Neighbourhood Nature: the importance or our local areas for well-being & pro-conservation motivation
This the record of a circular walk; and an exploration of the importance of attending to local nature to well-being and conversation.
All of the photographs in this post were taken by me between 08.45 and 12.00 on Thursday 11.02.21, except those photographs used to illustrate rare or non-British bird species.
My main interests in nature are birds and landscapes; that is what I mostly choose to attend to. I could choose to attend to specific plant species (about which I know much less) or insects (and at times I do, e.g. when I am bumblebee surveying for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project) but in February there are very, very few Bumblebees in evidence, as the vast majority in existence are non-visible hibernating queens, although in winter Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) "can be just as busy ... as the rest of the year. In the warmer parts of the UK, fully active winter colonies of this species are regularly recorded, even when temperatures are close to freezing and there is snow on the ground. Read on to find out how to help them. These plucky bees are feeding upon a few winter-flowering plant species such as Mahonia .. and winter honeysuckle". (iWinter-active bumblebees - Bumblebee Conservation Trust
I am interested in birds and bumblebees because I find them beautiful and because bird and bumblebee abundance and diversity are indices of anthropogenic (human-caused) extrication, as a result of global warming and habitat loss.
I am fascinated by all birds - of all types, in all places. I am fascinated by birds rarely seen in Sussex, e.g. the Yellow-browed Warbler ("rare" birds are defined by British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) and the Sussex Ornithological Society's Rarities Committee). But I have never seen one of these "rare" birds, and I have no current intention of spending hours and hours, days on end, to spot one; although if one turns up in my everyday travels I'll be very happy to see it.
Yellow- browed Warbler Eastleigh Sewage Works (Hampshire, not Sussex) photographed by Martin Peacock on 31/12/2015 - see Martin's Sussex Birding Blog: Yellow-browed Warbler (martinsbirdingblog.blogspot.com)
I am also fascinated by overseas birds - both relatively common species that are unknown in the UK (e.g. the Black-necked stork, which I have seen in the Northern Territories of Australia i1992) and international species that are rare (e.g. the Kapapo of New Zealand, or the African ("Jackass"). Penguin of South Africa). But I am not going to go to New Zealand or South Africa to see them, as the carbon cost of doing so is likely to increase the decline of abundance and diversity of animals on our fragile plant.
Youngest Kakapo chick of the bumper 2018/19 breeding season, Stella-3-B-2019
Image: Andrew Digby | DOC (New Zealand department of Conservation)
What I am really fascinated in is what you can see in your own neighbourhood. Part of this fascination has been provoked by the UK's 3rd Lockdown in response to the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic; where spotting birds in your local area is all we are permitted to do. But local birdwatching was already what I was doing; I only spot birds that can bee seen by going to locations by foot, bike, bus or train; in order to reduce my carbon footprint.
I believe that neighbourhood nature journeys are very important; for three reasons:
they promote well-being. Being able to see and experience nature is important to wellbeing (i) and the most accessible nature, i.e. that which you are most likely to visit, is that which is close to you. Apart from the distraction from troubling thoughts, and the positive emotion that seeing natural beauty brings, becoming immersed in local nature promotes a sense of well-being based linked to meaning, purpose and values. Learning more about your local wildlife engenders a sense of achievement; and participating in citizen-science projects, like the Big Garden Birdwatch, promotes a sense of meaning, as the data is useful for conservation purposes (ii). Living according to your values (e.g. reducing your carbon footprints) also engenders well-being. Deep awareness of your connection with nature around you is also well-being enhancing at a spiritual level, and there is evidence that spiritual well-being is a very important part of general well-being (iii); you may consider that be theistic spirituality (e.g. animism, or the approaches to the divinity of nature taken in ancient and modern religions) (iv), or "non-theistic (scientific) spirituality" (e.g. the feeling that we are part of a bigger ecology system) (v), or "philosophical" spirituality (e.g. panpsychism) (vi) (See footnotes at the end of this post for the references cited above)
reducing your carbon footprint really does help nature
developing a real connection with your local natures is a motivation for pro-ecological behaviour (vii). Caring about what is in your back garden, in your street, in your local neighbourhood (especially when you realise how endangered some everyday nature is) is a prompt to become engaged in the conservation of nature personally, and to promote the conservation of local nature through political advocacy.
What follows is a series of photographs (presented in chronological order) of a circular walking route from my front door in Sutherland Road (via the Craven Vale estate, Craven Wood, Whitehawk Hill/Whitehawk Allotments, Whitehawk Hill Local Nature Reserve/the Race Hill, Sheepcote Valley (East Brighton Nature Reserve), East Brighton Park, Marlow Road, Manor Way, Donald Hall Road, Whitehawk Hill Road, Whitehawk Hill, Craven Wood).
None of the things that I saw were particularly rare, although the House Sparrows, Herring Gulls, and Starlings are on the RSPB Red List i.e. highest conservation priority, due to:
Severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years, or longer-term period (the entire period used for assessments since the first BoCC review, starting in 1969).
Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period.; but everything I saw fascinated me.
and thus, I believe, they require us to put in effort to conserve them.
House Sparrows, 08.43. Sutherland Road.
This bush was alive with the sound of House Sparrows singing; and is almost opposite my house. (I am very poor at identifying trees, shrubs and other plants; this is a future project for learning; it is always good to have something new to learn). I see House Sparrows in my back garden, mostly in the honeysuckle bushes (maximum I have seen is 14 at the same time) and front garden in the buddleia (maximum I have seen is 5), and they nest in the eaves of our porch. House Sparrows are adorable, and come in many shades of brown;.
"Noisy and gregarious, these cheerful exploiters of man's rubbish and wastefulness have managed to colonise most of the world. The ultimate avian opportunist perhaps. Monitoring suggests a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population, recently estimated as dropping by 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008 with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations. While the decline in England continues, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate recent population increases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland." (RSPB)
(Throughout this post (RSPB) denotes that this quote is from the main entry on this bird from the RSPB website: The RSPB Wildlife Charity: Nature Reserves & Wildlife Conservation - you can use the RSPB search facility to find this quote and more information on this bird)
"Here are five simple things you can do in your gardens to encourage House Sparrows.
Let an area of your garden go wild to encourage insects.
Plant species such as hawthorn and Ivy which provide thick vegetation for House Sparrows to hide in.
Provide your birds with a home, using either a House Sparrow terrace or a group of nest boxes (with 32mm entrance holes) near the eaves of your house.
If you feed your birds, provide them with a suitable seed mix that includes large grains.
Regularly clean your feeding stations to prevent disease."
Woodpigeon, 08.44. Sutherland Road.
Woodpigeons are very common; but that does not mean they are not beautiful or interesting; they are both. I enjoy their loud noise they make when leaving tress when I am walking in the countryside; and their comical puffed-up visage when they are cold and/or wet.
"The UK's largest and commonest pigeon, the woodpigeon is largely grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches, clearly visible in flight.. Although shy in the countryside it can be tame and approachable in towns and cities. Its cooing call is a familiar sound in woodlands as is the loud clatter of its wings when it flies away." (RSPB)
Herring Gull, 08.46. Craven Road
What could be more iconic of Brighton that an adult Herring Gull (often just called "Seagulls" in Brighton, not that there is a species called "Seagull", despite Brighton and Hove Albion FC's mascot "Gully the Seagull".)
"Herring gulls are large, noisy gulls found throughout the year around our coasts and inland around rubbish tips, fields, large reservoirs and lakes, especially during winter. Adults have light grey backs, white under parts, and black wing tips with white 'mirrors'. Their legs are pink, with webbed feet and they have heavy, slightly hooked bills marked with a red spot. Young birds are mottled brown. This species is on the red list due to ongoing population declines and wintering population declines." (RSPB)
"The most well-known and most belligerent of all our gulls, the herring gull, is now a red listed species of conservation concern. You may find this hard to believe as they are a very vocal species that is not easy to overlook and can still be found at most coastal locations and many inland as well. However, their breeding population has declined from 750,000 pairs in 1993 to 378,000 pairs according to the most recent figures.
The internationally important numbers of non-breeding herring gulls which spend winter here have also fallen by over 50 per cent, according to the long-term trends. Herring gulls have dropped in number at their coastal sites by 53 per cent since 1969. Despite an increase at inland nesting sites, they are still declining overall.
One of the main reasons for the decline is the lack of food for them in the coastal environment. The overfishing of UK coastal waters and warming seas caused by climate change are likely to be the main reasons for the reduced amount of food available to gulls and other seabirds.
Due to the lack of fish, the fishing fleets have also now dwindled, which has reduced the amount of fish processing waste that used to be discarded and was scavenged by gulls. Other factors include the loss of suitable coastal nesting sites, botulism and killing by humans.
