Mark’s ultimate birdsong guide

MARK Avery knows a thing or two about birds.

He worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in 2011 to go freelance and was the wildlife charity’s conservation director for nearly 13 years.

WALK FOR WILDLIFE: Mark joins Chris Packham in Hyde Park in 2018

He’s also an author and blogger living in rural Northamptonshire, not to mention a tireless environmental campaigner, pictured above at Chris Packham’s 2018 People’s Walk for Wildlife in London.

Back in February his casual blog post about birdsong was meant to be a timely reminder about the wonders of the dawn chorus.

He wasn’t to know, of course, that within weeks the country would be in lockdown – and more people than ever before would be finding the sound of their local birds more reassuring and important than ever before.

DAWN CHORUS: a blue tit pictured by Yorkshire-based naturalist Tim Melling

In the first post he wrote about making his first cup of tea of the day at around 6am, taking a step outside the back door and hearing birdsong: a robin or two, a bunch of song thrushes and the occasional blackbird.

“Knowing the songs and calls of birds is a blessing,” he wrote. “I feel at home because I know those sounds, they are recognised, familiar, and loved.”

February is the time to start learning bird songs, he suggested, because there aren’t many bird species singing at this time of year so it’s not too confusing. “Start now. Start today,” he urged.

TWO-NOTE PHRASE: the great tit has an easily recognised refrain PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Try it and see – it’s fun,” he added. “All this stuff has been going on around you all your life but you may never have stopped to listen. Give it a try.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that his first choice of bird to focus on (and one to which he repeatedly returned in subsequent blogs) was the great tit. As a junior research assistant in the zoology department in Oxford he produced scientific papers about the two-note tee-cher, tee-cher phrases that make this one of the easiest birds for novice ears to identify.

Song thrushes, dunnocks and blackbirds followed, and by March 20 it was the turn of the chiffchaff to take centre stage, just days before lockdown.

CLARION CALL: the chiffchaff signals that spring is unfolding PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Whenever I hear that first chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for spring, what could be better than the song of the chiffchaff?” Mark wrote.

A lifetime of listening has helped him accumulate a recognition of a range of different songs, and his blog entries encourage newcomers to make a start, ideally in February before the chorus grows, swelled by less familiar migrants.

To help the uninitiated, his posts link to recordings on xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world.

GARDEN FRIEND: the robin can be vicious to other robins PICTURE: Tim Melling

Mark advises newcomers to try to spot the songster first: then listening to some songs on the website can help to identify the most common species.

His blog introduces birds one by one, including the sparky robin – “lovely eyes but they are vicious little b*ggers” – along with the greenfinch, chaffinch, wren, skylark, willow warbler and cuckoo.

CANDID CAMERA: Tim Melling sees himself first and foremost as a naturalist

Accompanied by some glorious photographs from Tim Melling, “a naturalist who happens to take photographs of wildlife rather than a proper wildlife photographer”, Mark’s guides started taking on a life of their own, growing to more than 20 by the middle of April:

Introduction
Great Tits
Song Thrush
Songs and calls
Dunnock
Blackbird
More on Great Tits
Chiffchaff
Even more on Great Tits
Yet more on Great Tits
Robin
Great Tits again
Greenfinch
Chaffinch
Wren
Skylark
Blackcap
Sonagrams
Willow Warbler
Cuckoo

SMALL WONDER: the wren is a small bird with a very loud voice PICTURE: Tim Melling

The positive feedback might have been due in part to the fact that lockdown encouraged many families to take a new look at the world around them, exploring local lanes close to their homes and discovering some of the small delights of nature perhaps for the first time.

It’s the same kind of explosion of interest in the natural world that made the Self-Isolating Bird Club such a success, with as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show hosted by Chris Packham and stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.

Back on Mark’s blog, the entries grew rapidly during April and May, boosted by early morning walks in the countryside near his home and by the enthusiastic exchanges with followers.

Accompanied by more evocative pictures from Tim Melling, the April and May entries extend the scope into much less familiar territory, featuring yellowhammers and whitethroats, curlews, turtle doves and wood warblers: “This bird’s song is sublimely evocative for me. Hearing it, anywhere, even sitting here at my computer, takes me immediately back to the Welsh oakwood on the RSPB Dinas nature reserve.”

SUBLIME SONG: the wood warbler evokes fond memories for Mark PICTURE: Tim Melling

Starling
Black Redstart
Garden Warbler
Sedge and Reed Warblers
Blue Tit
Yellowhammer
Why a dawn chorus?
Common and Lesser Whitethroats
Goldfinch
Nightingale
Oystercatcher
Golden Plover
Curlew
Lapwing
Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Dunlin
House Sparrow
Corn Bunting
Turtle Dove
Mistle Thrush
Bittern
Woodlark
Corncrake
Nightjar
Common Crane
Meadow Pipit
Wood Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Some favourites

UPLANDS FAVOURITE: the meadow pipit PICTURE: Tim Melling

By May, Mark had reached his half-century of posts about birdsong, a singular achievement and a project that has brought a great of pleasure to so many.

