In the absence of a cockerel,
rips open the day.
A sleepy woodpigeon
a pitiful protest
and silence settles,
In the absence of a cockerel,
rips open the day.
A sleepy woodpigeon
a pitiful protest
and silence settles,
Invisible birds chirrup and chirp
Through the window
To where I lie in my bed.
Outside the spare room, I note
The fence pigeons are back
From their winter reprieve.
I missed the cocksure robin
Bobbing in the yard;
I was sick. I miss him.
A blackbird couple builds a nest
In a vent I can see from the kitchen,
When my eyes are good.
There is life outside.
Incongruent to my grief,
My birds sing on.
“Our coasts play host to some of the biggest and best seabird colonies in the world.”
Perhaps the most iconic sea bird, in the UK anyway, is the seagull. Actually, there isn’t such a thing as a seagull, it tends to be a term used informally to describe a number of species which include the common gull and herring gull.
Whilst gulls are clearly associated with the sea, they do thrive in cities as well. The built up concrete jungles we have created work much like artificial cliffs and the conveniently close landfill sites provide them with a nice array of food. Not that gulls are particularly fussy about what they eat. However, they are often unwelcome visitors to our towns, creating noise and mess and apparently attacking people and pets. They are certainly a controversial bird but they do keep rats at bay and what would a day at the seaside be without the calls of a gull overhead.
If you think of gulls from a gull perspective, they are doing a great job at what they do. They are highly adaptable, competitive, they seize opportunities (or chips) and those attacks you hear of, that’s parent gulls defending their family. And just in case their loud cries aren’t enough of a warning, you’ll want to leave nesting gulls alone as they are protected by law.
They have a bad reputation in our society today but this hasn’t always been the case. For example, Manannan Mac Lir is a celtic god who often appears in the form of a seagull. Gulls can also help sailors by foretelling storms. It was first recorded in 1BC that when they were unusually active and noisy a storm was coming. And whilst gulls are said to predict death it is also believed that they can save sailors from danger.
Another popular belief is that gulls are the souls of sailors who died at sea. The same is said of many sea birds including albatrosses and storm petrels who have been thought to embody the souls of cruel captains who were condemned to eternity flying over the seas.
Almost ten years ago, a Radio 4 programme discussed declining sea bird numbers and what this means for the health of the sea. Sea birds are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, alerting us to potential issues in the sea. They are messengers from the vast oceans bringing back warnings and the songs they are singing are not good.
Populations have fallen dramatically and experts are attributing this to the warming UK waters. This in turn impacts on the amount of zooplankton which impacts on everything further up the food chain. For our UK sea birds, this means sand eels, a critically important food source, have disappeared from some parts of the Atlantic and North Sea. Less food available inevitably means starvation, death of individuals and plummeting species numbers.
Our sea birds also feel the impact of overfishing, oil spills, pollution and habitat reduction and fragmentation. They are being attacked on all sides and if we don’t listen to their cries for help, more and more will at threat of extinction.
Can you imagine the British sea side without the ka-ka-ka-ka-kaows of the gulls?
When I was in hospital, I listened to a few radio programmes including some about sea birds and sea creatures. One of the shows, Natural Histories, had an episode about the albatross and I realised I didn’t know anything about them. I knew about the poem and I have vague recollections of playing a piece of music about an albatross when I was about 9 or 10 but that was it.
Just in case you too are ignorant of the albatross, I have decided to dedicate a post to them. Following which I will return to the cliffs of England and take a look at some of the species I am more familiar with.
There are a number of types of albatross but they are all fantastic flyers. They use a technique called dynamic soaring which makes them very efficient in the air. They use more energy to take off and land that they do to travel in the skies. Their huge wings mean they can soar for days without flapping and glide for several hundred miles. Masters of the air, these birds are rarely seen on land, coming down only to breed.
Magnificent, graceful and beautiful, they dwarf all other sea birds. As huge, white, winged beings which can fly through storms with grace, they are, unsurprisingly, seen as angelic and heavenly.