Other familiar gull species that occur in the UK - such as the kittiwake, black-headed gull and lesser black-backed gull - are on the amber list, so we are concerned about them as well.
To help save our declining gull species, seabirds and other marine wildlife, we are campaigning for more protection for our marine environment. One way would be the creation of Marine Conservation Zones. The RSPB: Ask an expert: My brother thinks that seagulls are endangered, which I find hard to believe. Is this true?
Craven Wood is an area of tress on the west side of Whitehawk Hill and is maintained by Friends of Craven Wood volunteers: "What had been allotments until some 40-50 years ago had degenerated into sycamore scrub, and a portion of this has now been removed to make way for a hazel coppice, an orchard of Sussex varieties of fruit trees, two plantations of native shrubs and trees, and two wild-flower glades. We have already been repaid - the number of butterfly species has increased from seven to twenty-four since work began in late 2011" Friends of Craven Wood.
Craven Wood is a haven of peace in our busy city.
Blackbird, 09.10, Craven Wood, "Jacob's Ladder" steps.
Male Blackbirds, with their jet-black feathers, bright orange beaks, beautiful song, and friendly natures, are one of the UK's most loved birds. Their ubiquity often results in them being overlooked as the interesting as the beautiful bird that they are.
"The males live up to their name but, confusingly, females are brown often with spots and streaks on their breasts. The bright orange-yellow beak and eye-ring make adult male blackbirds one of the most striking garden birds. One of the most common UK birds, its mellow song is also a favourite". (RSPB)
Their attachment to their mates in endearing: "This species is monogamous, and the established pair will usually stay together as long as they both survive." Snow, David; Perrins, Christopher M., eds. (1998). The Birds of the Western Palearctic concise edition (2 volumes). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN0-19-854099-X. p1215–1218
"A yellow bill and eye ring are usually obtained before or during the first breeding season and, once attained, remain as the bird ages. Bill colour is strongest during the breeding season and older individuals tend to be more strongly coloured than younger ones". (BTO)
The sound of Blackbirds from Hebridean Wild
I love birdsong, but I am very poor at identifying particular birds' songs - this is another learning project I have in mind! There are a few birds songs that I can identify immediately: House Sparrows, Herring Gulls, Fulmars, Oystercatchers, Magpies, Wood Pigeons; but many I don't recognise at all. It is important to know a range of common birds songs, as many birds in local environments are heard but rarely seen, this is especially true of birds like Nightingales
I find recording birdsong with a field sound recorder very relaxing. You can listen to the sounds of birds emanating from the trees and shrubs above by clicking here - recoded this morning on Whitework Hill
Greenfinch, 09.36, Whitehawk Hill.
This is a terrible photograph; below it is a better photograph of a small flock of Greenfinches, taken on 04/02/21 in the same tree on Whitehawk Hill.
Greenfinches are, I think, one of the most beautiful of all "garden" birds; although I never see them in my garden (where I see only House Sparrows, Blue Tits, Robins, Feral Pigeons, Woodpigeons, and Herring Gulls); bit I see them only on Whitehawk Hill regularly.
"Its twittering, wheezing song and flash of yellow and green as it flies, make this finch a truly colourful character. Nesting in a garden conifer, or feasting on black sunflower seeds, the greenfinch is a regular garden visitor, able to take advantage of food in rural and urban gardens. Although quite sociable, they may squabble among themselves or with other birds at the bird table. Greenfinch populations declined during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but increased dramatically during the 1990s. A recent decline in numbers has been linked to an outbreak of trichomonosis, a parasite-induced disease which prevents the birds from feeding properly." (RSPB)
Views of the Sea from Whitehawk Hill
Herring Gulls, 10.02, flying around the housing blocks of the Whitehawk Estate Extension (1964) known locally as the "Bird Blocks", (Swanborough Drive): Kingfisher Court; Kestrel Court; Heron Court; Falcon Court.
Herring Gulls are common in Brighton but they rarely elicit conversation, except for the ubiquitous, and often humorous tales of Herring Gull chip stealing from unwitting tourists in Brighton.
But their commonness (to Brightonians), and great size, and the fact that Brighton and Hove Albion FC's nickname is The Seagulls, could be used as a stimulus for engaging people (especially children) in conservation to promote ecological awareness; through exploring topics like: knowledge that Herring Gull numbers are declining nationally; where Herring Gulls nest; the aging Herring Gulls from their plumage; Herring Gull numbers decline, what Herring Gulls eat
Views of the sea from the top of Sheepcote Valley
Views of Sheepcote Valley
In Sheepcote Valley, I saw a Dunnock and some Great Tits; but none of them perched for long enough to photo. The valley can be full of birds to see; The Friends of Sheepcote Valley website lists birds that can be seen there:
"In all seasons you will see green woodpeckers, meadow pipits, stonechats, blackbirds and all the common garden birds. There are always small flocks of brightly coloured goldfinches and linnets with their jerky, flight patterns. Check out any puddles for wagtails, both pied and grey.
