BSc Animal Behaviour student at the University of Exeter
There are an estimated 8,500 species of bird that can be found in all environments across the globe, from the unbearable heat of the Sahara Desert, the remarkably desolate landscape and freezing temperatures of the polar regions, to the warmth and safety of our own homes. Step out of your front door and the chances are you will hear the sweet call of a songbird in the morning, or perhaps the shrieking of a gull by the seaside. Indeed, new species of bird are being discovered on an almost daily basis, having evolved 150 million years ago from an archaeopteryx (the fossilised link between reptiles and birds). Yet across the vast distances that separates them, birds share common characteristics. Most obviously all birds have feathers and wings, yet all do not fly. All birds are endothermic, egg laying vertebrates which are perfectly adapted to life in the air.
But despite their shared characteristics, birds are an incredibly diverse group of organisms. Their size range is vast. Weighing up to 156 kilograms, the unmistakable Ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the largest bird on Earth. Living on the plains and grasslands of Southern Africa, it is entirely flightless, evading predators by using its immense running speed of approximately 40mph (comfortably earning a gold medal for the fastest running bird), and fighting off would-be attackers with their powerful kick and fearless feather shaking displays. On the opposite end of the size spectrum is the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae). Thought to be the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird measures a minute 5-6cm and weighs a mere 1.9grams: no wonder they were named after the bumble bee! Found only in the remote forests and shrubland of Cuba and the Bahamas, the bee hummingbird is somewhat less numerous than the Ostrich: being classified as ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN Red List. In short, birds are remarkable. It is no wonder why they have often been revered by humans for thousands of years.
The ancient Egyptians believed birds to be symbols of religion and protection after death. Indeed, the Egyptian god of wisdom ‘Thoth’ was depicted as having the head of an Ibis. Birds such as falcons, cranes and owls were often kept in captivity and once deceased, would be mummified and offered to the gods. In stark contrast to their widespread popularity in ancient Egypt, birds were no always adored by the ancient Greeks. Stymphalian birds were mythical creatures which had beaks and talons of bronze, devouring all humans that crossed their path. Unfortunately, the birds of today have suffered similar negative press.
The modern-day maligning of birds has too often directly accelerated the rate of species decline. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Red kites (Milvus milvus) were hunted to near extinction due to misunderstandings about their diet. Believed to be merciless predators: snatching game, farm animals and the odd fluffy pet, Red kites were shot and indiscriminately poisoned with such practices continuing to this day. The truth is, Red Kites are scavengers. Carrion comprises much of their diet with small rabbits serving as a tasty treat on occasion. Whilst Red Kites have successfully been re-introduced in England and Scotland where they were once absent, their numbers remain frightfully low as human persecution continues to wipe them out.
Unfortunately, Owls have endured similar treatment. Their history is plagued with superstition and untruths. Owls have long been associated with bad luck and death: possibly due to their piercing gaze and illusive demeanour. Dreaming of an Owl is said to foretell death, whilst encountering an Owl during a full moon is viewed as bad luck. Perhaps most damaging of all was the widespread belief that Barn Owls (Tyto alba) protected humans against evil. Up until the 1950’s, Barn Owls were killed so their carcass could be displayed on front doors to ward off any malicious spirits.
According to the RSPB’s 2018 Bird Crime report, there were 87 known cases of raptor persecution in the UK including; 28 poisonings, 41 shootings, 16 trappings and 2 other incidents. Unfortunately, the recent lockdown and the subsequent lack of walkers has provided these criminals with the perfect conditions to kill raptors with minimal risk of getting caught, and so persecution killings have dramatically increased over the last three months. Education is the most effective resolution to the problem. Shining a light on the truth about these magnificent creatures will serve to debunk superstition and misunderstandings: igniting a new passion to protect our raptors so that they may continue to grace our skies for generations to come.