The largest albatross, the wandering albatross, has a wing span of 3.5m and inspires awe and spiritual response. Despite this, Coleridge portrayed it as a bird of ill omen in his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
These wanderers are long lived and they are survivors, battling storms and rough skies, putting an ominous slant on the idea of carrying an albatross around ones neck… A burden which cannot be shaken.. Despite this, they are, as a species, struggling to survive…
We have used their feathers as signs of rank, in ceremonial dress and to endow boats with their dominion of the seas. Their bones have allowed us to create beautiful music through flutes and to mark our own bodies with tattoos. And yet, we also eat this magnificent creature, this celestial air god. We let them suffer the consequences of our greed as they die from injury caused by industrial fishing. They pay the price of our exploitation of the ocean.
Because albatrosses live in remote areas and spend so much of their lives in the air, it’s hard to know how many there actually are but a project has been set up to utilise high powered satellite images to count them. At the time of the radio programme on the subject, they were having to be manually counted and this isn’t likely to be a possibility for other species, but the great size of these birds allows us to get a close look without disturbing them.
Despite the lack of numbers on the birds, scientists have noted a marked decline in numbers since the 1980s and all 22 species are considered to be threatened.
Until recently, seabirds have been able to safely assume that anything floating on the surface of the sea is edible. This is no longer the case. As I’m sure you’ve all heard, plastic in our oceans is posing a threat to all marine life, and by extension, to a lot of land life. Dissecting sea birds has given scientists an idea of what is happening out at sea… for example polystyrene breaks up easily and the bits and pieces of, say, your takeaway cup, float to the surface and mix in with the food that seabirds eat. Balloons, the kind from your birthday party, can be swallowed, or the string can entangle a bird who will slowly starve to death. They may suffocate or choke. And chemicals leaching from our plastic can enter the body of sea birds (and other animals), causing illness and death. An investigation looked at the stomach contents of albatross chicks and found identifiable plastic in the form of toothbrushes, golf balls, lighters and plastic toys alongside the microplastics.
The topic of pollution, plastics and human exploitation of, and disregard for, the sea is something that is likely to come up time and time again this month and it is not a blame filled tirade. I use a lot of plastic myself but I think it’s important to do so whilst being aware of the potential consequences. It’s easy to close our eyes and cover our ears and say we can’t do anything because the world is so big, we are so small and everyone’s doing it so why can’t we? But as we’ll see in a couple of posts time, the price we will pay for that ignorance is high.
A little late but if you’ve found the topic of birds interesting, do read on!
Articles and papers:
“Their songs, nests, mysterious migrations, even just the act of flying, all enchant, taunt, intrigue and tell of another world, ancient, important, and proceeding by non-human rules and rhythms. It is their capacity to connect, to capture our emotions, that helps make birds so enchanting.”
I apologise for the terrible title, my brain is not up to scratch at the moment…
We have all come across national birds, birds of the year and so forth. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the use of the dodo as a mascot for Mauritius and the kiwi for New Zealand. For Spain, 2018 is the year of the barn owl and in Australia, the magpie has just been voted bird of the year.
But why do we declare birds as icons of certain years or places? Well, in some cases it’s to do with conservation. In Spain, there has been a recent decline of 13% in barn owls and the species was chosen by the public to raise awareness of it’s plight.
If you take care of birds, you take care of the most important of the environmental problems in the world.
“In 1918 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect birds from wanton killing*. To celebrate the centennial, National Geographic is partnering with the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird.”
*Too late for poor Martha and her friends…
As part of this, there are new years resolutions you could make to ensure a more bird aware year and small actions you can take to #BirdYourWorld. You might also want to take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch on 27 – 29 January 2018.
When it comes to nations, empires and rulers, the adoption of birds as emblems has a lot to do with the power that they convey. They are used in coats of arms, seals and other prominent displays and of all the birds, the eagle has been especially popular. Perhaps it is it’s size, it’s ability to fly so high and being virtually at the top of the food chain that has marked it out for this role. Perhaps it is a sense of regalness that it engenders. It is a symbol of strength, leadership and courage. As king of the skies, it sees all and rules all.
Since 1782, the bald eagle has been used by the United States on it’s great seal. A choice which Benjamin Franklin apparently argued against, preferring the golden eagle or possibly even a turkey… Many other ideas were suggested including rattlesnakes and complicated scenes which don’t seem all that practical.
