Rosie, from Pen and Sword Books contacted me to see if I’d like to review this new book. Having never written a book review – and having been away from my own writing for most of this past year due to illness and other reasons, I wasn’t sure if it was something I could do, but I agreed and was sent a copy – and thankfully it inspired me to get back to writing, and attempt a book review too!
The book opens with some statistics: “First there is food. Agriculture in the UK is a £5.3 billion pound industry…… and uses 69% of the land mass”. Given that; this book is incredibly relevant. Agricultural land is such a rich part of our ecosystem, but something I certainly – and probably many others, tend to bypass by jumping in the car and heading off for the more exotic mountain, forest and coastal landscapes. Fields are everywhere. Having recently driven across the whole width of the UK in pursuit of some rescue ferrets (which is another story for another day!) I was reassured to see that the UK is indeed full of natural wonder.
On my journey, I passed through South and Mid Wales and watched the land as it rose up out of the dairy farms and meadows in the Towy valley and into the Brecon Beacons with their misty forest tops and hardy sheep feeding below. The M50 was nothing but 4 lanes of traffic with intermittent hard shoulders that passed through endless fields before joining the M5 and the subsequent motorways I took on my trip to the East Coast of Yorkshire. In the latter part of my journey I was aware of how high up I was, yet how few mountains were in sight – and all the time I was surrounded by fields – red fields, yellow fields, green fields, brown fields, and the occasional grand old Oak or Beech tree standing proud overlooking the bare landscape. But did I see much wildlife? Not really. Gone are the days of motorway journeys being punctuated by kestrels hovering over the verges, or deer grazing in the fields. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there – and Sophie McCallum’s book reminds us that the wildlife we find living their lives in arable land, is indeed secret. We need to get out and look for it – we need to in the words of William Henry Davies take the time to “stand and stare”.
What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. No time to stand beneath the boughs And stare as long as sheep or cows. No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass. No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night. No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance. No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began. A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.
William Henry Davies
The Secret Life of an Arable Field is the type of book I loved when I was growing up. It is a book I want to handle and flick through and sit with and enjoy. The content is factual and not dissimilar to searching for information about various species online, like a glossy hardbacked wikipedia – but having all that information in one place is valuable, and unlike online research, you can lose yourself in the beautiful photographs and get drawn into discovering other related species.
At first I found the book’s lack of personal opinion and emotion quite unusual – I am used to hearing what other people think and feel about the natural world and this book is full of good, solid facts, and incredible photographs – and not much else. It didn’t instantly engage me like some wildlife books but it was a grower. I like that it isn’t preaching. I like that it presents the reader with lots of accurate information and brings together the whole ecosystem of an arable field with the trees, insects, birds, mammals and plants all having equal place in the book – and all arranged in alphabetical order. Going from Poppy, to Potatoes, to Powdery mildew, to Primrose, and then Rabbits gives a powerful message about the interconnectedness of species and how they are all important and play a vital part in the food chain and ultimate survival of all species.
This book is going to be a favourite. It can be picked up and savoured for the top quality colour images, and it can be used to learn more about a particular species. It is not a guide book for taking out into the field, but in these days of mobile phone cameras it is a valuable reference resource to use back at home. I wondered upon first picking it up if it would be a bit random – a collection of nice photos ‘forced’ into a text book – but The Secret Life of an Arable Field is anything but. This book has a powerful message that enables the reader to uncover and link together the various species and realise the importance of them all, and what really makes the field a special place for both human and wildlife alike.
I was not paid for this review – but was sent a complimentary copy of the book. I was simply asked if I would be interested in reviewing the book on my blog – no suggestions were made as to how I write the review or what to include.
A distinctive rhythmic hum vibrated my ears into action, and I paused and looked to the sky. I knew this sound, and I knew it could be coming from up to a mile away.
The hum changed in tone and frequency as the wedge of Mute swans flew closer and closer. The noise changed into a powerful but gracefully slow; swoosh, swoosh, swoosh – and I gazed skywards as the elegant birds with necks outstretched and heads pointing towards the lake ahead; passed over me without a sound leaving their beaks.
I smiled to myself because this was the second wedge of swans to fly over that morning. The earlier birds were easily recognisable as Whooper swans and not Mutes. There was no building up of wing noise with the Whoopers – but their raucous bugling and honking alerted everything within range that they were approaching and on a mission!
Swans are truly awesome – how can something so enormous, fly so beautifully – and over such long distances? The Mute swans live in the valley, but the Whoopers join us every winter from Iceland – making a sea crossing of around 800-1400km. Swans are amongst the largest flying birds and have evolved to do this as efficiently as possible – they have hollow bones for instance – this puts paid to the stories of swans breaking a man’s arm with just a flap of their wing. A swan’s wingbeat is certainly powerful, but it is also lightweight and designed for flight and communication, and not as a weapon.
Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher, spoke of nothing being permanent except change. He is also attributed with saying that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. And that perfectly sums up why I have never lost my passion for the natural world. I have never bored of taking the same walk several times a day.
This year has been like no other. The world has been united in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. For many of us, we have found the natural world to be a reliable friend through the uncertainty and disruption that has surrounded us. Many people have rekindled their relationship with the great outdoors, others have noticed for the first time the huge variety of wildlife on their doorstep – perhaps they have spent years working hard in jobs away from their home and haven’t had the opportunity to pause and just notice the diversity of life surrounding them. All have learned first hand, the benefits to our wellbeing of time spent enjoying the nature and wildlife.
Pausing and noticing are two of the most valuable wildlife watching skills I possess. No amount of studying animal tracks, signs, and behaviour; or buying the best quality binoculars or camouflage clothing is a substitute for just getting outside as often as possible. I switch my thinking brain off from planning and analysing and worrying – and switch over to letting my senses lead the way and show me without prejudgment or opinion, what is around me.
This year I watched the small strip of woodland floor that I visit most days turn from leaf litter and the odd bramble; into a carpet of wood anemones that were followed by bluebells; then nettles and new shrubs, trees and bushes. Occasionally punctuated by an early purple orchid, earthball fungus, or phallic and putrid smelling stinkhorn mushroom.
The woods turned shady and dark once the acidic green beech leaves unfurled and filled the canopy – along with the leaves of the neighbouring oak, hazel and rowan; blocking out the sun and providing shelter from the unusually frequent thunderstorms we experienced over the summer months. The months passed and the leaves turned to gold and dropped; and the last few hangers on have just been blown away by the north wind – the same wind that helped those swans on their migration flight.
I watched the swallows arrive at the bridge on 11th April – they nested underneath, and the cacophony of tweets and chirps was almost deafening. It was a successful year for breeding, which I witnessed in the sheer number of swallows gathering together by the beginning of September, to prepare for migration. It was an honour to witness this half of these birds’ lives over here in West Wales – and I wonder if there is someone showing them as much interest now they are back in Africa?
One of my favourite birds is the Tawny owl. I am truly blessed to lose sleep because of the noisy male birds “hoo-hoo”-ing outside my bedroom window in response to the female birds call of “keewik”. Sadly, I was brought an injured owl back in April. It had been hit by a car and my neighbour and I did our best to make it comfortable but it was beyond help and now rests in peace under my oak tree. It’s feathers were amazingly soft and fluffy and quite beautiful as the wind ruffled them – the colours and textures were gorgeous.
I’ve recorded tawny owl numbers for some time and taken part in the BTO survey too. I hoped that the loss of this owl wouldn’t affect this year’s breeding population. Tawny owls spend the winter establishing their territories, that’s why they’re so vocal at the moment in the run up to Christmas. They mate and lay eggs in late winter or early spring, with the chicks hatching around 30 days later, and fledging in May.
In July we started hearing baby animal noises coming from our back hedgerow and the oak tree, we weren’t sure whether they were from a bird or mammal. Gentle chirrups in the dark, that built over the weeks into sounds that were similar to a female tawny owl, but clearly immature. There were two distinct “voices” of what I imagine were two fledgling owls. After a couple more weeks, the voices got deeper and the calls became distinctly female (too-whit) and male (too-whoo). And now, they have joined the other owls in the village and can be heard down the track; in my neighbours garden; on the roof; beyond the back hedge – all vying for territory and making their way in the world.
Many animals live shorter lives than us humans, and this gives us the privilege of seeing them grow, change and develop. I’ve followed a family of magpies nesting near the village school which was closed for the summer. We’ve had blue tits nest in a hole in our apple tree and yesterday I spotted a great tit checking it out. Our oak tree has nuthatches and treecreepers making use of the warm ivy’s antifreeze properties, and our bathroom has a tortoiseshell butterfly keeping warm over winter.
I’ve always been a “noticer”. I’m blessed with senses that never switch off! I can find pleasure in the simplest things, and I gain a sense of safety, belonging, and of my place in the world when I immerse myself in nature. The pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty and unpredictability to the humans in the world, but the swallows still came and went – the leaves still ‘remembered’ to fall – creatures were born and died. The changes we can be certain of still took place; and brought myself, like many people, a sense of hope for the future.
“Where’s the best place round here to see badgers?”
“I saw this bird, a bit like a sparrow but different, any ideas?”
“What sort of the poo do you think this is?”
I am frequently asked questions like these, and I’m absolutely delighted that when people have a wildlife-based query, they think of me as someone who could possibly help.
