Ian Clayton: Birds are in ‘real danger’

Did you see this in the news last weekend? Volunteer ornithologists estimate that over 44 million birds have disappeared from Britain in the last 40 years, that’s one for every person living in England and Wales and roughly a quarter of our bird population.

Some native species are now in real danger, the turtle dove is down to just a few thousand breeding pairs and even the house sparrow has virtually disappeared from the streets of London, a place once synonymous with that little fella, hence the phrase “watcha me old cock sparrer!”

I haven’t seen a greenfinch this year or a grey wagtail, birds that I’ve often seen when I’m out walking John, my dog. Experts claim that the weather and intensive farming methods have contributed to the decline, fishermen have told of seeing migratory birds falling dead into the sea, exhausted after flying into bad weather and we all know that there are less hedgerows, the traditional breeding ground of many of our birds, but could there be something else? I went to spend a morning with my mate John Sutton, as knowledgeable an ornithologist as I know and I asked him what he thought.

He talked first about climate change, he said: “I saw a bullfrog in my pond the other day, he was croaking for a mate, it’s the middle of November, so he should be under a stone now, hibernating. Then I heard the chatter of redwings, they’re here early from the Baltic, they must have been pushed here by a cold front, you know cold weather comes behind birds like that, but then blow me, as I’m coming back up the garden path I see a peacock butterfly on my shed. The weather is topsy-turvy and wildlife seems to be thrown by it.”

I asked him then about the change in farming methods. He told me that it stands to reason, if you take away the natural habitat of a bird, then it will struggle. Some birds can relocate and adapt to an urban environment, but hedgerow birds have nowhere else to go. He said: “Where we once had ten fields with hedgerows in between, you might now have just one field with one hedge boundary, you lose insects, beetles, birds, the whole balance changes. I’ve got a mate who is a vet in Castleford, he keeps bees, he told me that he’d been feeding them on sugar all summer and he’s hardly had a jar of honey due to lack of blossom.”

John then surprised me by saying it wasn’t all about decline though, some birds had increased their numbers and these were the ones that had adapted well to urbanisation.

He added: “When I was a boy I had to travel miles if I wanted to see a spotted woodpecker, now I see them regularly in my garden and just this year I saw ten buzzards circling over Pontefract Park, I’ve never seen ten buzzards together in all my life.” He then told me that when he was a young man the famous local naturalist Ernie Precious once took him to see a sparrow hawk.

They had to travel all the way up to Sutton Bank in North Yorkshire, but now he could see any number of them every day in north Featherstone. He then gave me an astonishing figure, a breeding pair of sparrow hawks needs to eat 121 lbs meat annually to survive, that equates to 2,200 sparrows and 600 blackbirds. We start then to get a picture of how predation is also contributing to the decline of some of our little garden birds. It also explains why we see more magpies, hawks and buzzards than ever.

John also told me that the peregrine falcon, a bird that once exclusively nested on isolated rocky outcrops, now nests on tower blocks in the middle of our cities.

I started to think back to when I was a little lad wandering the hedgerows around Ackworth and Wentbridge trying to improve my collection of birds’ eggs (yes I know it was wrong, but a lot of boys collected eggs in the 1960s, I kept mine in old Oxo tins on cotton wool or moss).

Anyhow, I was down Ackworth one day and saw a jay, the first jay I ever saw and within ten minutes I was climbing up to its nest, there was one egg in it. I wanted that egg, nobody I knew had a jay’s egg, but something came over me. I thought to myself, ‘if I take that egg, it won’t one day become a jay and if it doesn’t become a jay, a boy like me won’t be able to have the joy of seeing it.’

I left the egg and I left my hobby as well, I stopped collecting and gave the eggs I had to the nature table at George Street school. Jays have made a bit of a comeback, I hope in some way I contributed. I hope too that my grandchildren when I have any will be able to see the humble sparrow in years to come.