“He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to its nest the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little kingbird attacks him boldly. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem… For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Perhaps it is the depth of symbolism and folklore surrounding our feathered friends which means we chose them time after time to represent who we are, where we are and when we are. But let us hope that doing so refreshes and rejuvenates interest in our flying neighbours and increases conservation efforts for them.
To end on a lighter note, if you were to chose a personal coat of arms or a seal, what bird would you chose? I’m pondering ducks, I love them, but I also have a soft spot for puffins… And we’ve already seen how amazing crows and ravens are… Tough choice!
For a long time, bird brained has been considered an insult, a way of saying someone is stupid, dim witted, silly. And the view of birds has coincided with that until a recent deluge of scientific research suggested otherwise.
“There’s a kind of bird that creates colourful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty-three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past and plan for the future.”
– Jennifer Ackerman
In other words, birds are not as stupid as we’ve taken them for. Don’t get me wrong, in any species, humans included, there is a range of what we call intelligence* and some birds are much cleverer than others. And as the list of accomplishments above shows, birds, like humans, can be intelligent in a number of different ways.
If you haven’t come across this idea before, basically the theory goes that there are nine types of human intelligence and you can excel in one area and flop in another. The areas are:
So the bird that can move to music could be musically smart, the birds who can do maths might be logical-mathematical smart. As a side note, it’s interesting to consider how you fit in. If you aren’t good at the traditionally academic subjects it’s easy to think you aren’t particularly intelligent but you could be really good at interpersonal intelligence or bodily-kinesthetically. In terms of birds, we have pigeons who aren’t very good at problem solving but they can remember different objects for long periods of time, they can tell the difference between pictures and they have excellent abilities when it comes to navigating the skies, even in unfamiliar places.
So, in what ways are birds intelligent? Well, they can learn, solve problems and invent new solutions to old problems. They can make and use tools and even use tools so they can reach the tool they actually need. They can be socially intelligent, they can have excellent memories and they can find their way home even if they’re blown off course.
But not all birds can do these things. And this will come to be important as humans continue to change the world. Changing the environment will negatively impact on those birds who can’t change behaviour quickly, who can’t learn new ways of getting food etc. They won’t be able to adapt to climate change and other issues affecting them and there is a high chance that these species will disappear.
Crows on the other hand, in particular New Caledonia crows, are amazing:
Aesop’s fable about the crow dropping stones into water is something which actually happens and we have numerous videos of corvids engaging in entertaining looking activities:
The snowboarding crow may well simply be playing, something which is shown to coincide with intellect with play often being considered a way of trying things out, testing curiosity.
Another form of intellect found in the corvid family is self awareness. Magpies who see themselves in mirrors know that they are looking at themselves, something which requires high cognitive skills and is restricted to only a few animals. But be careful, they can recognise individual humans as well.
An experiment was carried out with crows and they came to see the experimenter as a threat. They would dive bomb him and harass him when they saw him. But even more amazingly, nine years later, they still considered him a threat, even though it will have been a different cohort of crows. They clearly have a way of communicating threats between themselves and even between generations.
We also see examples of birds which use bait to lure in the food they actually want, such as types of heron using insects to attract fish. There is social intelligence and this can be seen in the activities of birds in different types of flocks and relationships and birds may even experience empathy although more research needs to be carried out. Migration and the ability to navigate from unknown areas back to where you want to be is yet another skill which can involve and demonstrate intelligence and I’ll look more at that when I look at migration.
If you want to learn more about the types of bird intelligence as well as impact of brain size and structure then Jennifer Ackerman’s book is for you. She also goes into detail about how the type of upbringing birds have may affect intelligence, generally finding that birds who are independent from birth start life with a bigger brain but it doesn’t develop as much after birth. Birds who are nurtured and looked after by parents on the other hand start with smaller brains but they develop a lot more. It’s all really interesting stuff, some of it may prove to be applicable to humans later down the line when more scientific study has been carried out. Despite that she makes it all very easy to read and it was a book I didn’t want to put down.
*a controversial word when applied to animals but I’m using it for this post. A key issue is how do you define and measure intelligence. IQ tests are ok for humans but even then they don’t necessarily reveal what you want to find out, how do you measure interpersonal intelligence in an IQ test for example. Birds and other animals do show what looks like intelligence but it doesn’t always look like our own type of intelligence.