My knowledge doesn’t just come from having a good memory, and it certainly wasn’t taught to me in school. My passion for the natural world is lifelong and developed from a childhood spent reading – and walking about, noticing things.
I grew up in the days before we could conduct research on the internet, and I spent many hours poring over encyclopaedias, and also reading lots of fiction which seemed to include more descriptions of the specific species of plant and tree than many children’s books do these days.
I have always been someone who enjoys my own company and as a girl I would walk or cycle around the country lanes, sand dunes and beaches in my neighbourhood. I’d horrify my parents by disappearing off for hours on my bike to Brean Down, one of the Mendip Hills jutting out into the Bristol Channel near Weston-Super-Mare. My propensity for tripping over, falling off my bike, or otherwise ending up in some sort of scrape was well-known, and Brean Down was a steep climb with sheer cliffside drops into the sea, and was riddled with rabbit holes, just ripe for twisting an ankle in!
I’d sometimes cycle there at dawn or dusk and dodge the feral goats which stood intimidating tourists as they ascended the steps to the 100m summit of the limestone promontory. And then I’d secrete myself away and keep very still. The Down is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and has rare flora like the white rock rose. It’s also a great spot for watching peregrine falcons, kestrels and ravens. But the animals I wanted to see were the rabbits. They were incredibly common and if you sat very still and just waited in the crepuscular light, you would soon find yourself surrounded by bunnies. It always felt an utter privilege to be able to sit near them and a great use of my special ability of being able to blend into the background without being noticed.
As well as an ability to silently disappear when I need to, I have a remarkable sensory processing system. Like many autistic people, my sense organs see, hear, and smell in a fairly average way. But my brain processes that sensory information quite differently. This means that some of my senses work in a way that is quite muted and requires lots of input to register a sensation, whereas other senses need hardly any information to register what is happening. This fluctuates and can become more extreme when I am under stress, worried or having to process lots of information (sensory or otherwise).
An example of where one of my senses may often be muted (or hyposensitive) is in my proprioception – the sense that tells us where the various parts of our body are in space (close your eyes and stick your arms in the air – wave them about – whether your arms crash into each other or not is down to your proprioception). My sense of proprioception is responsible for many of my accidents when I trip over my own feet, misjudge a step, or bump into a doorframe.
On the other hand, my senses may by heightened at times (hypersensitive) – and this has its pros and cons. I can find the noise of a door closing incredibly loud, to the point of it making me jump with fright and my ears hurt. But I can also hear the wasp chomping on the wooden frame of my living room window while it gathers material to mix with its saliva to help build its papery nest.
As well as having particularly keen senses, another trait of my autism is that I can’t filter out so-called ‘unnecessary’ information. I sense everything with equal intensity and importance. This can make me appear ‘lost’, confused or slow when I am in a new environment as I am taking absolutely everything in and trying to consciously work out which bits I should or shouldn’t be focusing on. It makes me a fantastic spotter of wildlife though! I will be the person who notices the Speckled Wood butterfly camouflaged on the woodland floor. My brain will not be fooled into thinking those patterns on the insect’s wings are part of the leafy detritus it is hiding against. My olfactory processing is so sophisticated I can tell whether the repugnant smell of rotting corpse is dead badger, dead deer, or simply a Stinkhorn mushroom.
Not everyone has a sensory processing system that works like mine does, but we can all ensure we take more notice of what is around us when we are out and about, and tune into our sensory experiences.
I have practiced Mindfulness for many years. It comes naturally to me, as I have always been someone who notices things. Being Mindful means, you make a special effort to notice what’s happening in the present moment (in your mind, body and surroundings) – without judging anything. It has roots in Buddhism and meditation and there is good scientific evidence to prove its benefits. You don’t have to be spiritual, or have any particular beliefs, to try it and it can be incredibly beneficial for your wellbeing . Mindfulness also sits well with me because my inability to filter things means I tend to be quite open-minded and non-judgmental anyway. I find Mindfulness particularly valuable because it reminds me to take a break from all the classifying and categorising and naming of the natural world, and just be in that moment, noticing it with my senses.
For people starting out with a hobby like bird watching, or who want to develop more awareness and knowledge of the natural world, I would recommend taking a Mindful approach and just get out there, walk, and notice things. Don’t think about whether you recognise plants or animals, or if you can name them or know what they are. Nature can be enjoyed without any of these things. Try using each of your senses to notice what is happening around you.
Humans are currently said to have eight senses. The five we learned at school – smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing. Vestibular – the sense of how gravity effects our body (our balance and awareness of spinning and jumping etc). Proprioception – knowing where the various parts of our body are in relation to each other. And finally, Interoception – the sense of knowing how we feel internally (our emotions and bodily functions like feeling hungry, tired or needing the toilet).
