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British Birds by Roger Riddington - 1w ago

By Kirk Wallace Johnson

Windmill, 2019

Pbk, 297pp; 34 colour photographs; ISBN 978-0-09951-066-6

£9.99 buy it from the BB Bookshop

Late in the evening of 23rd June 2009, a 20-year-old American, Edwin Rist, broke into the Natural History Museum at Tring and stole 299 bird skins, among them 39 of Resplendent Quetzals Pharomachrus mocinno, 37 of King Bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus regius and 82 of assorted cotingas – including ten of the endangered Banded Cotinga Cotinga maculata. This young man, a highly gifted flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, had pulled off what the book’s subtitle calls ‘the natural history heist of the century’. It transpired that he had another expertise too: he was an accomplished fly-tier…

He was duly tracked down, arrested and successfully prosecuted, only to claim in his defence Asperger’s Syndrome and get away with a suspended 12-month sentence. The whole affair attracted surprisingly little publicity and, perhaps, without this book (first published in hardback in 2018) most of us would probably still know very little about what happened, or why. What drove Rist to commit what, on the face of it, seemed a bizarre crime?

Another American, Kirk Johnson, previously deeply engaged in welfare work in the Middle East, was fly-fishing in New Mexico when he first heard the story. Astonished and intrigued, he tracked down and interviewed Rist, discovered that Rist had an accomplice in Norway (who had effectively ‘fenced’ much of the stolen material), and contacted various other people involved. As well as trying to understand what lay behind the whole affair, he sought to discover the whereabouts of the stolen birds. Johnson’s amazing detective story, with its subterfuges, dodgy characters and still-lingering doubts and mysteries, takes up around half of this paperback edition: it is compelling stuff.

Much of the rest of the book explores the ‘why’ in all of this. These stolen birds, rarities or from remote places – or both – are a source of colourful, beautiful and highly desirable feathers, of interest to people who tie salmon flies. This is perhaps best described as a highly skilful, if rather dubious form of fine art, which seems to have little to do with the actual practice of salmon fishing. Fly-tying had its origins and heyday in Victorian Britain, but has evidently had something of a revival more recently. Johnson not only tells its intriguing story, but also introduces us to a selection of aficionados, whose attitudes range from honesty to distinct shiftiness (and who reminded me to some extent of egg-collectors). I often felt annoyed and frustrated as I read about them – but it was hard to put the book down.

Both the importance of our national collection and the impact of this robbery on it are sensitively and well evaluated. Much is said about the origins of the stolen birds, with particular reference to those brought back from southeast Asia by Alfred Russell Wallace, whose exploits merit a chapter of their own. We birders and ornithologists may instinctively understand most of the nuances of this side of the story, but others (including Kirk Johnson himself when his investigations began) would not, so balancing the account in this way seems sensible.

It seems odd to be recommending a paperback containing a complicated detective story in the pages of BB – but I do so without hesitation. Read it yourselves, enjoy it and learn from it!

Mike Everett

The post The Feather Thief appeared first on British Birds.

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British Birds by Roger Riddington - 1w ago

By John C. Coulson

Collins, 2019 (New Naturalist Series, No. 139)

Pbk, 478pp; 252 colour figures; ISBN 978-0-00-820143-2

£35.00 buy it from the BB Bookshop

As might be expected, this book is a brick of information about the resident gulls of Britain and Ireland. It starts with an ‘Overview of Gulls’ covering such topics as taxonomy and various aspects of their life-history strategies. This overview is pretty comprehensive, and with larger type and more photos could easily have been published stand-alone. In this case, however, it is the prelude to nine chapters each dedicated to a single species: Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, Black-headed Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Little Hydrocoloeus minutus, Mediterranean Ichthyaetus melanocephalus, Common Larus canus, Herring L. argentatus, Yellow-legged L. michahellis, Lesser Black-backed L. fuscus and Great Black-backed Gulls L. marinus. All the others recorded in Britain are covered in a chapter on ‘Rare Gulls’. These are followed by three chapters on research techniques, urban gulls and, finally, the conservation, management and exploitation of gulls. 

The chapters dedicated to individual species constitute the bulk of the book. This is not an identification guide, but these chapters summarise what the birds look like, then go through such subjects as distribution, breeding, moults, movements and diet. The chapters effectively assemble and condense the body of scientific research carried out on these species, and are liberally punctuated with graphs, histograms, tables and photographs. It sounds dry, but for the most part it isn’t. There is a lot of information, quite dense in places, but the text is interspersed with interesting comments, case studies and anecdotes that keep things moving along. The text is authoritative, founded in a deep personal knowledge of gull research, and bang up to date, describing for example the controversy surrounding the death of Kittiwakes on netted buildings in Newcastle in summer 2018.

