Tim Birkhead is an ornithologist who has spent his life studying birds both personally and professionally. He has received numerous awards for his research, undergraduate teaching at the University of Sheffield, and his scholarly writing, which appeared in WatchmanAnd the independentAnd the BBC.
Below, Tim shares 5 key insights from his new book, The Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation. Listen to the audio version – read by Tim himself – on the Next Big Idea app.
1. The beginnings of bird watching.
Birds do not appear often in Paleolithic or Neolithic art, but there is a small cave in southern Spain where more than two hundred images of birds are painted in red and yellow on its walls. Who created these images and for what purpose? What can these images reveal about early bird watchers and earlier bird groups in this region of Spain?
The cave, known as El Tajo de las Figuras, is located next to what was once a vast wetland at the synapse that connects Europe to Africa. Almost unimaginable numbers of migratory birds appeared there every spring and autumn. Scholars have speculated about the function of cave art, but I wonder if the Neolithic images of El Tajo served as a hunting tutorial – a way for experienced fishermen to show their pupils how to identify different species, and how to secure them in a cooking pot. This magnificent cave represents the cradle of European ornithology.
2. Knowledge of birds has changed over time.
Our ancient ancestors knew a lot about bird habits, but as we became less dependent on birds for food, this knowledge was eventually lost. Aristotle helped initiate the re-acquisition of such knowledge, but only with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century did the pursuit of objective knowledge become actively involved. The pioneers in the study of birds were John Ray and Francis Willoughby: they produced the first decent encyclopedia of ornithology in 1676. Another revolution in our understanding of ornithology began in the mid-1970s with the development of behavioral ecology.
“Our ancient ancestors knew a lot about bird habits, but as we became less dependent on birds for food, that knowledge was eventually lost.”
Behavioral ecology has led to a huge increase in scientific research, and suddenly the behaviors of birds that once seemed unexplainable are realised. For example, Willoughby and Ray knew that bird species differ in the size of their testicles, but they had no idea why. Once it was discovered – in the mid-1970s – that many birds were mixed, it was found that males of the most mixed species had the largest testicles. This is because males with larger testicles produce more sperm and thus tend to compete for parenthood over other males.
3. Different ways of dealing with birds.
There is a common stereotype of the birdsA person of either sex, middle-aged or older, drives to a bird sanctuary and then walks along a wooden walkway to a comfortable lair from which birds can be spotted through binoculars. This was not always the norm, and even today people deal with birds in a variety of ways.
“Over time, birds make their way up the social hierarchy until it becomes a hobby anyone would enjoy.”
The origins of bird watching go back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the killing of birds for pleasure or scientific study gradually gave way to a more sympathetic attitude that included observation and appreciation. living Things. By the 1940s, birdwatching (enhanced by the promotion of binoculars and the production of excellent field guides) had become an increasingly popular pastime. Initially, upper-class men were mostly bird enthusiasts – although women led the protection of birds. Over time, birds worked their way up the social hierarchy until it became a hobby anyone would enjoy.
But birds are just one way people deal with birds. Near where I live in Sheffield, England is a starling roost where up to three hundred people gather every winter evening to enjoy the spectacle of murmuring. Almost none of the attendees are what you might call a bird. Other people handle the birds by feeding parrots or ducks in local parks, or some people ride racing pigeons, or breed canaries or macaws in their backyards. The different ways people appreciate birds are as interesting as the birds themselves.
4. The issue of gender.
One of the most noticeable—and welcome—changes in human relationships with birds is that there are now more female birdwatchers and scientific ornithologists than ever before. This shift began during the 1930s in the United States when Margaret Morse Ness broke the male-dominated mold by publishing the results of her pioneering demographic studies in Song Sparrow.
“Worldwide, seabird populations have halved in the past 50 years.”
Although it is difficult to track down other early female models, another masterful woman was the little-known Scotsman, Jemima Blackburn. She was a wonderful observer and artist, a curator of scientific rigor. In the 1870s, I sent a note and a photo to the magazine temper nature, in which she described how a young cuckoo expelled a newly hatched young host from the nest. Shortly thereafter, world-renowned ornithologist John Gould used Blackburn’s account to produce his ideological (and dangerously misleading) depiction of the event. Blackburn wrote to temper nature He repeated what had already happened and reprimanded Gould for deceiving him.
5. Take care of birds.
Bird numbers around the world are experiencing a serious decline due to reasons such as habitat loss, intensification of agriculture, climate change and avian influenza. Our longstanding relationship with birds has been primarily one of exploitation, as interest in preserving them is relatively recent. Eighty miles from where I live is one of Britain’s largest and most wonderful colonies of seabirds: Bempton Cliffs. In the 1850s, people went there to hunt birds for fun. The sheer numbers killed, and the fact that they were simply left to rot, caused outrage and led to the Seabird Protection Act of 1869—the beginning of bird protection.
Over the past 50 years, a long-term study of a seabird called a common moor (common guillemot) on Skomer Island, off the coast of Wales, has come up with how best to monitor their numbers, and understand how their groups operate. . This research is especially important because climate change is altering ocean currents and pushing food supplies out of reach, leading to large-scale reproductive failures. So far, Skomer has not been affected, but elsewhere in the North Atlantic, the effects have been dire, and around the world, seabird populations have halved in the past 50 years. It may be a matter of time before Skomer is affected, too. We mess around while Rome burns.
To listen to the audio version read by author Tim Birkhead, download the Next Big Idea app today: