The bad habits of man are the saving grace of our birds of prey
The peregrine falcon has figured prominently on BBC2’s Springwatch this year, and rightly so.
The fastest animal that has ever lived, the peregrine’s stoop (where it folds its wings and dives) has been timed at over 200mph, while their streamlined form is said to have been an inspiration behind the wing design of the Supermarine Spitfire.
The Spitfire’s designer, RJ Mitchell, is said to have watched peregrines hunting over the Solent and adapted their wing form to his aeroplane design.
If true, then it is perhaps ironic that a bird that aided the design of the key aircraft in the Battle of Britain, should be so heavily persecuted through Wartime. Peregrines love pigeon, and the carrier pigeons used through both the First and Second world wars carried messages too precious to end up in the talons of a falcon.
With fewer than 100 pairs left in Britain in the early 1960’s, the peregrine has recovered to a population today of over 1500 pairs.
The traditional strongholds of North and West Scotland have seen a decline, however, whereas across the British Isles, more and more birds are making their homes in towns and cities.
Over twenty pairs nest in London, on the tall buildings (the Houses of Parliament support a pair) which are similar to their traditional nest sites on cliff faces except with a ready supply of food. The check of the population of feral pigeons in the Capital is not all down to Ken Livingstone.
What has become increasingly apparent of the peregrines in London is their after dark activity. Analysis of prey species has shown an increasing amount of nocturnal species appearing on the peregrine’s menu. Given the fact that the peregrine will almost exclusively catch prey on the wing, this would suggest that they are adapting their habits to suit their environment. The loom of London is allowing them to go after slow flying species that are simply not used to being hunted in flight.
This pattern has been demonstrated on Springwatch with studies of the birds nesting in Bath. Water rail, corncrake, and spotted crake have all been taken by the birds there, and these are unusual species that migrate overnight.
As Springwatch suggested, peregrines are evolving in order to live alongside man – a fact that demonstrates both the remarkable adaptability of nature, and the effect that we have upon the environment.
Habitats are ever changing, with or without interference, but more and more birds are becoming dependant upon our bad habits.
We are terribly messy, and most inner cities are littered with our waste, but scavengers, the feral pigeons, the crows, jackdaws and seagulls, are clearing up after us. Modern farming methods and over fishing have meant that many birds have little choice. The natural supply of food has simply gone, and they must adapt or perish.
The towns and cities, though, are full of opportunity and full of our waste. Rubbish bags spill over the pavements, we tend to eat on the move and drop scraps as we do, and a lot of people actively feed the birds.
Also, what greenery remains in urban areas is often rich in insect life. There are no insecticides here, and instead small pockets of sustainable habitat are dotted between the houses and high-rises. It is environment rich in food and offering the bonus of added warmth from human habitation. Two or three degrees of temperature can make quite a difference, particularly in the winter.
And then there are the bird-tables and feeders. The estimated 20 million people in this country who regularly put food out for the birds.
One third of the population are avian philanthropists.
It is no surprise that this too is changing the behaviour of birds around us.
In many parts of Europe, the robin is seen as a skulking, secretive bird which is persecuted like so many birds of the Mediterranean. The birds of Britain are wholly different. They are bold, aggressive, dominant garden birds who seem quite fearless of man. A fisherman on a riverbank need wait minutes before a robin appears, eyeing up his tubs of maggots, while no sooner does a gardener lean on his fork then he gains a red-breasted friend.
In recent years, a remarkable example of rapid evolution has occurred under our noses.
The blackcap is a small migratory warbler that traditionally winters in Africa and heads north to Europe in the spring. It is known locally as the ‘northern nightingale’ due to its warm lyrical song, and over the last thirty years has been overwintering in Britain in increasing number.
It was long assumed that these birds simply hung around due to ever milder winters, and would visit garden bird-tables when natural food began to get scarce.
Recent study, however, suggests otherwise.
It would appear that ‘our’ blackcaps – the birds that spend the summer here, are still migrating back to Africa in the autumn, whereas the birds that winter here have bred in central Europe.
Tracking ringed birds has shown a distinct pattern of migration occurring between southern Germany and southern Britain where the blackcaps specifically target our garden feed-stations.
These birds no longer need to make a long migration back to Africa, and instead have evolved in just a few generations to have shorter, broader wings, more suited to life ducking in and out of hedgerows and short hops across the English Channel.
It is such a wonderfully British idiosyncrasy that we take so much pleasure in feeding and watching our garden birds, and it is amazing that we can see the effects of it so clearly.
Not all of man’s actions are negative, though any night-flying pigeons in London may disagree.
Kevin Parr is a twitcher and novelist. His next book is being crowdsourced for publication by the publisher Unbound.Tagged in: birds, birds of prey, blackcap, environment, garden birds, nature, peregrine falcon, pigeons, Springwatch, Supermarine Spitfire
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