The ‘New Naturalist Series’ mission statement – ‘to interest the general reader in the wildlife of Britain by recapturing the enquiring spirit of the old naturalists…’ – seems increasingly quaint and parochial but, more importantly, appears to impose a constraint on the authors such that the amount of chapter space allotted to each species roughly correlates with its British breeding population. So, for example, while Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Kittiwakes get 50–60 pages each, the equally fascinating Little Gull gets only eight pages, while such ‘normal’ species as Sabine’s Xema sabini, Glaucous L. hyperboreus and Iceland Gulls L. glaucoides are relegated to the ‘Rare Gulls’ chapter, alongside the likes of Laughing Leucophaeus atricilla and Franklin’s Gulls L. pipixcan. It would not be possible to give every species the full treatment in a single volume, but neither gulls nor science respect the English Channel as a barrier and it gives the book an oddly unbalanced feel. 

The book is written for the interested reader who wants to know more about gulls but does not want to research them in depth. It is a difficult tightrope to walk, but the author is broadly successful. Only the very interested reader is likely to sit down and read the entire thing in full, but the chapters are mostly self-contained and can be dipped into. The chapters on urban gulls and gull management are particularly topical (see for example the recent paper by Sarah Trotter in BB 112: 282–292) and the author makes a well-argued case that gulls are drawn to towns and cities not for the free food, but for the safer nest sites. Gull management is discussed in that context, with apparently little patience for the hyperbole that Herring Gulls are in danger of extinction in Britain. The most recent addition to the New Naturalist Library is full of stuff like this, and few BB readers will regret giving it a few hours of their time.

Martin Collinson

The post Gulls  appeared first on British Birds.

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Edited by Michael L. Morrison, Amanda D. Rodewald, Gary Voelker, Melanie R. Colón and Jonathan F. Prather

Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2019

Hbk, 1,004pp; many colour and black-and-white photographs and illustrations; ISBN 978-1-4214247-1-2

£81.50 buy it from the BB Bookshop

At 1,004 pages, this book is a monster! It is effectively a comprehensive textbook of ornithology. The editors have gathered a team of over 50 contributors and have managed to produce a book of uniformly high readability. However, it is a textbook and seems to be aimed at graduate-student level: an impression supported by a list of ‘discussion questions’ at the end of each chapter. The contents of each chapter are summarised by a series of ‘key points’ and a nice touch is a discussion of the implications of that chapter for management and conservation. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, sketches, graphs and diagrams, and these are generally clear, relevant and easily accessible. As is often the case these days, there is a series of vignettes of individual ornithologists, evidently regarded by the editors as ‘significant’.

As to content, as the title implies, most aspects of avian biology are covered: anatomy, physiology, endocrinology, parasitology, flight, moult and acoustics in a series of major groupings, of which those on evolution and speciation, behaviour and migration, management and conservation, and modern-day climate change are likely to be of most interest to readers of British Birds. The last of these is especially well presented, though I was surprised that Humphrey Crick’s landmark paper in Nature (in 1997) does not merit inclusion.

However, only six of the contributors are based outside North America, of whom just Graham Martin is from Great Britain. This, inevitably, gives the whole book an ‘American’ feel, and I suspect that many (most?) sales will emanate from there. Would I buy it? Probably not, now that I am retired. Would I expect British undergraduates to buy it? Again, probably not, though at less than £0.10 per page, it is actually good value. Would I recommend it for my University Library? Definitely.

Personally, I found it a book to ‘dip into’ for particular topics, rather than read at a sitting. Weighing in at around 4 kg, despite its comprehensive coverage and general readability, it is not exactly a book to curl up with after a long day’s birding. But then, you could always buy the Kindle version – which is a little cheaper and easier on the back!

David Parkin

The post Ornithology: foundation, analysis and application appeared first on British Birds.

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By Mark Avery

Abstract The Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus occurs throughout temperate Asia but in the Western Palearctic it is a native bird only in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Elsewhere, it is widely introduced and about half of the European Pheasant population is found in the UK, where breeding numbers have doubled in the past 40 years. Some 43 million young Pheasants are released into the UK countryside each year to fuel the pastime of Pheasant shooting. Only 13 million of them are shot so the rest must die from other causes. What are the impacts of these huge numbers of non-native birds on the ecology of the countryside, other economic activities and our own lives? 

To read the issue in full, you can subscribe to BB here

Male Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, Northumberland, April 2006. David Tipling

The post The Common Pheasant – its status in the UK and the potential impacts of an abundant non-native  appeared first on British Birds.

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By David Jardine, Mike Peacock, Morgan Vaughan and Ian Fisher

Abstract A long-term study of Red-billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax on the islands of Colonsay and Oronsay, in Argyll, showed an increase in population from the mid 1980s to 2005. Since then, a significant decline is evident, caused by poor survival of first-year birds. Changes in food supply are believed to be the principal cause of this poor survival and are thought to have resulted from changes in habitat, agricultural practices and weather, exacerbated by the low genetic diversity of the population.