With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, he signed off with a message to subscribers which read: “It’s summer. I wonder what summer will bing in terms of wildlife to my garden and to my locality, and where we will all be in terms of coronavirus in another three months. It’s a bit difficult to tell isn’t it?

“But nature is a source of solace in these times of uncertainty. I just hope that the last few weeks and the coming few months will embed the importance of nature around us in more minds, in more actions and in more government policies. That is one way that we can try to build a better world after this period of reflection.”

MELODIOUS SONG: the blackcap PICTURE: Tim Melling

His followers probably share the same emotions. As one, Bimbling, put it: “I think the series has been wonderful and a great idea. Some of the blogs have prompted nostalgia, others desire. All have been interesting while some have been fascinating. So thank you so much for both the inspiration and effort to put them together. Much appreciated.”

Now we just need to wait to February for the dawn chorus to start again in earnest for a chance to make the most of Mark’s labour of love: his extraordinary 50-part audio-visual journey through our heaths, hedgerows and woodlands might mean listening to the birds outside on a spring morning is never quite the same again.

Bird lovers flock to support pigeons

PIGEONS have plenty of loyal devotees after all, it seems.

Not only did our recent blog singing their praises attract dozens of visitors to the site – making it the single most popular post since The Beyonder’s launch a year ago – but a coincidental mention of the birds in the Evening Standard echoed our sentiments too.

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Columnist Ellen E Jones was writing in the wake of  story about an RSPCA appeal for information about an unidentified person seen throwing nearly hatched pigeon eggs off the balcony of an Airbnb property in Holloway.

She was quick to throw her hat in the ring in praise of the Trafalgar Square stalwarts, pointing out how clean-living and monogamous they are.

Ellen wasn’t alone in feeling that the much-maligned birds were worthy of some long-overdue recognition.

When Aimee Wallis of Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue posted a link to the article on her Facebook page her supporters were only too quick to add their own words of praise and appreciation too.

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Not to mention all those wartime achievements, racing feats and Dickin medals, of course.

I may have been a little slow to realise the true talents of these feathered friends, but thanks to all who flocked to their support and proffered a range of supporting arguments about why we should be a lot more forgiving about the pigeons in our lives…

Time to give pigeons their due

I HAVE to confess that I’m feeling a little guilty.

There’s me thinking I love all our feathered friends equally, and it seems I have a secret prejudice against one particular garden visitor.

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I’ll gush over the antics of visiting robins, blackbirds and blue tits, and chuckle at the acrobatics of the thieving squirrels. But I have been rather less than generous in my welcome to the local pigeon population.

We relish the friendly quacking of the hungry ducks, the cute scuttling of the moorhens and the bewildered meandering of the stray pheasant, so why do the ubiquitous Percy, Woody and their tubby pigeon pals – who mysteriously all have stolid names like Stan, Clive and Norm (from Cheers) – not get the same red-carpet treatment?

The real extent of my subconscious discrimination was brought home to me last year when we stumbled across an injured pigeon. Doubtless indoctrinated by press references to pests and vermin, not to mention the disdain for the birds expressed by the shooting fraternity, I presumed we would be leaving the limping victim to its fate, and natural selection.

Partner Olivia had other ideas and after a quick call to the RSPCA our injured friend was duly delivered to the local vets’.

So where does this prejudice of mine stem from? Don’t I harbour dim memories of Jack Duckworth cooing over his beloved pigeons in Coronation Street, and weren’t many of these birds hailed as heroes during the war?

Our Buckinghamshire visitors are wood pigeons (columba palumbus) rather than the feral pigeons of the grimy London streets, and to be fair their purple and grey colouring is quite gorgeous in its own way, with those striking white neck patches.

But although they do tend to waddle round the neighbourhood like burly gangsters, there’s also something cute about the way they collectively roost in the local hedges, and a soothing reassurance in their constant cooing.

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But then even their grubby London counterparts have their supporters, despite being dubbed flying rats or being persecuted as pests, as Steve Harris explains in a feature for the Discover Wildlife website.

Oddly enough, the ancestors of these city slickers were the first birds to be domesticated, thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Since then, the rock pigeon (columba livia) has made an astonishing contribution to human wellbeing.

To help with background research, I turn to Aimee Wallis from the Corvid Dawn wild bird rescue sanctuary, remembering her enthusiasm for the birds from our visit there last May.

She says: “After corvids, pigeons were the second bird I completely fell in love with, mostly because I’d never paid them much attention before, but since rescuing them and working with them closely, I realised just how remarkable they are.