The managed meadow grassland gives good cover for ground-nesting birds such as skylarks. This is a major breeding area for these much-loved songsters. Keep a look out for birds of prey kestrels, sparrowhawks, and maybe even a hobby. And then, of course, there are the Gulls herring and blackheaded mainly.
Seasonal Visitors : As spring arrives so do the summer visitors : wheatears, black redstarts, common redstarts, spotted and pied flycatchers. The shrubs along the valley are soon alive with whitethroats, willow warblers, dunnocks, greenfinches and many others. There is always the possibility of rarer birds ; firecrests, ring ouzels, and even perhaps an osprey coming in from the sea, en-route from Africa on its way to a Scottish loch.
April and May see the huge influx of swallows, house and sand martins, and swifts. Sheepcote is their first landfall after crossing the Channel on the final stage of their journey from South Africa.
From July and August onwards everything goes into reverse, as the birds return to the Mediterranean and South Africa for winter.
September and October bring fieldfares and redwings from Scandinavia to feast on the hawthorn berries in the valley. Occasionally rare passage migrants stop by; wrynecks and tiny Pallas's and yellow-browed warblers sometimes cause a flurry of birdwatching excitement.
So, there is always something to see, whatever the season.
Good luck, and happy birdwatching!"
To date, all I have seen here are Stonechats, Dunnocks, Black-headed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Carrion Crows, and the odd Kestrel, but today I only saw a hiding Dunnock, Gulls, and Crows
Carrion Crow, 11.11, Sheepcote Valley
Crows, like all corvids, are curious and can problem solve. Their beahviour is fascinating to watch, I have seen them on the beach drop molluscs from the air (whilst flying up) to crack the shells to access the soft part to eat.
"The all-black carrion crow is one of the cleverest, most adaptable of our birds. It is often quite fearless, although it can be wary of man. They are fairly solitary, usually found alone or in pairs, although they may form occasional flocks. The closely related hooded crow has recently been split as a separate species. Carrion crows will come to gardens for food and although often cautious initially, they soon learn when it is safe, and will return repeatedly to take advantage of whatever is on offer." (RSPB)
"ANYONE WHO HAS watched crows, jays, ravens and other members of the corvid family will know they're anything but "birdbrained. For instance, jays will sit on ant nests, allowing the angry insects to douse them with formic acid, a natural pesticide which helps rid the birds of parasites. Urban-living carrion crows have learned to use road traffic for cracking tough nuts. They do this at traffic light crossings, waiting patiently with human pedestrians for a red light before retrieving their prize.
Yet corvids may be even cleverer than we think. A new study suggests their cognitive abilities are a match for primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Furthermore, crows may provide clues to understanding human intelligence.
Published tomorrow in the journal Science, the study is co-authored by Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton, from the departments of animal behavior and experimental psychology at Cambridge University, England.
They say that, while having very different brain structures, both crows and primates use a combination of mental tools, including imagination and the anticipation of possible future events, to solve similar problems. They base their argument on existing studies. Emery and Clayton write, "These studies have found that some corvids are not only superior in intelligence to birds of other avian species (perhaps with the exception of some parrots), but also rival many nonhuman primates."
Increasingly, scientists agree that it isn't physical need that makes animal smart, but social necessity. Group living tends to be a complicated business, so for individuals to prosper they need to understand exactly what's going on. So highly social creatures like dolphins, chimps, and humans tend to be large-brained and intelligent."
Woodpigeon, 11.39, East Brighton Park
Black-headed Gull, 11.42, East Brighton Park
Black-headed Gulls, especially in their non-black headed winter plumage, are I believe the prettiest of the common gulls. They are less common than Herring Gulls in Brighton; although nationally they have amber conservation status rather than the red status of Herring Gulls. From my observation of them in the sea on heavy seas, they are the best gull at surfing heavy seas.
