In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Cuckoos are disappearing fast. How many more ecological warnings do we need?

Posted by smeddum on July 22, 2010

Yet again the British media roll out another “expert” who does not mention anything about the way birds navigate by using the earth’s electromagnetic field.  How long will this question be ignored! As scientific studies like this pile up.

Britain’s favourite birds are disappearing, in a pattern that could have devastating consequences, writes Colin Tudge.

By Colin Tudge
21 Jul 2010


The cuckoo is now considered to be in danger of dying out; Cuckoos are disappearing fast. How many more ecological warnings do we need?; Getty

The cuckoo is now considered to be in danger of dying out Photo: Getty
Cuckoos are disappearing fast. How many more ecological warnings do we need?

Some birds, such as the magpie, are doing well
Dartford warbler: Cuckoos are disappearing fast. How many more ecological warnings do we need?

The Dartford warbler should become commoner as the climate becomes warmer Photo: PA
Lapwing: Cuckoos are disappearing fast. How many more ecological warnings do we need?

Lapwing Photo: RSPB/PA

Britain is losing some of its best-loved birds, and at an alarming rate, according to the latest UK Breeding Bird Survey. Cuckoos were down by 44 per cent nationwide between 1995 and 2008 (including an astonishing 71 per cent in the South West) – and then fell by another 21 per cent between 2008 and 2009. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has now added the cuckoo to its Red Data List of endangered species. Kestrels have declined by 36 per cent since 1995, and in the North East, the Northumberland National Park has lost 38 per cent of its curlews. There were big falls, too, in grey partridge, starlings and lapwings.

Of course, the news is not all bad. Some birds are doing well – magpies and jackdaws, buzzards and the red kite. The marsh tit is apparently increasing. Sometimes birds that for years have been fairly rare or local suddenly come into their own and spread to become almost ubiquitous, such as the fulmar, a miniature albatross and master of the glide, which spread rapidly around Britain after the 1950s.

Global warming is encouraging new species to our shores – the little egret is becoming common, particularly around Oxford. At least in the long term (the cold of last winter was a set-back), the charming little Dartford warbler, predominantly grey and dusky pink, a lover of heather and gorse, which is at the northern edge of its range in Britain, should become commoner as the climate becomes warmer.

Some birds are less welcome because they are just foreign imports, what botanists would call “garden escapes”, which sometimes flourish at the expense of the natives. The Canada goose from North America, soberly turned out in black and white and grey pinstripe, has become commonplace over the past few decades and is often the sole representative of wildfowl in ponds and lakes.

The rose-ringed parakeet, from India and Asia, is positively abundant, too, in colonies of up to 6,000 in west London and southern England. It is one of the most northerly of wild-living parrots; like the keas of New Zealand, it is showing that parrots don’t have to be tropical. The parakeet is a lovely sight, with its powdery smooth green plumage and its arrow-straight flight and general liveliness – but it competes too well with native birds, and as with the Canada goose, where the parakeets move in, the locals tend to move out.

Sometimes, we can find reasons why some species suddenly find a home here, the niche that a particular bird happens to have found agreeable. Little egrets like wetlands wherever it is warm enough, and fulmars flourish around fishing boats. But it is impossible to predict which creatures will do well, and where, and when.

Unsurprisingly, the general drift of the past few decades has been decline – and at least some of the reasons seem obvious. Cuckoos feed through British summers largely on big juicy caterpillars such as that of the garden tiger moth – but the garden tiger moth is declining, too. The birds migrate to West Africa to while away the European winter – but the West African forest is being felled at an alarming rate. But mostly, frankly, we just don’t know what’s going on.

Insects in general are obviously declining – honey-bees just happen to be the ones that everyone knows about (not least because they are commercially significant). But when did you last see a beetle (apart from American ladybirds)?

When I was a child in south London after the Second World War, the buddleia bushes that grew so abundantly on the multiple bomb sites were alive with butterflies – but now you just see the odd one. If you left a piece of meat or fish unattended, it swarmed with flies within minutes. Where I live in Oxford, flies are positively rare. I wonder that an insectivorous bird of any kind can survive.

So what’s the cause, and what’s to be done to stop the rot? At the root of the problem is agriculture, where human beings interact most aggressively with nature, and on the broadest front. At least as pernicious, sadly, is science in its modern form: the way we use it, the way we misunderstand it, and – oddly – the way it misrepresents the world.

To be sure, we need serious science, and urgently, just to find out what’s really happening and why. The relevant science is biology, the study of life; and ecology in particular – the study of creatures in the wild, and their interactions. We’re investing billions in biotechnology, the kind of biology that’s useful to us – it gives us new generations of genetically modified organisms, tailor-made crops that yield more in difficult conditions.

Ecology, meanwhile, is seen to be for people in beards and sandals who can’t master the intricacies of biotech. It sits on the borders of science and whimsy, always ready to slide into new-agery.

In truth, though, biotech as it is practised is an exercise in industrial chemistry. Its central philosophy is straightforward: just decode the DNA, tweak as required, and lo, you have a custom-made crop (or even, Lord help us, a GM chicken or cow or pig). The same simplistic thinking is now applied to agriculture as a whole. Everything is reduced to a few causes and effects.

More nitrogen means more yield – so add nitrogen. Insects eat crops – so whack on the insecticides. Roundup kills weeds – so get spraying. Then – and this is really clever – add a Roundup-resistant gene to the useful crops and then spray the rest like there is no tomorrow, so the crops come smiling through the slaughter.

All this seems to offer many an opportunity for collateral damage – but who’s counting? What difference does it make, so long as the crops grow bigger and are more profitable?

But life isn’t just a simple game of DNA, and nature as a whole doesn’t work like a simple piece of machinery. The relationship between the DNA and the rest of the cell, and the cell and the rest of the organism, and the organism and its environment, and all creatures in all environments and the fabric of the earth itself, is one of dialogue: a two-way exchange of information; a host of interacting, intersecting feedback loops, both positive and negative.

In none of these interactions is there simple cause and effect. Any one cause can have any one of a thousand or a million different effects, and probably does, and all you can hope to measure is the average effect of any particular intercession. But the possible collateral effects are endless and unpredictable.

Agriculture conceived as an exercise in industrial chemistry and the whole technology of genetic engineering are not as they are presented to us: the application of exact science to mechanisms that are thoroughly understood, to our universal benefit. They are gung-ho forays into unknown and unknowable territory. No one knows for sure what is killing the cuckoo and the grey partridge, but the zeal of industrial chemists and biotechnologists is, beyond doubt, at the root of the disaster.

Do we care? Well, some people obviously don’t. Some big companies spend many millions on propaganda, telling us that nothing is wrong, that the apparent disasters are all “got up” by greenies and reds, egged on by the nefarious media. But the collapse is real, and when serious naturalists, like the birders of the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology, which produces the Breeding Bird Survey, do take a close interest, it is all too obvious.

The fact that human beings feel that some creatures – bees and cuckoos – are useful or amusing while others – flies – are not, has nothing to do with the case. Creatures that we may find irritating are essential provender for others. Take one out, and the others follow. Take out more than a few, and the whole is liable to collapse.

We would do well to remember that, if future generations are to be able to enjoy the sights and sounds of butterflies and bees and birds that ought to be the natural background of our lives.

Colin Tudge is co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming and author of The Secret Life of Birds (Penguin Books 2008)

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