“Not only were they calm whilst being stitched up or glued together, like they knew you were helping them. They never forgot you: even as adults you can build a strong bond with a pigeon.

“They recognise faces, but not only that, they are extremely loving. They also pair for life. They will happily sit on your shoulder, preen your hair and try and follow you to work if they could.”

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Back in the day, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year, and in addition to food, pigeons produced guano so rich in nutrients that it played a key part in agricultural development.

Perhaps best of all, there was no need to catch and breed the birds. Just providing an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls, was enough – and some designs could accommodate thousands of sitting females.

Typically producing about 10 squabs a year, pigeons were a perfect source of protein until chickens emerged as being better suited to mass production.

But Darwin devoted much of the first chapter of On The Origin of Species to pigeons, and Aimee is full of respect for pigeons as parents. “The male bird produces crop milk as well as the mother and they share parenting equally,” she says.

“They make wonderful pets, you can free fly them and they will greet you from a long day and show up at your window in the mornings cooing away. They really are very special birds, with bags of character.”

Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were stolen from lofts in large numbers as live targets to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.

Even those who use pigeons largely as training tools for bird dogs are quick to praise their stoicism and endurance – even if the idea of surviving numerous retrieves “mangled and bloody” does not sound like the perfect life.

Writing in Outdoor Life in 2015, Scott Linden wrote: “But watching them roost, calmly ruffling feathers on a nest, elegantly circling the loft, even pecking the ground for grit, they are in many ways like our horses. Both exude a calming influence, a soft and peaceful aura enveloping nearby humans. There is therapy in being near them.”

Says Aimee: “One thing people aren’t aware of is these grey street birds are descendants from the war. Pigeon lofts were popular back then and people would eat their eggs and keep a flock in their garden, but sadly that died out and the lofts were brought down.

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“Many pigeons couldn’t be caught so they were left to fend for themselves. Once family pets and companions, they had to learn to scavenge around humans that once fed and housed them.

“Thankfully they managed to survive even as domesticated as they were. They stayed among humans in towns as they have no wild instincts as such, only their racing skills that help them escape the city sparrow hawk.

“I continue to crave raising these gorgeous Jurassic little babies each spring and love their speaking voices.”

What about pigeon racing, then? Although the pastime of rearing and racing pigeons is waning in popularity, this year saw an extraordinary story about the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons selling for over £1m at auction.

The headlines revealed how the sport had become a multi-million pound enterprise in China, with millionaire enthusiasts struggling to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets.

But Aimee believes the story behind the headlines is not such a happy one.

“Sadly this industry took off in the wrong direction,” she says. “The pigeons turned from an idealistic garden hobby to a huge money-making business.

“They use the term ‘necking them’ if they don’t come home to their mate on time, which is ringing their necks: this is very common. They exhaust the birds and hundreds over the last seven years have turned up tired and skinny. Nine times out of 10 the owners don’t want them back.”

The sport has been associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.

Yet racing has also attracted devotees as diverse as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter ‘Paloma’, the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.

Pigeons are probably most famous for their ability to find their way home and deliver messages. This was first exploited 3,000 years ago and by the fifth century BC Syria and Persia had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons.  Pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar used them to send messages home from his battle campaigns.

In 1850, Paul Julius Reuter’s fledgling news service used homing pigeons to fly between Aachen and Brussels, laying the foundations for a global news agency, and the birds’ homing ability was extensively harnessed in the two world wars.

There’s even a display at Bletchley Park telling the extraordinary story of pigeons in wartime, when the avian secret agents saved countless lives – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animal’s VC) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.

The exhibition has been organised by The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which also offers advice on its website for anyone interested in the sport (although animal activists PETA kicked up a storm in 2013 with claims of cruelty and calls for the sport to be banned).

The birds’ achievements are also recognised at the moving Animals in War memorial at Brook Gate on Park Lane. Along with millions of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, some 100,000 pigeons served Britain in the First World War and 200,000 in World War II.

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They saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible, from behind enemy lines or from ships or aeroplanes.

Stars like Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall teamed up to tell something of the birds’ story in the 2005 animated film Valiant, but it was something of a box-office flop and reviews were mixed.

Amazingly, despite decades of research, we are still not precisely sure how pigeons find their way home over terrain they have never seen before with such apparent ease.

How extraordinary. They have played a vital role in medicine (one study even trained pigeons to detect cancers), they have saved countless lives in wartime and they continue to entertained tourists in their millions, from Trafalgar Square to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, yet they are still widely regarded as a nuisance.

It seems wrong, somehow. Sorry, Percy, Woody and friends. You have been much wronged, but I for one will be looking with fresh eyes and a new respect at the “small blue busybodies” of Richard Kell’s poem, “strutting like fat gentlemen/With hands clasped/
Under their swallowtail coats…”

Still not convinced? Check out this guide to some of the world’s most beautiful pigeons.