• Sim Elliott

Rocky the Rock Pipit: animal-human relations, well-being & conservation.

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Whilst this post was written on 29/01/21, I will add photos of Rocky when I see him/her susequently.

"Theodore Roszak identified loss of an animist sensibility as a significant cause of both ecological crisis and existential discontent. [I] call for a democratic and dialogical ecopsychology capable of engaging with other-than-human agency as well as the full spectrum of human vulnerability, and [I] argue that contemporary animist responses to dualism and transcendental spirituality need to attend to extra-ordinary experience. Across many cultures, past and present, birds mediate between humans and a divine realm and are associated with beliefs about, or experiences suggesting, survival beyond death. ... My relationship with kingfishers and a close friend’s relationship with corvids came about, and developed, under very different circumstances ... a sequence of timely appearances by birds illuminated the latter’s death. Brian Taylor. The generosity of birds: Ecopsychology, animism, and intimate encounter with wild others. European Journal of Ecopsychology 6: 1-22 (2018)

Rocky, Thursday 07/01/21

I have been cycling along the Undercliff path since October, when my mother got her diagnosis of lymphoma. I decided to give up going to my mother's by bus, and cycle instead, to reduce the risk of covid-19 transmission. I cycle to Rottingdean to see her three times a week; as the top of the cliff path is hilly, the Undercliff path is a better option; it is flat, beautiful and offers an opportunity for bird watching.

From 1st October 2020 to 4th January 2021 I did not pay much attention to the birds en route to Rottingdean, except the "big ones" (Little Egrets, Oystercatchers, Grey Herons etc.). I didn't pay that much attention to the other birds en route as I considered myself a birder elsewhere (specifically Cuckmere Haven, the Adur Estuary, Shoreham Beach, Widewater Lagoon, Lancing Beach and Goring Gap). I compartmentalised birdwatching and ordinary living.

Rocky, Friday 08/01/21

Lockdown III came as a bombshell; I felt very greatly saddened that I wouldn't be able to travel out of my local area; and this contributed to my low mood, arising from my mother's illness and the death-saturated environment in which we live, where ever-increasing deaths are reported on the TV, radio, in papers and on social media. My Adur Estuary, Shoreham Beach and Widewater Lagoon bird watching was very important to my wellbeing; they promoted resilience. I pondered what to do, and decided to try and make a virtue from a necessity; I would note and record every species I saw on my local travels (the Undercliff ride, and walks in my local woods in my local area (Craven Woods/Whitehawk Hill; Stanmer Woods; and Hollingbury/Burstead Woods).

I have taken a photo of each species I have seen each day since January 5th (expect Herring Gulls, Wood Pigeons, Feral Pigeons, Carrion Crows, Magpies, and House Sparrows, as I see those birds every day without any conscious effort to pay attention to birds in my local environment).

Rocky, Tuesday 12/01/21

I have recorded photos of the species I have seen each day on a new Facebook Page: Sim's 2021 Lockdown 2021 Bird Project I have also recorded the species I have seen since 5th January in a BUBO list and, over the last few days, I have been entering my observations in eBird. eBird is a citizen science project; it "began with a simple idea goal is to gather this information in the form of checklists of birds, archive it, and freely share it to power new data-driven approaches to science, conservation and education."

Apart from the fascination I have with the Fulmar colony at Ovingdean, the bird that has most engaged me on my trips along the Undercliff, is a little Rock Pipit. I am now calling this Rock Pipit, Rocky. I know that is anthropomorphic, but I think that is OK. I have built up a relationship with Rocky; he/she has become important to my wellbeing.

Rocky, Thursday 14/01/21

I have seen (and photographed) Rocky every time I have cycle along the undercliff (the foot and cycle path under the chalk cliffs between Brighton Marina and Saltdean), since the beginning of Lockdown III. He/she is always in the same place. I have to admit, I originally thought Rocky was a Song Thrush, until I realized that his/her habitat was typical of a Rock Pipit and not a Song Thrush.

