Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Friday, 25 February 2011

Corvid Cull? No thanks.

College work and computer problems have meant this blog has been a little neglected of late. Meanwhile conservation issues in the UK have been thrust into the spotlight as a result of the government’s (now-abandoned) proposal to sell-off the forestry estate. Charging belatedly into the debate seems a little pointless; needless to say I’m happy with the outcome. The groundswell of opposition to the plan is encouraging and hopefully not just a fleeting response, since I am sure there will be further challenges ahead.

Instead, a trip back home to Kent this week prompted me to think about another issue that raised its head in the media recently. In the little pile of newspaper clippings that invariably wait for me at home, little bits of nature-related news that mum and dad save, there was an opinion piece from The Times (28.1.11) addressing the controversial topic of predatory species control. I read it in disbelief and promptly swore (sorry Mum!) I found it frustrating to say the least.

The article, written by Nick Forde (a trustee of a charity called Songbird Survival) discusses the widely accepted issue of falling farmland bird populations, the reasons for it and a proposed solution to combat it. So far, so good.

But the solution put forward is a controversial one. Forde it turns out, believes that blaming songbird declines on the “official reasons” of habitat loss and modern farming methods is “misleading” and that despite “throwing £1 billion a year into conservation” (a horribly flippant comment) the results don’t add up. Instead it is the predatory actions (yes those natural predatory instincts such as the taking of eggs or live prey) of corvids (the family of birds that includes Carrion Crow, Magpie and Jackdaw) and raptors as well as some mammals (foxes, rats and grey squirrels) that should be addressed. In short, the article calls for new research to back up the belief of Songbird Survival that a cull of predatory birds is necessary to potentially save other birds.

It’s an interesting stance (and not a particularly new one) for a charity to take; especially one whose website claims is made up of “lovers of the countryside, ornithologists and conservationists”. So what is the basis for this drastic proposal?

Nick Forde argues that habitats are actually improving and that for the £500million that is reportedly paid to farmers every year “to provide a paradise for wildlife” we should be seeing better results (that’s not what agri-environment schemes are for at all). He also points out that the evidence for minimal effects of predation is limited to a handful of papers and these are largely out of date. Sparrowhawks get a particularly bad rap for reportedly killing 50million songbirds a year (domestic cats are apparently responsible for 100million deaths). So unless these factors are recognised by DEFRA, Forde believes the long-term decline of farmland birds will continue.    

Unfortunately I can’t find a copy of the article online to share but I don’t believe there is any credible defence for a cull of predatory birds. It is natural to assume that by removing songbird predators, songbird populations will increase but it is the wrong way to look at it. I’d like to look at where some of his figures come from, I don’t think it’s quite so easy to say that habitat is improving without a MASSIVE, in-depth nationwide survey. There is no consideration of inter-species population dynamics or of the fact that species that have seen severe population declines would surely take decades to recover. Predator-prey relationships are often not as straightforward as might be thought, removing an apex predator (eg sparrow hawk, owl etc) from a food chain would be foolhardy indeed. It is not the purpose of the article but has consideration been given to how this cull will be implemented, managed and regulated? How can we be sure that other birds won’t be targeted in error: kestrels, rooks or ravens for example?  

He is not always so wide of the mark; I would agree that comprehensive, well-planned research on songbird populations might be beneficial. But that’s as much as I can concede. As a riposte I would suggest reading this passionate 2009 article about magpies by Chris Packham. Or read what Mark Avery has to say about it.

As a hopeful, future land manager I have no problem with the idea of having to control predators. I would however require the reasoning behind it to be sound, sustainable and in nature’s best interests. This proposal, I think, is not.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Photoblog: heads up (January)

Peregrine (f), RSPB Rainham Marshes. Seen from a distance we thought it might have been a Kestrel at first, but a closer look revealed the dark moustachial patch on its face (just about visible in this photo) A short while later a male Peregrine appeared and caused panic among a large flock of Lapwings!

