in wholesale nest robbing and hunting of small birds. The families were chronically poor, and casting a net over a hedge of roosting sparrows would secure a meal:

One boy would often bring home as many as twenty sparrows, which his mother would pluck and make into a pudding.  A small number of birds, or a single bird, would be toasted in front of the fire.

But Thompson notes that the birds in this popular rhyme were left alone: Continue reading Taboos about wild birds

In praise of the little owl

Michael McCarthy laments the sad decline of the little owl (Athene noctua) in Britain in today’s Independent, noting that unlike other introductions, they have not spelled ecological disaster, forming an attractive addition Britain’s birdlife. They were introduced by Victorian gentleman-ornithologists in the 1870s who wished to pay testament to their fame in Greek mythology. Little owls were linked to the godess Athena, perhaps because they bred in her temple, the Parthenon in Athens. The bird also became the symbol of the city, and its bug-eyed image was such a feature of Athenian silver coins – that they were known as “owls”.

Coincidentally, I came across last week this entry by George Orwell spotting a little owl back in January 1940,

No thaw. Unable to unfreeze pipes etc. Saw a little owl today – have not previously seen any of these round here.

Photo by Arturo Nikolai on Wikipedia

Tackling bovine TB without killing badgers

A letter has been published in the Guardian from Hilary Benn, the Secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, outlining the government’s strategy for combating bovine TB.  Rather than badgers being culled, which evidence suggests would not control the spread of TB in cattle, they will be vaccinated:

We are . . .  trying an alternative approach to the problem, by investing £20m over three years to develop badger and cattle vaccines. We will start vaccinating badgers in six areas of England, working with farmers, later this year. We are also taking steps to try to reduce the incidence and spread of bovine TB, working with the industry and vets through the Bovine TB Eradication Group, and I have accepted all the recommendations of its first report. This includes providing better support to affected farmers.

Mystery of vanishing eels

The eel population of the Thames has dropped by 98% in 5 years and conservationists can only speculate why. The Thames eels (Anguilla anguilla) are born 4000 miles away in the Sargasso Sea, located in the North Atlantic Ocean, from where they migrate to British fresh waters.  After up to 20 years they return to their breeding grounds to spawn and die. To make these long journeys the eels rely on ocean currents, which are susceptible to changes in temperature.

Disease and pollution could also be causing problems for the eel.  Although the Thames has revived since its “biological death” in the 1950s, the river remains under heavy urban pressure.  And the Sargasso Sea, in contrast with its romantic image, suffers from a particularly high concentration of non-biodegradable plastic waste, trapped there by ocean currents.

Huge flock of corn buntings

Farmer Steve Bumstead has always considered wildlife when managing his farm, leaving aside field margins and not ploughing until after Christmas so birds can forage among the stubble.  He’s been rewarded this winter by an unprecedented number of corn buntings flocking on his land – no less than 700, which has been estimated as 4% of the entire corn bunting population in the UK. The unusual size of the flock is thought to be a consequence of the recent prolonged freezing weather.

The corn bunting has been in sharp decline as a consequence of modern farming practices, so conservation researchers will be investigating Steve’s Bedfordshire farm to try and learn exactly why it is so attractive for them.  RSPB Photo by Steve Round

Mull’s sea eagles thriving

White-tailed eagles on the Isle of Mull are thriving with 20 pairs now nesting on the Scottish island. The Mull Eagle Watch Partnership said 10 chicks had fledged from seven nests during last year’s breeding season. It also said 6,000 people a year were visiting the island to see the birds also known as sea eagles, which had boosted the local economy by £2m. The birds of prey originally colonised Mull in 1983 and produced the first successful fledglings in 1985 after being reintroduced to the nearby Isle of Rum 10 years earlier, BBC

Across Scotland a total of 46 pairs of white tailed eagles managed to successfully rear 36 chicks.

Alien crabs on the menu

The idea of harvesting the invasive Chinese Mitten Crab, currently clogging up the Thames and rapidly spreading through Britain, is taking shape, with a conference planned for March to discuss the pros and cons.

It’s been proposed to use fyke nets, as pictured above.  But these long net tubes held open by hoops are also a very efficient means of trapping eels, now a threatened species in Europe.  Another drawback is, if the crab fishery were an economic success, people might be tempted to introduce the Mitten Crab to new rivers. As Paul Clark, marine biologist at the Natural History Museum and conference organiser, puts it:

“We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Mitten crabs have few natural enemies capable of reducing their numbers, but the establishment of a fishery would certainly carry risks.”