"Not really a black-headed bird, more chocolate-brown - in fact, for much of the year, it has a white head. It is most definitely not a 'seagull' and is found commonly almost anywhere inland. Black-headed gulls are sociable, quarrelsome, noisy birds, usually seen in small groups or flocks, often gathering into larger parties where there is plenty of food, or when they are roosting." (RSPB)
Woodpigeon, 11.44, East Brighton Park
House Sparrows, 11.48, Marlow Road
These birds appeared to be looking for nest sights.
"Nests are often placed in holes and crevices within buildings and they will readily use nestboxes. Free-standing nests are also frequently built, in creepers against walls and in thick hedges or conifers. Pairs often remain faithful to their nest site and to each other for life, although a lost mate of either sex is normally replaced within days. A hole is filled with dry grass or straw with a nesting chamber lined with feathers, hairs, string and paper. Feathers may be plucked from a live pigeon! The main nesting season is from April to August, although nesting has been recorded in all months. Most birds lay two or three clutches, but in a good year fourth attempts are not uncommon." (RSPB)
Starlings, 11.52, around Marlow Road
I often see Starling on aerials, chimney pots, and telephone wires in East Brighton, and on tables eating cake crumbs at Carats Cage, Southwick. And of course I see them in Brighton's famous Palace Pier and West Pier murmurations. Whilst I enjoy murmurations I prefer them close-up, as their iridescence is extraordinarily beautiful; they are to me Britain's Humming Birds - in terms of plumage.
"Smaller than blackbirds, with a short tail, pointed head, triangular wings, starlings look black at a distance but when seen closer they are very glossy with a sheen of purples and greens. Their flight is fast and direct and they walk and run confidently on the ground. Noisy and gregarious, starlings spend a lot of the year in flocks. Still one of the commonest of garden birds, its decline elsewhere makes it a Red List species." (RSPB)
Starling numbers have declined markedly across much of northern Europe and the UK. The decline in the UK started during the early 1980s and has continued ever since. Recent data from the Breeding Bird Survey suggest continuing population declines affecting starlings in England and Wales since 1995. The cause of the starling decline in the UK is unknown. Long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows that starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s. Because of this decline in numbers, the starling is red listed as a bird of high conservation concern. Starling Population Trends and Conservation - The RSPB
Starlings are sociable and gregarious birds. During autumn and winter, they gather in communal night-time roosts in places such as reedbeds and on buildings. They spend the day feeding in smaller flocks but as dusk approaches, they fly to these communal roosts. Several thousand birds or even hundreds of thousands of starlings make spectacular scenes whirling around above the roost site. New flocks arrive from all directions all the time, before all the birds finally fly down to roost still chattering away to each other. The sudden disappearance of starlings from an area in winter could be caused by a major roost site becoming unavailable to the birds. This forces them to relocate, resulting in the abandonment of some feeding areas. This is often the case in cities, where they are actively discouraged from buildings. The UK Starling Population | Where Have All The Birds Gone? - The RSPB
I think Starlings are something very special, like White Rhinos, Kakapos, and Arctic Wolves: something one day we may loose altogether: Starlings in the town. These are East Brighton Starlings - between Wilson Avenue and Whitehawk Road, on aerials, telephone wires and on roofs. This used to be a very common sight, but for some people, in some places, they never see a Starling in a town now. I know we see a lot in murmurations in Brighton, but murmurations are much smaller than they used to be. I never see Starlings in my back garden: when I was a child they were ten a penny in our back garden. The decline in Starling numbers is mostly due to changing use of land - reduction in their foraging habitat (same issue for Lapwings). Whilst global warming is a threat to abundance and diversity, changes to land use - including building on green and brown-field land, destruction of wetlands, and intensive business-led monoculture farming, that destroys hedgerows and does not include fallow land/crop rotation - is responsible for the decline in abundance of many UK birds and insects, and the national extinction of some, e.g. the short-haired bumblebee.
How to help Starlings by the RSPB Starling Nest Box Plans | DIY Startling Bird House - The RSPB
Put up a starling nest box in your garden and give them a safe home where they can roost and raise their chicks.
Our starling populations have plummeted by about two-thirds since the 1970s. The good news is that they readily take to new nestboxes we put up. You can put up a starling box whenever you like, but early spring is ideal - ready for the nesting season, which starts in April. Watch them taking in twigs and straw while nest building. And then listen for the loud chicks once they hatch, clamouring for attention as their parents bring in food! If you don’t have time or the DIY skills, why not buy a box (or two! Starlings like having neighbours).
