Monday, 22 February 2016

British Birds?

Do you remember this headline? "Fog in the Channel, Europe cut off!" While we are having the national debate about whether we are British, European or both I had a thought about what this all means for birds.

I looked at my book-cases and saw rows of books about "British Birds" or "British and European Birds". We all know that a list of birds found in Denmark would be hardly different from ours, so what's this all about?

Mostly it's about selling books. You can use the same artwork and tweak or translate the text to sell the same book in many countries. However, there is a serious point here. Are there any birds that are only found in Britain? Not really, but we do have some contenders.

Our "famous" red grouse is superficially different from its continental cousins and scientists tried hard to make our crossbill into a separate species. Our dippers and pied wagtails are slightly different to the continental ones, but they are still the same species as the European ones

Looking further afield, we also have a problem with what makes a bird European. Many of our old favourites like the lapwing or the golden plover used to be thought of as European, but now they are labeled as "Eurasion".

And it doesn't end there. We share a lot of species with Africa as well as Asia but even some of these birds occur in the Americas too. They talk about Old World and New World warblers, for example.

I suppose most of us would recognise those Old World birds that we share with the Americans, think of all the ducks, waders and gulls that we have in common, but there are also small birds. The black-capped chickadee is the same bird as our willow tit and their kinglets are types of goldcrest, they have nuthatches, redpolls, crossbills, tree-creepers and pipits. Some of those species probably entered the New World from the east when America was a lot nearer to us than now, but others went the long way round, via the Aleutians and Alaska, which is how the first people arrived there.

I was surprised to learn that we have some birds over here that originated in the Americas; New World birds that settled in the Old World. Top of the list for me is the Jenny wren. I mean, what could be more British than a wren? They used to appear on our farthing coins and St Kilda has its own sub-species. It turns out that the Americans have loads of different species of wren and they go all the way down to the southern tip of Chile. I even saw them in the Falkland Islands and they looked almost identical to ours. Wrens evolved in the Americas and then crossed over to us, quite a long time ago. Sadly they kept their brightly coloured warblers, cardinals, hummingbirds and parrots to themselves so I will just have to go back over there and have another look.