Wednesday 29 March 2023

Birds in Decline - book review


 While Flocks Last by Charlie Elder 

In this book Charlie Elder decides to travel the UK in an attempt to find all the 40 birds that were then (2009) on the Red List of Birds of special conservation concern (the number of birds on the list now is 73). He travels from Devon to Shetland, calling at many places in between. He meets conservation experts along the way and visits nature reserves which are making important efforts to conserve the red listed (and other) species. He sees, eventually, all 40 of the target birds, some birds taking a lot of determined effort to find and others popping up almost unexpectedly. 

Elder had been interested in birds when he was young, but had lost interest for many years:

"In the period I had turned a blind eye to birds, many had suffered catastrophic declines. I felt guilty for not having cared more and ashamed at never having made the time to see them"

is by no means an expert, so he doesn't expect the reader to be familiar with the birds. His enthusiasm is infectious and he shares interesting observations about the birds' behaviour and lifestyles. He notes in many cases the factors that are having a negative impact on the birds populations, such as habitat degradation, changing farming practices and climate change. Oddly though, he has little negative to say about grouse moor management, though the shooting of raptors on these moors is the main driving force behind the decline of the red-listed hen harrier (which features in this book). 

Elder doesn't just talk about the birds and his travels, but discusses why it is important to conserve birds, focussing on the enjoyment they bring and their place in folklore and culture.

This is a very readable book, informative without being academic. It is (for me) let down by the humour, which is often cringe-worthy and facetious. 

While Flocks Last by Charlie Elder, published (2009) by Penguin.

Into the Red curated by Kit Jewitt and Mike Toms.

This is a beautifully produced book containing artwork and writings to celebrate the rare and declining birds that are on the UK Red List.  There are currently 73 birds on this list of species that are in most need of our help if they are not to disappear. In 1997, the first UK Red List of Birds had only 36 birds (still 36 too many, but much better than today's total). The list includes such everyday species as House Sparrow and Starling and iconic birds such as Puffins and Turtle Doves. (The listing refers only to the birds' status in the UK, so some birds included in the list aren't doing badly elsewhere.) It's not all bad news as a few birds have been moved out of the red list due to their recovering somewhat in numbers, these birds include the Song Thrush, redwing and Grey Wagtail).

The book is beautiful, full of varied artwork from 73 different artists, including oil paintings, lino prints, cartoons and sculptures that capture the wonder of the included birds. Each artwork is accompanied by a written piece inspired by the writer's encounters with the particular bird. It's wonderful to see how these declining birds can inspire such stunning artwork and such outpourings of wonder.

Can art save these birds? Not by itself, of course, but every purchase of this book goes towards the work of the British Trust of Ornithology in their important research into our birds.

Into the Red curated by Kit Jewitt and Mike Toms, published (2022) by British Birds.


Some species that aren't on the red list, have nevertheless been of conservation concern in some areas. This includes the chough, the handsome, red legged corvid that had become locally extinct in Cornwall in the 1970s but has now made a recovery in that part of the country. Here's a lovely video about Cornish choughs.

1 comment:

Cloudia said...

Thank you for sharing these important texts