Today (Friday 29/01/21) I got off my bike where Rocky normally is, and he wasn't there. I took some photos of Herring Gull's in flight, and I looked round and Rocky was walking toward me.

Was he pleased to see me; was he coming to greet me? Who knows?

Rocky, Friday 15/01/21

I may just be an object in his normal area for foraging. But it is better to think that Rocky recognized me even of he didn't; it's good for my well-being in times where human contact has been severely disrupted. Moreover, thinking that Rocky does recognize me and have emotions, results in me wanting to conserve Rocky, and all the other Rockys (other Rock Pipits, other birds, other animals, all life).

It is probably certain that Rocky can't think in a way that involves symbolic language, but, like other birds, he probably has learnt series of behaviours to solve problems. Rocky certainly feels in some way (viscerally not verbally) as all animals have emotions, as they are evolutionary action cues for survival - feeling "scared" saves birds from predation (probably a sudden rush of cortisol without the language to describe the feel of it, but the feel of it is an action motivator).

Rocky, 19/01/21

But Rocky may actually recognize me. Douglas J. Levey, Gustavo A. Londoño, Judit Ungvari-Martin, Monique R. Hiersoux, Jill E. Jankowski, John R. Poulsen, Christine M. Stracey, and Scott K. Robinson, in "Urban mockingbirds quickly learn to identify individual humans". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 2, 2009) 106 (22) 8959-8962; found that: Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) nesting on the campus of a large university rapidly learn to assess the level of threat posed by different humans, and to respond accordingly. In a controlled experiment, we found that as the same human approached and threatened a nest on 4 successive days, mockingbirds flushed from their nest at increasingly greater distances from that human. A different human approaching and threatening the nest identically on the fifth day elicited the same response as the first human on the first day". John Fitzpatrick, an ornithologist at Cornell University commented. "It's amazing what a bird brain can do ,,, the findings expose the subtle interplay between the natural and human world. Most people assume that birds are minding their own business, ... when in reality they are quite in tune with the people passing by".

The connectedness that I have felt with Rocky has been important to my well-being over the last month. Seeing the increasing death total from covid-19 day after day is depressing and frightening; and caring for my mother, who is having chemotherapy, is stressful. I have needed Rocky.

There are various reasons why I think Rocky has helped me:

  • Rocky (and the other birds I see) have provided a distraction from troubling thoughts; I observe them mindfully and watch their behaviour for protected periods of time; when I do that I am in a flow state, where I am in full concentration on the birds I am looking at;

  • Recording my observations of Rocky (and the other birds I see) feels meaningful and purposeful, as it is contributing to a data set that can inform conservation;

  • In particular my "relationship" with Rocky has given me a sense of connection with the natural world; it has strengthened my love of nature; and given me a feeling of "attachment" to nature; a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself.

Natural England a few years ago produced a briefing on Connection to Nature (CTN); which summarised current research. Rebecca Lovell; Connection to Nature: evidence briefing

Technical Report (2016), Dorset Public Health - Greenspace Accessibility Mapping View project, University of Exeter. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.11320.55045. The report states:

"There is a small amount of evidence which suggests that the degree to which one feels a connection to nature may be associated with the frequency and type of visits made to the natural environment and may be one of a variety of factors which influence certain pro-environmental behaviours and beliefs. As of yet, the evidence base is small and cannot indicate the direction of any relationship.

  • A study of conservation volunteering suggested that CTN contributed to participant desire to benefit the environment through volunteering.

  • Connectivity with nature’ was found to be positively associated with environmental concern and pro-environmental behaviours in a sample of US landowners. CTN was found to have a modest association with vegetation management behaviours in a sample of US farmers.

  • Nature relatedness’ was found to correlate positively with the frequency of time spent in nature and outdoors. Canadian research found greater motivation to visit parks amongst those with higher CTN. A further study found that levels of ‘nature orientation’ was associated with the frequency and duration of visits to local parks, with non-park users tending to have lower levels of ‘nature relatedness’ than regular park users.