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Adult Chough feeding on kelp-fly larvae, Oronsay, Argyll, January 2013. Ian Fisher

The post Choughs on Colonsay and Oronsay, 1984–2018 appeared first on British Birds.

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By Paul Freestone

Abstract A Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus in Cornwall in 2016 was first seen over St Gothian Sands, Gwithian, on 7th May 2016; it remained in southwest England until 20th November, mainly in Cornwall but was also seen briefly in Devon. It was accepted by BBRC and BOURC as being of wild origin and added to Category A of the British List.

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Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus, Cornwall, May 2016. Michael McKee

The post Dalmatian Pelican in Cornwall: new to Britain appeared first on British Birds.

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British Birds by Roger Riddington - 1w ago

By Christopher McInerney on behalf of BOURC

Abstract A Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus arrived in Cornwall in May 2016 and remained in southwest England until November that year. This individual had been seen in Poland, Germany and France in April and May 2016, which fuelled the debate over its origins among British birders. BOURC decided that, on balance, this bird was most likely of wild origin; they accepted the record and the species to Category A of the British List. The background and explanation for that decision are summarised here.

To read the issue in full, you can subscribe to BB here

Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus, Cornwall, May 2016. Michael McKee

The post The Dalmatian Pelican in Britain appeared first on British Birds.

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British Birds by Roger Riddington - 2w ago

The Common Pheasant – its status in the UK and the potential impacts of an abundant non-native About half of the European population of the Common Pheasant is found in the UK, where breeding numbers have doubled in the past 40 years. Some 43 million young Pheasants are released into the UK countryside each year to fuel the pastime of Pheasant shooting. What are the impacts of these huge numbers of non-native birds on the ecology of the countryside, other economic activities and our own lives? 

Choughs on Colonsay and Oronsay, 1984–2018 A long-term study of Red-billed Choughs breeding on Colonsay and Oronsay showed an increase in population from the mid 1980s to 2005. Since then, a significant decline is evident; changes in food supply are believed to be a principal factor.

Dalmatian Pelican in Cornwall: new to Britain A Dalmatian Pelican in Cornwall in 2016 was first seen over St Gothian Sands on 7th May; it remained in southwest England until 20th November. It was accepted by BBRC and BOURC and added to Category A of the British List.

The Dalmatian Pelican in Britain  A Dalmatian Pelican in Cornwall in May 2016 remained in southwest England until November that year. The background and explanation for BOURC’s decision to add it to the British List are summarised.

BB eye  The value of monitoring rare breeding birds

Letters  An early wild bird marking record

Notes ‘Penguin dance’ by juvenile Great Crested Grebes; Carrio Crow dropping freshwater mussels; Some observations of Skylark behavior in severe weather; Nesting Barn Swallows using infrared door sensors.

Obituaries  Adam Watson

News & comment, Book reviews and Recent reports complete the July issue.

The post <i>British Birds</i> July 2019 appeared first on British Birds.

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By Malcolm Ausden, Graham Hirons, Graham White and Leigh Lock

Abstract During 1990–2015, the RSPB acquired around 8,750 ha of land on which to restore wetland habitat, mainly to benefit breeding waders of lowland wet grassland, Eurasian Bitterns Botaurus stellaris, and birds associated with intertidal habitats and saline lagoons. This restored land now supports more than 10% of the UK breeding populations of Black-necked Grebes Podiceps nigricollis, Eurasian Bitterns, Common Cranes Grus grus, Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta, Cetti’s Warblers Cettia cetti and Bearded Tits Panurus biarmicus. It supports a high proportion of the Northern Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, Common Redshanks Tringa totanus and Common Snipes Gallinago gallinago that breed on lowland wet grassland in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and also provides breeding habitat for potential colonists, including various herons and Black-winged Stilts Himantopus himantopus. The future challenges for wetland restoration are maintaining the availability of early successional habitat; ensuring low levels of predation on ground-nesting birds; adapting to changes in climate; securing funding and reducing the unit costs of wetland management; and ensuring the robust implementation of policies supportive of future wetland restoration.

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Eurasian Bittern Alan Harris

The post Wetland restoration by the RSPB – what has it achieved for birds? appeared first on British Birds.

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By Anthony Cheke

Abstract  Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus were brought to Britain by the Romans, and numbers at large in the countryside have fluctuated over time since then. This paper describes the well-established feral population at Nuneham Courtenay, in Oxfordshire, and presents a brief survey of feral birds elsewhere in Britain. It is argued that the Nuneham Courtenay birds, and probably other groups, are self-sustaining and merit consideration for Category C1 or C4 of the British List.

To read the issue in full, you can subscribe to BB here

Male Indian Peafowl, Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire. Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

The post A long-standing feral Indian Peafowl population in Oxfordshire, and a brief survey of the species in Britain appeared first on British Birds.

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