What you will need
A plank of FSC timber 18cm x 1.6m x 1.5-1.8cm thick
Pencil and tape measure
Strip of waterproof rubber
Ideally a special drill bit for making 4.5cm round holes
Find a suitable place for your nestbox. It will need to be under the eaves of your house or on a mature tree. Make sure you have permission before erecting any box on a property. It should be at least 3m (10 feet) from the ground, facing somewhere between north and east to avoid it getting too hot or wet. It needs to be out of direct sunlight, and ideally not over a doorway, window or well-used path.
Make sure you have the right wood. The thickness is important to insulate the box from cold and heat, and to stop the box warping. You can use exterior-quality plywood (for a light box) or, for something more durable, hardwoods (such as oak and beech) or soft wood (such as pine, but this will deteriorate more quickly). Buy timber approved by the Forest Stewardship Council – look for the FSC logo – that has not been pressure treated.
Measure and cut your wood. Mark and saw your plank according to the diagram. Remember to drill some holes in the bottom for drainage. If you don't have the special drill bit for making a 4.5cm round hole, you can use a jigsaw to cut a square or wedge-shaped hole at the top of the front. Note: the dimensions shown are for 15mm thick wood. If your wood is different to that, the dimensions of the Base should be 180mm by 180mm minus 2 x thickness, eg if the wood is 18mm thick, the base should be 180mm x 144mm.
Nail all the pieces, except the roof, together. The sides, back and front 'wrap around' the base.
Attach the roof. It’s best to use screws rather than nails so you can get into the box at a later stage to clean it out. Use a waterproof strip to make a hinge along the top edge, such as a piece of bicycle tyre inner tube, damp-proof membrane or roofing felt. Drill guide holes at the top and bottom of the box's backing plate. This is where you’ll screw the box to its final home.
Put your box up. If fixing to a wall, use screws and Rawlplugs. If fixing to a tree, use adjustable ties so you don’t harm the tree, like thick fencing wire threaded through a strip of hosepipe, with the bare ends twisted together at the back. As the tree grows you can adjust the wire. If you don't have wire and pipe, you can use timberfix bolts screwed into the tree.
Once the box is up, watch in spring for a pair coming to claim their new home. They will take in twigs and straw and then things may go quiet during incubation. However, once the chicks have hatched, you'll hear the chicks clamouring for attention as their parents bring in food! While it is tempting to take a peek into your newly-built nestbox, birds don't like disturbance and are protected by law when they’re raising a family. So just sit back and enjoy from a distance.
Herring Gulls, 11.49, Marlow Road
An iconic view of Herring Gulls on chimney pots, which can be seen all over Brighton.
A flight of a small flock of Feral Pigeons, 11.49, over Whitehawk Road
Starlings, 11.48-11.52, Manor Way
House Sparrows, 12.00, Manor Way
Feral Pigeons, 12.02, Donald Hall Road
Much-maligned by many, and obsessively loved some Brightonians, Feral Pigeons have very beautiful plumage.
"There is no strict division between pigeons and doves, which share certain features. These features include their small, rounded heads, small, slim bills with a small fleshy patch at the base, rounded bodies with dense, soft feathers, tapered wings and short, scaly legs, and cooing or crooning calls. The wild rock dove has long been domesticated and ‘escaped’ to live wild as the familiar town pigeon. There are many species all over the world." (RSPB)
I have given Feral Pigeons; the longest quote in this blog, as they are the most maligned bird in the UK; and they deserve rehabilitation
"Pigeons are among the most maligned urban wildlife despite the fact that human beings brought them to our shores and turned them loose in our cities – not something that they chose” – Ingrid Newkirk
Pigeons; dare I say that no other bird inspires such blatant contempt among Britain’s human populace. Farmers, city goers, council workers, gardeners and cleaners, many hold the pigeon in appallingly low regard. Others, like me, adore Pigeons though I fear I stand amid a ebbing minority in this regard. Whatever your stance it is hard to deny that the story of the humble pigeon is a fascinating one.
More than any other bird it seems, the history of the Feral Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) is intricately intertwined with that of our own, often in intriguing fashion. Throughout the centuries the pigeon has adorned our tables, delivered our messages, acted as a religious symbol and developed into a beloved pet. Only to be cast down in a hail of air rifle pellets. How is it that this resilient and undeniably successful bird has gained the demeaning title of ‘flying rat’? How is it that this once revered comrade now stands as public enemy number one? Pigeons have truly gone from riches rags though I for one am saddened by this exponential fall from grace.