  • In a study carried out in the southwest of England CTN appeared to have an association with responses to different environmental conditions; participants who had higher levels of CTN rated clean and seaweedy beaches more positively than those with lower CTN.

Is there an association between connection to nature and health, wellbeing and educational outcomes?

  • There is some evidence to suggest that higher levels of CTN relate positively to outcomes such as better wellbeing, quality of life and educational performance. However, again the research base is small and due to the types of research designs used and lack of adjustment for confounding factors, our understanding of the direction of effect and strength of association is limited.

  • A (non-systematic) meta-analysis of 8,500 participants found small but significant association between CTN and happiness indicators

  • Positive associations between CTN and affect, autonomy, and personal growth (aspects of wellbeing) have been found in several studies

  • A review of studies suggested that there is some evidence of associations between CTN and life satisfaction and mood.

  • A study found positive associations between ‘nature relatedness’ and reduced levels of cognitive anxiety.

  • There is some evidence of an association between higher levels of CTN in children and higher achievement in English examinations (though not Maths).

But when I am with Rocky I am not considering metanalyses of the relationship between connectedness with nature and pro-ecological behaviour and well-being; I am just being with Rocky.

Rocky, Tuesday 26/01/21

"I became interested in ... [animism] after a series of startling encounters with birds illuminated a difficult and complex bereavement. It soon became clear to me that the rational scientific discourses of ecology and ornithology bracketed out a whole domain of experience, an entire range of phenomena, that had become fundamental to my understanding of the natural world. I also realised that I was far from alone, both in acknowledging such experiences, and in reaching this conclusion about the scientific paradigm. Many of our finest naturalists describe moments of inter-species communion, and convey a sense of what might be called the magic of nature.

Intimate, numinous, or spiritual encounters with birds often seem to occur around moments of biographical crisis, and especially - if the reports I have documented are anything to go by - around human and other-than-human deaths. Peter Fenwick, a British psychiatrist who has studied End of Life experiences, has also found that personally significant birds often appear in the flesh, or in dreams, around the time of a death. All of which opens up some very interesting questions."

As an animist I am concerned that we learn to work with birds in ways that acknowledge the depth of relationship and reciprocity that is possible across species boundaries. This, of course, necessarily entails learning about and respecting the needs of particular birds, and doing what we can to protect wild habitats in a time of anthropogenic mass extinctions."

Brian Taylor, Birds, Liminality, and Transformation Birds, Liminality, and Transformation | animist jottings (wordpress.com)

Rocky, Friday 29/01/21

Some information on Rock Pipits from the RSPB:

Key information

The rock pipit is a large stocky pipit, larger than a meadow pipit and smaller than a starling. It is streaky olive-brown above and dirty white underneath with dark streaking. It breeds around the coast where there are rocky beaches and most of the birds which breed in the UK are residents, with only the young birds dispersing once they become independent. Some birds arrive here from Norway to spend the winter.

What they eat: Insects, beetles, small fish, small shellfish and seeds.

Measurements: Length:16.5 cm Wingspan:23-28cmWeight: 20-30 g

Population: UK breeding:34,000 pairs

Conservation status: Green

Rocky, 30.01.21

Rocky, 31.01.21

Rocky's world extends from the Ovingdean Café to 250m south of the café, encompassing the cliff, the path and the beach. I was trying to understand why seeing him/her every trip along the undercliff is special to me. I think I have it. When you see a bird once, even though you know the bird is a life-form, it feels like you have observed an object, because the observation is a one-off event. One of the attributes of life is extension in time as well as space. When you see the same bird repeatedly it is extended in time; i e. it has life; its existence when not being observed is more tangible; which makes possible a deeper relationship. It is not one organism observing another one by chance; it is two life-forms whose extension in time and space frequently overlap. When I see a bird once, beyond looking at its photo, if I took one, I rarely think of it again. But I bear Rocky in mind; I sometimes wonder what she/he's doing when I'm not observing him/her.

Rocky, 02.02.21

Rocky, 06.01.21