In Shanghai the Mitten Crab (Eriocheir sinensis) is a delicacy.  They are eaten steamed, as this best preserves the flavour and keeps the meat tender.

See the Independent and previous post

Photo of the 2010 Freeze

The famous image taken by Nasa’s Terra satellite on January 7th 2010 captured the impressive extent of Britain’s big freeze.  Charlie Brooker’s description is also memorable, beginning like this:

Oh, how it snowed. It snowed like a bitch. It snowed so hard you could be forgiven for thinking God had decided planet Earth was naught but an embarrassing celestial typo and was desperately trying to Tipp-Ex it out of existence.

Ice skating in the Fens

For the first time in many years, the freezing conditions have been perfect for ice skating, allowing the inhabitants of the Cambridgeshire Fens to revel in a centuries-old tradition. The Guardian

The Fens of East Anglia, with their meres and washes, networks of drainage ditches, slow-flowing rivers and easily flooded meadows, form an ideal skating terrain. Skates were introduced into Britain from Holland or France in the seventeenth century. It is not known when the first skating matches were held, but by the early nineteenth century they had become a feature of cold winters in the Fens. The golden age of fen skating was the second half of the nineteenth century, when thousands of people turned out to watch the top skaters. Wikipedia

Praise for feeding birds in winter

One of the Guardian’s editorials today is entitled In praise of… feeding birds in winter:

Feeding birds this month offers a rare chance to see redpolls, yellowhammers and tree sparrows among the robins, finches and tits that more often make up backyard populations. It will also keep them alive. Read

Unusual snow phenomenon in Frozen Britain

From a distance, they look like hay bales covered in snow. But close-up it becomes clear they are hollow.  A mystified Ron Trevett photographed them in a field near Yeovil, Somerset.  It occurred to him they might be some large-scale prank in the crop circle tradition but for the complete absence of footprints.  In fact, snow rolls are a natural phenomenon, but more associated with the prairies of North America than Britain.  Certain conditions are necessary for their formation: the right texture of snow, temperature and winds.  Strong winds peel off the top layer of snow when it becomes sticky and bowl the roll along until it’s too heavy.  The snow doughnuts, as they’re also known, look deceptively solid, as they can distintegrate in an instance.

Countryside birds moving into urban areas

The RSPB says countryside birds are increasingly moving into towns because the big freeze has meant food is harder to find. They include on their list bitterns! More as well as herons and woodcocks. More
According to latest figures from the BTO,  forty species have been turning to gardens for food with greater frequency during the current snowy weather, with particularly large increases in thrushes and buntings. Reed Buntings have increased by 134 per cent and Yellowhammers by 80 per cent. More

Guardian slideshow Birds spotted in the big freeze

See also Unusual birds in the garden

Good things about the cold snap

 por VickySings

Photo by VickySings on Flickr

Freezing temperatures aren’t all bad for British wildlife, perfectly adapted to long, cold winters, which until recently were the norm. Cold weather helps to “restore the balance of nature”:

  • Hibernating creatures (bats, butterflies, bumblebees etc) are less likely to emerge and then get killed off by a cold snap, as has happened in the past few mild winters
  • Birds are unlikely to start nesting too early (again, as happens in mild winters)
  • Flowers are less likely to emerge and then get killed off by late frosts
  • Viruses, parasites etc are killed off, which will benefit their hosts. (Again, mild winters tend to allow disease vectors to multiply)

In contrast mild winters such as those we’ve seen between 1986 and 2008 bring about:

  • Early emergence of flowers and insects
  • Early breeding of many birds (sometimes before Christmas).
  • ‘Summer visitors’ overwintering (eg chiffchaff)
  • A major fall in numbers of winter visitors (eg Bewick’s swan and white-fronted goose), as birds stay further east of the UK.

From the BBC’s Snow Watch

Snow Watch are also collecting wildlife stories from people from around the UK. Read them here.

I thought this post by John White was interesting:

We do have a visiting barn owl but have not seen or heard him for some weeks. We have had visiting redpolls and fieldfares taking all the holly berries. Interestingly there have been very few starlings and sparrows around, and a very plump pheasant is missing. I must admit that we do not encourage the larger birds i.e. rooks, crows, jackdaws and magpies, but they still come. It seems that the three squirrels that live in the holly tree have decided to keep warm in their dray, and have not put in an appearance for days. Badgers have taken to the compost for food. They were very active in the autumn feeding off of our fallen fruits and digging up the gardens for slugs etc. Swans and geese that frequent the reservoirs and canals seem to be staying put.