Friday, 27 March 2015

Why britain needs A NATIONAL BIRD

We’re a nation of animal lovers. It’s time we voted for a feathered mascot, argues David Lindo

Written by David Lindo
America’s got one, and so do Latvia, New Zealand and even Bhutan. I am talking about a national bird, a feathered symbol that is the essence of the country that it represents. It is hard to believe that Britain, known as a nation of animal lovers, has never voted to have a bird represent it in the global pecking order.

When I mention ‘national bird’, some people cite the jenny wren. Others say that the humble robin is already Britain’s national bird. Indeed, the robin redbreast, pictured on 1,001 Christmas cards and the classic gardener’s friend, has always been viewed as the avian personification of ‘Britishness’. In truth, it was anointed as Britain’s ‘favourite’ bird in a poll for The Times in the early 1960s, but it has never been officially recognised as a national bird.

NationalBird-Mar27-02-590Blackbird and Blue Tit

The Americans, on the other hand, were not slow on the uptake and decided their national bird in 1776. Just after signing the Declaration of Independence on 4 July, a committee comprising Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin agreed on a design for the shield representing the states that also included a golden eagle, the most widely distributed large raptor in the world, whose range covers most of the northern hemisphere.

With that internationality in mind and the fact that it was already the symbol of several European nations, the federal lawmakers decided in 1782 that the bird should be changed to the bald eagle, a bird found only in the Nearctic region, which covers the North American continent. Interestingly, Franklin was not very impressed with this choice, pointing out that it was a bird of bad moral character that didn’t earn its living honestly. He was referring to the fact that bald eagles are not too proud to scavenge for a meal. He even controversially suggested that the turkey be America’s national bird instead, but that was, perhaps sensibly, poohpoohed by Congress.

NationalBird-Mar27-03-590Barn Owl and Kingfisher

Fast-forward to the 1970s and my time at primary school, when one day I decided to ask my classmates to name their favourite bird. At the time the cheeky sparrow was mine. It was a bird that I felt was abundant and routinely overlooked. To my delight, my class unanimously voted for the sparrow. On reflection, this landslide victory may have been down to the limited bird knowledge of my peers, restricted to sparrows and pigeons. Anyway, I promised myself that when I grew up I would ask that question again: What is your favourite bird?

Forty years on, that day of reckoning has arrived. The Vote National Bird Campaign has been launched. Only now, it is more than just a question of favourite birds. It’s about national identity, politics, freedom of choice, educating kids and, importantly, conservation.

The first phase of the campaign was launched last August and ran until November. Voters could choose up to six from a list of 60 iconic British birds online that included skylark, cuckoo and nightingale. It also included a few controversial birds such as the ring-necked parakeet (familiar to many in the southeast), pheasant and ubiquitous feral pigeon.

NationalBird-Mar27-04-590Robin and Wren

More than 70,000 votes later we have our final 10 birds

Online voting is now live and it is promising to be a popular election for many who are already bored with all the hype surrounding that other approaching vote. As mentioned earlier, education is an important part of this campaign, so we’re also running a schools competition to get kids to paint, draw or write a poem or story about one of the candidate birds. By engaging younger generations I hope to reinforce a love and respect for all that the environment encompasses.

To have a hand in this historic vote simply visit www.votenationalbird.com and vote for one of the 10 birds. Britain’s birds need you to need them.

NationalBird-Mar27-05-590Hen Harrier and Red Kite

Voting will run until 7 May, the day of the General Election, and thereafter not only will we know the identity of our next government, our national bird will be announced too. It will be fantastic to join the ranks of so many other countries with our own newly elected national bird hoisted proudly upon our shoulders.

Five going beak-to-beak

1. Blackbird With over eight million pairs in the UK, the superb song of the blackbird, so typical of hazy summer days, should be well known to most people on these isles. The male is the iconic black bird with a yellow bill, whereas the female is a dull brown affair. It is already Sweden’s national bird but will that fact stop it from becoming ours?

2. Hen Harrier This very attractive bird of prey is the surprise entry into the fray. Unknown to most of the general public, this hawk has been the subject of many political battles. It is currently endangered in England as a breeding species and is routinely eradicated from its moorland range by gamekeepers afraid of its exaggerated predation of red grouse. If the hen harrier were to become our national bird it would be a poke in the eye of the establishment.

NationalBird-Mar27-06-590Mute Swan and Puffin

3. Robin Despite its cuddly looks it has garnered a lot of bad press over the years, not least for its very violent behaviour. Robins would not think twice about murdering opponents and can be aggressive around the bird table. They are not quite as long-lived as you might expect, with two years being the usual maximum lifespan. Equally they are not quite as staunchly British as you might suppose. In winter, some of our native-born birds head south to warmer climes to be replaced by continental visitors.

4. Mute Swan This regal bird has always been deemed a royal bird and during King Henry VIII’s time you even risked death if you were a pauper caught eating its flesh. Mute swans were on the point of extinction due to overhunting until they were saved by an unlikely American avian ally – the turkey. When the trusty gobbler was introduced into Britain as a food source the public’s taste switched and the swan was left to swim unchallenged. Surely it deserves its place around the election table?

5. Puffin Everybody loves a puffin. Their comical looks and awkward gait are very endearing features. They look like the northern equivalent of the southern hemisphere’s penguin, but in reality they are quite unrelated. This seabird is a declining summer visitor, largely nesting on our northern coasts in disused burrows. They spend their winters far out to sea and during this period their colourful bill becomes smaller and drab-looking.


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