Man versus bird


Despite often thought of as bringers of good fortune, it’s been an unlucky time of late for birds in this country. What with the furore first over licences to kill thousands of endangered birds and then over the netting of trees and hedgerows to prevent our feathered friends from nesting. Hard times if you’re a wren. Or a skylark. Or a blackbird.

By law all wild birds and their nests are protected meaning that trees and hedgerows hosting nesting birds can’t be cut down, or even trimmed. With breeding season underway, some developers are thought to have been netting greenery to prevent nesting while they wait for planning permission to come through on the land in question. Man 1 Nature 0.

Permission to kill

The permit issue is more complicated, and has turned ugly. Natural England, the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, had been responsible for granting licences to shoot as many as 40 species of birds considered a danger to air safety, public health and livestock.

Some species, like the meadow pipit, are rare and a priority for conservation efforts. After a campaign by Wild Justice, general licences to shoot 16 species were revoked, incurring the wrath of some farmers who cull ‘pest’ species like crows and wood pigeons to protect their crops.

Enter Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment and PM wannabe, who has since stripped Natural England of its powers and overturned the ban. In the meantime, naturalist Chris Packham, who cofounded Wild Justice, has been subjected to death threats and found dead crows hanging from his gate at home.

Solutions aren’t necessarily clear cut. Although there are ways of keeping crows off fields – from helium balloons flown at different heights to bangers to high tech drone scarecrows – how do you stop them from menacing the eggs and chicks of vulnerable ground-nesting birds like lapwings and curlews? There are no easy answers but forcing nature into an ever shrinking box feels intrinsically wrong and will surely only come back to haunt us. Man 2 Nature 0.

(Un)lucky birding

Most people are familiar with the old magpie rhyme One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, which usually goes up to Seven for a Secret Never Told. The Lancashire version counts as far as 13 and the devil himself. Personally I’m holding out for a sighting of 9 magpies (for a kiss) and 11 (for health).

Folk traditions associated with birds abound. From the fabulous Folk on Foot podcast featuring singer and violinist Eliza Carthy, I learned recently about a Yorkshire practice of yore called lucky birding. At New Year, village children would turn their jackets inside out, daub soot on their faces to make themselves unrecognisable and, with a wren caught inside a small box, ask their neighbours for money.

In Ireland and the Isle of Man though, the wren was hunted on 26 December – known as Wren Day – because it was believed that while hiding in the bushes from his persecutors, St Stephen was betrayed by a chirruping wren.

The dual facets of being bringers of both good and bad luck extend to other birds too. A large parliament of rooks landing in an area is thought unlucky. But rooks abandoning a long-standing rookery is considered a pre-emptor of disaster.

Where rooks build their nests is also an indication of the kind of summer we’ll have apparently. Wet and cold if low down in the tree, fine and dry if high up. All I can say is get the sun cream ready!

Photo by Andrew McKie on

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