The Feral Pigeon can trace its ancestry back to the Rock Dove (Columba livia), a species of pigeon native to the coastal cliffs of Southern Europe, North Africa and South Asia. Long ago, these birds coexisted alongside humans and soon learnt that humans offered a reliable source of nutrients in the form of seed and grain. Unlucky for the Pigeons we too shared the sentiment. Soon enough the people of Mesopotamia and Sumer provided the wild doves with safe places to roost and created nest houses amid towns and farms and thus the long process of domestication begun. Whereas Red Jungle Fowl (the relative of today’s chickens) provided a sustainable source of protein in much of Asia, pigeons fed the growing populations of Europe and the Middle East though it did not take long for humans to realise that there was more to Pigeons than a tasty morsel.. Years after their domestication for culinary purposes pigeons rose from a mere ingredient to a celebrated religious icon. This ascent to the heavens came about upon the realisation that pigeons display many behaviours that we humans hold in high esteem. Pigeons are monogamous, meaning that they are faithful to only one partner during the breeding season. Whilst breeding, both male and female pigeons evenly distribute the parental duties and both display a fierce protection instinct at the nest. Couple this with the famed homing instinct and it is little wonder that people began to revere the pigeon for living what for all intents and purposes seemed like an idyllic and above all else, pure existence. Following this, Pigeons became exalted in many cultures and faiths. Noah famously released a Dove (white pigeon) from his Ark whereas elsewhere the ancient goddesses Aphrodite and Venus were represented by doves and in China the pigeon was later revered as a symbol of fidelity and longevity. The famed homing instinct of the pigeon, immortalised in the Holy Bible, allowed the Pigeon to ascend to even greater heights. Now the pigeon took on a whole new use, its ingrained instinct to return home making it the ideal candidate to carry human messages. Exploited for this purpose as early as Greek and Roman times the role of the Pigeon throughout history cannot be overstated. Writing in the 14th century, Sir John Manderville records their use throughout the Middle East, an account that wonderfully explains the usefulness of Pigeons in times of human warfare and strife. He writes:
“The people of these countries have a strange custom in times of war and siege; when they dare not send out messengers with letters to ask for help, they write their letters and tie them to the neck of a colver (pigeon) and let the colver fly away. They immediately seek the place where they have been brought up and nourished and are at once relieved of their messages by their owners and desired aid is sent to the besieged.”
The use of Pigeons in times of war continued for hundreds of years, throughout both World Wars. The British Intelligence Service even used Pigeons to deliver messages to resistance movements and sympathisers operating in enemy territory throughout France and Germany. Indeed by the 20th Century the status of the Pigeon had reached a new high, commended and praised the Pigeon stood supreme as one of our most useful animal allies. A fact made clear by the famed case of Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon responsible for saving the lives of 200 servicemen during World War 1. Translating to “Dear Friend” in French, Cher Ami was only Pigeon, or indeed to the best of my knowledge animal, to ever be awarded with a medal for gallantry. Cher Ami received the French Croix de Guerre and now stands triumphant in the Smithsonian Institute where his story has been immortalised for all to read. The harrowing story of Cher Ami can be found here, completed with a poem written in his honour by Harry Wed Farrington. Baring all this in mind, how is it then that the pigeon has fallen so spectacularly from grace? Made redundant by technological advances the story of the Pigeon in the 21st Century is a much grimmer affair..
In the present day our opinions on Pigeons have shifted massively. Where once we favoured them, worshiped them even, we now persecute them relentlessly. Many see the Pigeon as a menace, plundering crops, befouling our cities and looking ungainly in bus stations the world over. Pigeons are shot, poisoned and trapped with immunity throughout the UK and further afield, whilst buildings are adorned with spikes and nets, pigeon proofed to deter the winged ones from invading our homes and residences. Though I admit that in the right circumstances an excess of Pigeons can become a problem I cannot help but admire the grit and determination of the Feral Pigeon. Indeed, no other species with the exception of man has colonised the world with such vigour. Pigeons are now found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica and have taken readily to our towns and cities, habitats that pose problems for the vast majority of species. To me, the global domination of the Pigeon is something to be celebrated, not scoffed at. I for one make a habit of feeding Pigeons whenever I venture into the city. To me their cooing and rather comical courtship displays are all part of life in an urban setting. To me, the Feral Pigeon is beautiful, their iridescent colouration and charming behaviours overlooked simply due to abundance. Perhaps before judging these resourceful birds we should take a step back and assess just what this iconic symbol of human/wildlife cooperation has done for us. It is after all rather ironic that we bare such prejudice against the city pigeon following cooperative triumphs in the past; under no circumstances should our past debt to this charismatic bird be forgotten."
