Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 6: Little Egret

I’ve been a bit freaked out by the tone and volume of the climate-change sceptics recently; they seem to be getting louder, shriller and more visible. Which really deserves a post of its own, but in the meantime, here’s another bird for advent:

That’s a Little Egret, Egretta garzetta. The photo was taken on the south coast of England, where these egrets can be seen picking their way elegantly around water margins and flying around with that ethereal whiteness that makes them such a popular subject for unimaginative poets the world over.

But in the 1950s, the closest egrets were way down in the Mediterranean. Over the next few decades, they spread up north across France, forming a particularly healthy population in Brittany; but when I started taking an interest in birds in the 80s, they were still only a vagrant to the UK. Not a particularly rare one, but still quite exciting. Then there was a particular influx in 1989, and they started being a regular sight overwintering in Dorset especially; and in 1996 they bred in England for the first time. They’re still not exactly common; the RSPB suggests there are about 150 breeding pairs and 1600 extra birds wintering here. But they seem to be solidly established and are spreading north up the coasts of Wales and East Anglia.

I’m not about to claim that the spread of one bird species across Europe is proof of global warming. Who knows how many ecological factors might affect egret populations. But then we don’t need to rely on studying the flight of the birds; we have thermometers, so we know the world is warming. We have satellite photography, so we know the arctic ice is melting. The egrets are just a particularly decorative reminder.

Seeing the spread of a once-rare bird as a portent of doom might make me seem a bit difficult to please; there’s a special irony because the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, now the largest conservation charity in Europe, was founded to protect egrets and other birds from being hunted for their plumes. It’s like wearing fur or testing cosmetics on animals; the idea that animals shouldn’t suffer for the sake of human vanity is a fairly easy one to sell. But with climate change, we’re not just asking people to stop wearing little feathery hats, we’re asking them to change the way the whole world economy is organised. Which is rather harder.

» Egrets, I’ve Had A Few is © Rob Watkins and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.


Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 5: Ground Woodpecker

This is the Ground Woodpecker, Geocolaptes olivaceus, which, as the name suggests, is a large southern African woodpecker species that lives on the ground:

There are quite a few woodpeckers species that spend a lot of time on the ground; the Green Woodpecker in Europe, and the various flickers in the Americas, for example. But the Ground Woodpecker takes it the furthest because it doesn’t even nest in a tree; they excavate a burrow from a riverbank.

It’s an interesting example of the way that evolution works. Woodpeckers are so highly specialised for living in trees: they have two toes pointing forward and two back, to improve grip; they have a stiff tail so they can brace themselves against tree trunks; they have highly developed neck muscles to generate the power needed to chisel away wood, and their head anatomy is adapted so that their eyes and brains can withstand the enormous G-forces generated; and they have barbed tongues to fish out wood-boring insects which are so long they have to be coiled inside their heads when they are not in use.

And yet, after millions of years of evolution to produce animals superbly adapted to living in trees… some of them start hopping around in the grass instead. Presumably the long tongues are equally useful for finding ants and other insects living underground, but otherwise, all that adaption is cheerfully discarded by evolution. If you were a Creator starting from scratch to design a ground-living bird, you wouldn’t end up with a woodpecker; but they are adapted well enough to make a living, and that’s all that matters.

This isn’t a completely original observation, btw; Darwin refers to a ground-feeding South American woodpecker in the Origin, although I’m not sure which species he’s referring to: possibly the Campo Flicker.

» Ground Woodpecker is taken from Flickr; it is © Francois Dreyer.


Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 4: Red Junglefowl

My two-year-old niece could identify this one:

Except she’d be WRONG.