Kestrel (m), Church tower on Lordship Lane SE22 viewed from Cox's Walk, 31st Jan 2011. The grey head and tail indicate that this is a male Kestrel.
Siskins, Belair Park, Dulwich, 20th January. The female (l) appears much paler than the male with an obvious streaky breast. The male (r) has a distinctive grey-black 'cap' and bolder yellow-green body feathers.  A UK resident but generally a winter migrant to southern and eastern areas.  
Fieldfare, Waltham Abbey gardens, 25th January. A winter visitor, note grey head and yellow-ish breast that help distinguish it from the similar Mistle Thrush.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Nunhead Bird Count (Jan/Feb)

Nunhead Cemetary, 0855 - 1005 (cool, clear, bright, light wind)


Song Thrush 4, Blackbird 6, Wren 15, Great Spotted Woodpecker 6, Robin 10, Ring-necked Parakeet 16, Green Woodpecker 1, Coal Tit 4, Carrion Crow 15, Woodpigeon 27, Magpie 15, Blue Tit 14, Long-tailed Tit 5, Jay 2, Dunnock 1, Great Tit 13, Goldfinch 2, Greenfinch 1, Goldcrest 1


First count of the year (after a washed-out attempt in late-January) and it was great to see such a mass of bird activity after a few cold, subdued months.
Song Thrush appeared again and were belting out their distinctive song at several points in the wood. A Green Woodpecker was seen early on too, flushed from the lawn near the maintenance sheds. This the first I've seen here. I was pleased to spot Dunnock and Goldcrest since these birds are generally quite shy and have only appeared intermittently on previous surveys. Population numbers of these two species have been the focus of some concern in the last year so recording them in Nunhead Cemetary is positive. Watching that lone male Dunnock singing from a gravestone perch and trying his best to be heard over the din of nearby tits and parakeets, was an unexpectedly moving highlight of the morning.

There were plenty of signs that birds are preparing for the breeding season with several seen undertaking likely nest-building activities (Carrion Crow, Magpie and Great Tit). Great Spotted Woodpeckers could be heard drumming and calling throughout the wood and were frequently observed in pairs. From a glade I also witnessed a Woodpigeon in display flight; repeatedly soaring up then gliding downwards on extended wings. An unexpectedly graceful display from a largely ignored bird.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Name that Bird Round 2 - Answers

The answers to last week's photo quiz. Scroll down a bit for photographs.

1. No shortage of these around at the moment. Despite its appearance here, this is a Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus). In spring and summer this bird has a dark brown/black hood (hence the name) which make it easily recognisable but in autumn and winter plumage the key feature is a small dark spot behind the eye.
2. At first glance this bird could be mistaken for a crow; it’s not the best photo after all. But with careful study you should be able to make out a sleek grey nape or ‘hood’ that indicates it is a Jackdaw (Corvus monedula). It’s not quite a ‘normal’ Jackdaw either, a bonus point for those who noticed the unusual plumage colour and recognised this is as an example of a pied or partially leucistic Jackdaw.
In birds, Leucism is the term used to describe conditions where plumage is missing colour. This occurs due to a genetic mutation that prevents melanin (pigment) from developing in the feathers and results in individuals being paler or even completely white in colour.
3. Female Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula). The key ID feature on both sexes is the small crest on the back of the head. It is larger on the more distinctively marked male. This small diving duck of the Aythya genus is a common site on ponds, lakes and reservoirs all year round. I included this mainly as a comparison to the next photo which looks similar but is a...
4. Female Scaup (Aythya marila). Although similar in appearance to a female Tufted Duck this bird is a considerably scarcer winter migrant to Britain. Similar in size and colour to a female Tufted the important ID feature here is the pale band around its bill. Habitat is also a giveaway since Scaups are generally a coastal bird, unlike Tufted Ducks.
5. Ha! So any ideas what left this footprint? I took this photograph at East India Dock basin just before Christmas, a site that is frequented by numerous species of wader and waterfowl.  These prints were quite large so Canada Goose might be a good bet, although at the time I did note a good number of Shelduck present. You decide!