Andy Atkins steps down from 7 years as Executive Director of Friends of the Earth in June. He is taking a few months break to write a book and, if there is time left over, to paint a series of landscapes from a large collection of sketches. After that he plans to throw himself back into campaigning for nature restoration and social justice.
Bird populations have long been damaged by habitat destruction, cats and pesticides. Now this is compounded by climate change and the shifting seasons. It would be a tragedy if we fail to turn this around. To me it’s personal.
About 40 years ago I got into birds. My family had returned from overseas, where we had lived on a tropical island in the Pacific. There I had lived outdoors under the sun. My friends and I had entertained ourselves from dawn to dusk without TV.
We had archery competitions with home-made bamboo bows and arrows. We made canoes from planks and corrugated roofing sheets to paddle round the coast.
By 1975 my family was living in cold, wet rural Worcestershire – and I was bored out of my mind.
The stream through the village was barely deep enough to float a toy boat. Fences and hedges crisscrossed the countryside and you were only supposed to cross a field on a Public Footpath. To cap it all I just didn’t get football, which made me an outcast at my new school. I was becoming more and more isolated, morose, depressed.
Then my aunt suggested I should try birdwatching. I liked my aunt – but I thought this an absurd suggestion. On our Pacific island you killed birds with sling shots and roasted them over a driftwood fire. Why would I want to creep about the damp British countryside and just look at them.
My desperate parents liked the idea, however. They bought me binoculars, bought me an Observer’s Book of British Birds and pushed me out of the door. I must have given it a go out of sheer lack of alternatives.
Benefits of birdwatching
The transformation seems to have been almost instant. I have a battered birdwatching diary from 1975 which records the geeky excitement that took me over. In hindsight it reveals the multiple benefits which birdwatching gave me.
At the most basic, it opened my eyes to a reality around me of which I had been largely unaware. I had no idea, for example, how many different bird species there were. On the first day of the diary, New Year’s Day 1975, I record:
“Today, on the plum tree on the lawn, I saw my first tree creeper. It was hopping up and down the tree. I was intreagued [sic] by its mouse-like appearance.”
I found birdwatching calming and socialising: the act of focusing on other life, often colourful or sweet-sounding, distracted me from my teenage inner world. Soon I couldn’t wait to get out every Saturday, or in the light summer evenings.
I got friendly with another boy, Ray, who like me lacked the football-obsession gene. I enlisted him in birdwatching. He started to bring along another friend of his, Simon. Before long I was actually mixing with other boys and becoming … sociable.
Nature and your health
It exercised me too. Instead of reading in my room or complaining how bored I was, I was out in the fresh air again.
Thanks to my fanatical recording of timings, it’s clear that I was frequently out for four or five hours at a time, covering miles of countryside on foot.
Thirst for bird-knowledge led me deeper and deeper into learning. On 1 March I record:
“At 15.00 on Blakeshall Common, we came across four birds pellets all within a spot about 36” square in area. This was among the gorse bushes. They were made up of white hair, sand and what could have been insect remains. We studied my library book and the pellets were those of a little owl.”
Ways to identify birds
I remember a growing sense of satisfaction as I learned to identify birds, not just from their colour and size, but from other factors: the time of the year, as some birds were only seasonal visitors; or where I had seen them, as most birds are quite choosy about their habitat; or even their pattern of flight.
Spotting a merlin
I record, on 30 July, how I and a couple of friends, camping in Wales, identified a bird we had seen by piecing together the different bits of the jigsaw that we had between us.
“We looked up all our books when we arrived back at camp. We couldn’t believe our eyes. The colouration, that fast low jerky flight, the plucking area nearby, and the sparse open country: our books said all belonged to a merlin. We had seen one of the countries [sic] rarer birds. I doubt weather [sic] I will ever see another in the wild.”
I was becoming seriously knowledgeable about something, and with this knowledge grew confidence and ambition.
I decided to mount a month by month survey of birds in our garden. The big old vicarage garden included an ample lawn with an area of bracken, brambles and mixed woodland beyond. Our land was surrounded on three sides by farmer’s fields, the lower of which was wet meadow with a stream running through it. There was a huge variety of bird habitat within a couple of hundred metres of the house.
In the first month of the survey, March 1975, I recorded 28 different species.
Decline of British birds
These included many birds which were commonplace at the time but have since suffered disastrous declines in their populations: starlings (66% drop since the mid-1970s); house sparrow (71% drop since 1977); mistle thrush (47% decline since late 1960s); and the marsh tit, with a drop of at least 50% in numbers in the last 25 years alone.
In the peak month, June, I recorded 36 species, including cuckoo, kestrel, spotted flycatcher, redpoll and willow warbler.
You can still see all these birds in Britain, but not in the same numbers, and the next generation is being robbed of this rich presence.
I know how much I gained from nature at a critical time in my life, so I’m determined to do all I can to halt this decline. Can you help by donating to the FoE nature campaign?