Sort of. Because this is not just any old chicken; it’s a Red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus, the wild ancestor* of everyone’s favourite kind of meat regularly served by the bucket.†

It’s an Asian species, and according to Wikipedia was probably domesticated in Vietnam 10,000 years ago; it reached Europe about 5000 years ago and was probably brought to Britain by the Romans. So they’ve been living around us for a very long time now, pecking around in our courtyards, supplying us with eggs and meat and exciting new strains of influenza. In some ways the most surprising thing about them is how familiar-looking they are: after millennia of domestication, the cock junglefowl (junglecock?) could still pass unnoticed in a farmyard.

The females look a bit more wild, I think; without all the distracting familiar cockerel plumage you can see the shape of the bird and see its relationship to pheasants and partridges:

However, the Red Junglefowl is ‘endangered’ by interbreeding with domestic chickens. There are plenty of junglefowl living wild out in the forests of southeast Asia, but not surprisingly, they tend to breed with free-ranging chickens. There’s something slightly weird about hearing conservationists worrying about the genetic purity of wild populations; obviously if there’s any value in preserving wild animals, I guess that implies preserving them as they are, but still there’s something just a little bit, um, Nazi about these attempts to maintain the blood-purity of the Red Junglefowl, or the White-headed Duck, or the Florida panther.

* Though possibly with a bit of Grey Junglefowl thrown into the mix.

† Or indeed in a basket, in the dish known as ‘chicken in a basket’. Which used to be a staple of English pub food, but which I haven’t seen for years. I think it’s probably gone the way of gammon and pineapple.

» Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) male 2 and Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) family are © Lip Kee Yap and used under the CC by-sa licence.


Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 3: Secretary Bird

The Secretary BirdSagittarius serpentarius:

Because it’s a bird of prey which has evolved long legs like a crane; something I think is just fabulous beyond words. They stalk across the grasslands of Africa, hunting small prey like snakes and lizards.

It looks more eccentric than terrifying, and it hasn’t lost the power of flight; but as a long-legged predatory bird, it offers a faint echo of the prehistoric Phorusrhacids which once roamed South America, crunching the skulls of their prey in their huge hooked beaks.

» Secretary Bird is © Vearl Brown and used under a CC by-nc licence.


Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 2: Japanese Bush-warbler

while I’m gone
you and the nightingale are in charge
my snail

uguisu torusu wo shite orekatatsuburi

Except that the uguisu is not actually a nightingale; it’s the Japanese Bush Warbler, Cettia diphone. It has often been translated as ‘nightingale’ because it has similar poetic associations; it is famous in Japan for its song (YouTube) which announces the arrival of spring.

Similarly, the ‘nightingale floors’ found in some Japanese castles, which are designed to squeak so that intruders can be heard, are actually uguisubari — named after the bush warbler.

Bashō has a poem about the uguisu designed to undercut its poetic image:

uguisu ya mochi ni funsuru en no saki

A bush warbler
crapped on the rice cakes
on the veranda.

» The snail poem is by Kobayashi Issa, 1807; trans. David G. Lanoue and found on his enormous archive of Issa’s haiku. The photo is © a.koto and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. I found the Bashō poem in the World Kigo Database, where there is lots more interesting stuff about the uguisu; including the traditional use of their droppings in cosmetics (!)


Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 1: Red-breasted Goose

The first bird for the calendar is… Red-breasted Goose, Branta ruficollis. Because I saw some in St. James’s Park today and they are just gorgeous little birds.

I’ve never seen them in the wild, sadly. How’s this for an obscure neurosis: whenever I’m somewhere with an ornamental wildfowl collection, there’s a niggling worry at the back of my mind that I might actually be seeing a genuine rarity, wandered all the way from, in this case, Siberia — and I’m justassuming it’s part of the collection. It’s enough to keep you up at night.

The wildfowl of St. James’s Park was in the news recently when one of the pelicans showed a fine disregard for its comic persona by eating a  whole live pigeon. Which happens fairly regularly, but amusingly, every time it makes the news they find an ‘expert’ to say how remarkable and unheard of it is.

» Red Breasted Goose is © Wayne Dumbleton and Siberian Red-breasted Geese is © Purple Kitten; both pictures are used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.