Passenger Pigeon day


Yesterday was a really nice day.

I did a radio interview early in the morning on the fact that it was the exact centenary of the death of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth, and then had breakfast in the garden before taking my ‘new’ son-in-law and daughter to the airport to set off on their honeymoon.

Then I headed back to the headquarters of the RSPB to give a talk about Passenger Pigeons to a packed room of friends and former colleagues.  The story of the loss of the formerly commonest bird on the planet really does capture the imagination and there were lots of questions after my talk.  I sold quite a few books and these were all dated 1 September 2014 and so, just perhaps, will have enhanced value some time in the future rather than being devalued by my scrawl.

I’ll be giving quite a few talks about Martha over the next few weeks and am happy to give some more if you’d like to hear more about the amazing story of the Passenger Pigeon and what it means for us these days.

The evening was spent in the ‘Hidden Rooms‘ in Cambridge with a bunch of nature conservationists  – a mixture of members of the local Cambridge Conservation Forum and an interdisciplinary conference on nature conservation. We were all treated to the Old World premiere of the Corner Laughers‘ song, Martha, sung by the multi-talented Josie Chambers (see here and here). Here is a video of the singing of Martha in Cambridge.






A response, of a kind, from Defra

1408 p001 cover_with comp v2.inddOur e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting passed 16,800 signatures yesterday. Thank you to all who have signed.

Yesterday also saw Defra’s response to the e-petition – earned when the 10,000th person signed the e-petition (but it has taken a while).

I’m not much impressed by the response. Are you? I’ll tell you why not later in the week (probably Friday) as I am a bit busy just now.

This evening I will be ‘debating’ with Andrew Gilruth of the GWCT on the subject of driven grouse shooting.  Tickets may still be available but I know they are going fast.


The centenary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

Image: Kate Garchinsky

Image: Kate Garchinsky

It’s surely worth pausing today, around 1730 UK time would be appropriate (1230 Ohio time), to remember that we drove the most numerous bird in the world, the Passenger Pigeon, to extinction exactly a century ago.

Image: Carry Akroyd

Image: Carry Akroyd

Listen to, and watch, me being interviewed about Passenger Pigeons by Martha Kearny on the BBC World at One radio programme.

Image: Carry Akroyd

Image: Carry Akroyd


Reviews of my book, A Message from Martha.

Listen to the Corner Laughers‘ song about the Passenger Pigeon




Oscar Dewhurst – Kittiwakes

Oscar writes: While I was at Minsmere the East Scrape was frequented by Kittiwakes. At one point one landed just behind another, before putting its head up between the tail feathers of the other.
Nikon D800, Nikon 600mm f4 AFS-II

Sunday book review – The Sparrowhawk’s Lament by David Cobham

This review first appeared in the September Birdwatch and I am grateful to them for permission to reproduce it here (subscribe to Birdwatch here).

k10223This book is about the 15 species of raptor which breed in Britain – each gets a chapter. The author assesses whether their populations are doing well or badly (many, of course are doing well) and the reasons for their population changes. But that stuff can be found in lots of places: where this book excels – and it does excel – is in the stories told of, and by, people involved with these different species.

I’ve never met David Cobham, though we have spoken on the ‘phone, and he strikes me as a born raconteur. He is at ease telling a story, an anecdote, an amusing tale. This book is full of them and they involve many of the names that one would expect to find in a book about raptors; Roy Dennis, Roger Clarke, Ian Newton, Steve Petty, Jemima Parry-Jones, Peter Davis, Chris Packham, John Love, Dave Sexton, Steve Roberts and the list goes on and on.

Cobham does well in trawling the older literature for history, evidence and stories. He talks to grouse moor owners, scientists, falconers, birders and conservationists. This is a wide-ranging assessment of UK raptors and their place in our lives.
In every chapter I learned things. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the Hobby where we largely get away from people being nasty to raptors and hear some good stories, and that on Montagu’s Harrier which reminded me of summer days in north Norfolk.

Bruce Pearson’s illustrations, all in black and white (and a lot of grey), punctuate the text and there are no graphs, tables or photographs. There is little by way of introduction and less in terms of synthesis at the end. There is no index – which I regretted. The chapter headings are set unusually high at the top of the page and there is little empty space to show you that you are at the beginning of a chapter. Somehow this layout gave me the impression that the book was full of words and the author and publisher had been struggling to get them into the pages available. And the title is well chosen but strikes a sombre note.

The combination of title, word density and a lot of grey illustrations put me off starting to read the book as quickly as I otherwise would have done. That was my mistake, and my loss, as the book is an uplifting tale of wonderful birds, some great places and a lot of gifted raptor enthusiasts. Read it and you will smile much more often than frown.

The book starts in a way that I will always remember (and I bet you will too) and ends very powerfully with a reminiscence about Gerald Durrell (we’ll remember that too!).

The Sparrowhawk’s Lament by David Cobham (illustrated by Bruce Pearson) is published by Princeton University Press.



Passenger Pigeon centenary looms

Here’s a piece by me in today’s Guardian about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.

They slightly mangled the ending (Grrrr!) So here’s the original version  of the penultimate paragraph.

‘And I can’t see that we would be worse off if the US had kept the Passenger Pigeon and more of its forests, and the Bison and more of its prairies. The US would still have put a man on the Moon, it would still be the most powerful nation on Earth and the wages of a waitress in Ohio would not be a cent lower if we had saved a lot more of the natural beauty that was squandered through ignorance and greed in the late nineteenth century. Economically and socially we would not be worse off – ecologically we would be better off.’


