Bird ringer Wilf Norman and ornithologist John Cavana present their cases for differing conservation techniques. Does ringing have a future or is it time for tech to take over? Ben O’Rourke investigates.
“Every bird looked brown and blobby,” says John Cavana of his early ornithology experiences growing up in Middlesbrough, the heart of the industrial North, in the 1970s. “They weren’t as easy to identify as what we see now with our cleaner air – we can see the reds, the oranges and the yellows and the blue tits and things… so we had to learn to identify the birds by song.”
The nearest green space back then was the cemetery across the road, which had just enough trees to attract bird life, in which Cavana has kept an interest since.
Meanwhile, up the road in Redcar, Wilf Norman and his brother formed the South Cleveland Ringing Group with their mentor, who had made a name for himself a few years earlier by being the first person in the UK to ring a black-billed cuckoo, which was visiting Teesside from North America.
Next year, 2021, Norman will have been ringing birds for 50 years – nearly half the time the practice has been around. How much longer it will be here isn’t clear.
“Oh, I think the way ahead for ringing might be numbered, really,” says Norman. “I think it’s rapidly going to be overtaken by this satellite tagging… the information you get is incredible.”
Technology has largely ignored bird ringing. What advances have been made have proved controversial. But one fact is true, without it, we would never know how old birds get.
According to the British Trust for Ornithology, the oldest recorded bird in Britain was a Manx Shearwater from an island off north Wales. It was more than 50 years old when it last seen back in 2008.
A curlew Norman’s group ringed on the moors was recaptured 17 years later in North Wales. “There’s proof if you need it that ringing doesn’t affect a bird’s behaviour,” he says about criticism ringing harms birds.
That criticism comes from some landowners and wildlife managers. Natural England rules mean British Trust for Ornithology ringers have access to rare bird nests via licences issued to them by government environment departments across the UK. Landowners and wildlife managers do not have the same access to these licences.
Ringers can be careless. In 2018, RSPB staff killed an osprey chick when it fell from its nest as they tried to attach a tag to it. The bird charity issued this apology.
A bird ringer can approach a ‘schedule one’ nest – the nest of a rare bird – under licence with up to two unlicensed assistants. Gamekeepers and landowners accuse bird-ringers of taking large parties of people, including paying customers, to the nests of rare birds. Green MSP Andy Wightman pushed the spirit of this rule when he took an unfledged eagle from a nest for this photo opportunity – which he later used to highlight an accusation of raptor persecution.
Two more satellite-tagged golden eagles go ‘missing’ on the same morning, on the same Scottish grouse moor. t.co/P1aXxMNK27 One of them, ‘Adam’, had been named & adopted by golden eagle species champion @andywightman On your watch, @NicolaSturgeon @strathearnrose pic.twitter.com/QuABsNDzyI
— Raptor Persecution (@RaptorPersScot) July 1, 2019
We asked Wightman if he broke the law by approaching this eagle’s nest with more than the legal number of people: one licensed bird ringer and two assistants. He did not respond.
Environmentalists often complain about humans pushing wildlife out of their domains, but birds seem to be doing the opposite, says Cavana. Migrating flocks that would once avoid towns now fly through them, pause for a snack at the many bird tables they know can give them enough food for the next stage of their journey.
“The information the BTO has gathered over the years is brilliant,” says Cavana. “We’ve now got people science, with the garden bird watchers, we’re seeing how birds are adapting to the environment… The habitat doesn’t have to be farmland or moorland, it can start in your own back garden, where we can do things that help the birds.”
Even without pressure from landowners, like Norman, Cavana believes bird-ringing’s days are coming to an end. He says contemporary cameras and other devices allow for monitoring birds without the need for human contact. Together with garden and countryside surveys, he believes just as much data can be collected without humans having to cross the line into bird territory.