Magpie, 12.26, Craven Woods
The Magpie is a beautifully coloured bird; they are not just black and white; but black and whist and blue; as can be seen in the photo below this one (which I took later in the day in Woodvale Crematorium, whilst waiting for my bike to have a service in a bike repair shop
A view of Freshfield Industrial Estate - the location of the former Kemptown Railway Station, from Craven Woods
Great Tit, 12.18, Craven Wood
The beautiful and unmistakable Great Tit. Whist a common bird to see, every time I see a Great Tit I feel in awe of nature.
"The largest UK tit - green and yellow with a striking glossy black head with white cheeks and a distinctive two-syllable song. It is a woodland bird which has readily adapted to man-made habitats to become a familiar garden visitor. It can be quite aggressive at a birdtable, fighting off smaller tits. In winter it joins with blue tits and others to form roaming flocks which scour gardens and countryside for food."
Robin, 12.19, Craven Wood
The quintessential British winter bird; but is this bird British.
"The UK's favourite bird - with its bright red breast it is familiar throughout the year and especially at Christmas! Males and females look identical, and young birds have no red breast and are spotted with golden brown. Robins sing nearly all year round and despite their cute appearance, they are aggressively territorial and are quick to drive away intruders. They will sing at night next to street lights." (RSPB)
But this Robin may not be a "British" Robin; it may by from Northern Europe (mostly Scandinavia) or Russia
"European robins (Erithacus rubecula) live throughout Europe (except in the far north), Russia and western Siberia. British and Irish robins are largely sedentary, and most do not move more than 5km. Those that do are usually adult males moving between their breeding and winter territories.
However, some UK robins, mostly females, will cross the Channel to spend their winters in warmer climes, in some cases as far south as southern Spain and Portugal. Continental birds also pass through on the east coast of the UK on passage further south.
At the same time, our resident birds are joined by immigrants from Scandinavia, continental Europe and Russia, which come to the UK to avoid the severe winters there. These visiting birds are generally paler in colour and are less 'tame' than UK birds. This is likely to be because in their home countries they are woodland birds and have less contact with humans.
Much research has been carried out into the lives of robins and it has revealed that they are one of the few UK species that sing all year round. Both males and females sing to declare and defend their own individual territories outside the breeding season, and their songs are more or less identical.
Around Christmas-time, robins begin to explore other robins' territories in the hope of finding a mate. The majority will have paired up by mid-January and the females will stop their territorial singing. However, the males will continue to sing to declare the 'ownership' of what has now become a joint future breeding territory; one which they will fight to the death to defend - in some populations, up to 10% of adult mortality is accounted for by territorial disputes. ( RSPB)
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(ii) Nisbet, Elizabeth. (2013). Connecting Citizen Scientists with Nature Promotes Nature Relatedness and Well-Being. Conference: Sustainability Psychology Preconference (Society for Personality and Social Psychology)
(iii) Spirituality and wellbeing in later life: a multidimensional approach Rinat Lifshitz, Galit Nimrod & Yaacov G. Bachner To cite this article: Rinat Lifshitz, Galit Nimrod & Yaacov G. Bachner (2018): Spirituality and wellbeing in later life: a multidimensional approach, Aging & Mental Health, DOI: 10.1080/13607863.2018.1460743 https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2018.1460743
(iv) Snodgrass, Jeffrey. (2008). Indigenous Religions and Environments: Intersections of Animism and Nature Conservation [edited journal issue]. Journal for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture. 2. 5-158.
(v) "We should therefore, with grace and optimism, embrace non-overlapping magesteria’s tough-minded demand: Acknowledge the personal character of these human struggles about morals and meanings, and stop looking for definite answers in nature's construction. But many people cannot bear to surrender nature as a “transitional object”—a baby's warm blanket for our adult comfort. But when we do (for we must), nature can finally emerge in her true form: not as a distorted mirror of our needs, but as our most fascinating companion. Only then can we unite the patches built by our separate magisteria into a beautiful and coherent quilt called wisdom." Steven Jay Gould Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Ballantine, 1999), p. 178
(vi) Freya Mathews (2011) Panpsychism as Paradigm Published in Michael Blamauer (ed), The Mental as Fundamental in “Process Thought Series” (Ed. Nicholas Rescher, Johanna Seibt and Michel Weber),Ontos Verlag, Frankfurt Heusenstamm,