A Message from Martha


Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill



When a butterfly flaps its wings…

In a way, this post follows on from Pip Howard’s Guest Blog this morning about once-alive invertebrates encased in perspex,  except this post concerns actually-alive butterflies sold as extras for celebrations such as weddings etc.

A reader of this blog alerted me to this and wrote that ‘I was at a wedding recently and was appalled to see butterflies (and non-native at that) being released in the churchyard. Many of them were manhandled, mostly by children, and left to die injured and flapping amongst the gravestones. Crucially, why would they release animals to certain death? How is this allowed?‘.

The RSPCA response to an enquiry seemed a little off-hand to me:

Butterflies are, unfortunately ,not the subject of animal welfare law i.e. their welfare is not legally protected, however the RSPCA promotes kindness to all animals. These creatures do not suffer or feel pain in the same way as a mammal or bird and nature needs to be left to take its course.

As a charitable organisation we can only investigate situations which identify an impact on an animal’s welfare.

but I was considerably more impressed by Butterfly Conservation’s response which addressed issues of recording integrity, genetics, disease spread and the messages sent by such releases and ended with ‘If anyone contacts us regarding releasing butterflies at weddings we strongly advise them against doing so for the reasons above.‘.

That seems a pretty sensible response to me. Although, I do feel a bit of guilt in condemning an activity which is based on an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world – who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by natural beauty on special occasions?  However, an appreciation of natural beauty has to be more than fleeting, and deeper than a shallow liking for prettiness or else it can harm that beauty, exploit it, and harm the individual creatures on which it depends.

Or do you think I am just a killjoy?



Guest Blog – Real life bugs or a living planet?

IMG_20140828_175012Pip Howard is a British forester who lives and works in France. He worked with Save Our Woods and now at Forestcomms working on the pan European landscape research project HERCULES.


Do Children Really Want Real Life Bugs or a Living Planet?

All discussion on the environment will at some point, quite rightly, centre on education. We not only have to do something about the way we treat the environment, but we have to educate our children with regards environmental issues.

I grew up in the UK and remember Newsround, Blue Peter and other children’s TV shows were not afraid to tackle important humanitarian and environmental issues. Returning to the UK for a brief spell this summer I was dismayed to watch an episode of Newsround, which my son had on and despite the huge amount of worldwide news available it choose to centrepiece on celebrities, who or what they were doing I forget, I forgot very easily.

So despite all the talk, it is apparent that the environment is simply no longer considered news to children. In fact one only has to risk buying an English newspaper or watch the main news to realise it is in the main not considered news to anyone.

So one might assume that we can hope that the plethora of NGOs that abound in the English-speaking world would at least be doing something? I hear lots of talk of initiatives and projects centred on children ‘reconnecting’ them to the outdoors and thus to the environment. But then I visited a local toyshop, in Totnes, Devon. There was a small display of ‘bugs’ embedded in a plastic rectangle.  On closer inspection these bugs were real; scorpions, tarantulas and other species you may not want to find in your wellies, but which are still a vital element in a habitat somewhere in the world. A sticker had been placed on the front of the display, which read: “Due to some concerns raised we wish to inform our customers that we have investigated the source and can confirm that they come from an ethical source”

Really?! What the heck is ethical about this?

Then today my son pointed out a TV advert on one of the children’s channels. It was for a magazine, where the ‘free gift’ was one of these embedded ‘bugs’. A quick look online and sure enough neither of us were dreaming this.

An Orwellian nightmare; taking the extreme of Victorian collections into a modern context the UK are happy to sell a children’s magazine which gives away free mass-produced blocks of plastic with once-living creatures inside! And the worst thing about this – it is apparently accepted by both National Geographic and the National History Museum!

Combined with the current Coalition stance on the environment, which seemingly does little more than attract an ‘eyes to heaven’ look by most nature conservation NGOs, one cannot hold out much hope for the UK in environmental issues.

Perhaps, as a French colleague said to me recently, this is not such a bad thing, as a worse case scenario in operation is always useful in scientific research and the British Isles are thankfully relatively small. So it is probably best to cross my fingers in hope that the UK leave the EU and therefore all discussion and debate with regards the environment and indeed all land issues.


Nice and old-fashioned?


Ten days ago or so, I joined the Hawk and Owl Trust at the Bird Fair, and a while later an envelope full of interesting information arrived as a consequence of my membership.  It included a car sticker, a membership card and badge.  These things made me quite nostalgic.

I can remember my kestrel-shaped YOC badge of decades ago, and I used to have a car sticker that announced my RSPB membership to the world, but both the car sticker and the yellow Ford Sierra on which it sat are long gone.

There is quite a lot of talk about whether ‘membership’ is an out-dated concept – or at least whether this generation of people interested in nature are less interested in ‘joining’ an organisation.  We talk more about ‘supporters’ these days and there are a variety of ways to support an organisation – or a cause.

And there was a time when every secondhand car you bought might come with its own collection of stickers which told you something of its ownership history.  you must, some of you at least, remember all those WWF panda logos on the back of cars, and a fair few Avocets to accompany them (though rarely, in my experience, were both found on the same car).

Are we less keen on being ‘members’ these days? And are we less keen on displaying our membership as publicly as we did?

Should environmental NGOs come together and send out ‘Green Blob’ car stickers for us all to sport?