Interestingly, other animals have additional senses, and humans share the physiology that enable some of these senses too. Magnetoreception helps migrating birds find their way using the earth’s magnetic field. Thermoreception enables animals to detect heat and forms part of the infrared sensing systems found in some snakes and in vampire bats. Electroreception is well known in some sharks and other fish.
Here are some ways you may like to notice nature using your senses. I have no scientific evidence for this, but I believe that with practice people can get more attuned to using their senses and it gives such an added layer of appreciation of our natural world:
Vision – stand still and notice how many different species you can see. Don’t worry about recognising them. You may be surprised at how many different living creatures you are sharing your space with at any given time.
Smell – notice a smell and move about until you can find the source of it, notice where it gets stronger or weaker. If you find something really smelly, like honeysuckle or even fox poo, focus on the aroma and then notice how far away from the source you can get while still smelling it.
Hearing – pause and notice how many different sounds there are. Let yourself notice each one. There may be sounds in the foreground like your breathing or footsteps, as well as sounds further away like birdsong, or a nearby road. Notice any background noise like the wind or water.
Taste – if you are confident at safely identifying wild food, then enjoy a blackberry or other fruit. Otherwise, practice with fruit and veg in your garden.
Touch – feel how cold the water in a stream is. Notice how things that look similar, may feel different. Find white clover and red clover in a field. Stroke the stalks of each and notice how one is hairy and one is smooth – you will forever be able to impress others with your knowledge of clover identification even when there are no coloured flowers to give the answer away!
Vestibular – close your eyes and notice whether you can sense if you are at sea level or much higher up.
Proprioception – bring your attention (without looking) to various parts of your body and see if you can notice where they are. Let the feel of the ground under your feet and the air against your skin help you notice where the respective parts of your body are. Realise you are part of the natural world.
Interoception – notice how you feel when you are in the natural world. Does it bring you joy, curiosity, peace?
Not only does using a technique like Mindfulness help us relax and connect with nature by disconnecting with the stresses and strains of our busy, daily lives, it helps us recognise how much is going on all around us all of the time. Once we start recognising this, it is more likely we will notice those elusive badgers, otters or whatever else we hope to spot. I have genuinely seen people walk past the most incredible creatures because they have been so focused on their phone, or their conversation, or lost in their own thoughts.
As well as practicing noticing things, its worth studying and learning all you can too. I bought my very first nature book whilst on a caravan holiday as a six or seven year-old. I remember going into the book shop in Williton, on the edge of the Quantock Hills and using my holiday pocket money to buy a copy of the Usborne Spotter’s Guide to Animals, Tracks and Signs. This is my favourite Spotter’s Guide because it opened so many doors for me. It wasn’t just a simple identification guide that helped name the species I was lucky enough to spot, it taught me the craft of getting up close with nature by understanding it.
Here are some of my favourite pages:
Gaining knowledge of how animals live, as well as what they look like, increases your chances of spotting them. Habitat, diet, and behaviour are all important parts of this. Understanding these helps identify animals and plants too. It increases the likelihood of seeing them when out and about. Consider my trip to Brean Down to watch my beloved rabbits. I knew that they would be out at dawn and dusk – I understood their behaviour. I knew there would be a warren on the isolated headland – I understood their preferred habitat. There was plenty of grass for them to eat – diet. Rabbit poo is decidedly easy to spot and correctly identify. My rabbit spotting trips are an obvious example of using knowledge to increase your chances of seeing a wild animal, but the principle is the same for other animals too. Though it provides no guarantee of a sighting!
Otters are a favourite animal of mine, but have frequently eluded me, despite my extensive knowledge. I now live within walking distance of otters and I’ve been out before dawn, I’ve set my camera trap up, I’ve even photographed their footprints, and smelt them. But my only local sighting was a chance encounter in a pond, rather than in the river where I know they live.
These tips that I’ve given about studying animals can act as a useful checklist for ensuring correct identification too. Sometimes we may spot a creature or plant that we are unfamiliar with. It is very easy for wishful thinking or past knowledge to affect our judgment when trying to identify it. My tip is to jot down exactly what you see. This is where another of the advantages of my autism comes in. Sometimes autistic people are labelled as great with the finer details but not good at seeing the bigger picture. Personally, I would disagree with this. I am very good at seeing the bigger picture – but I make it up out of all the tiny bits. This takes time and if you are after a quick answer before I’ve processed all the individual pieces into an overall scene, then you may wrongly assume I haven’t seen the bigger picture at all. My ability to appreciate every aspect of the world without judgment also comes into play – that lack of ability to filter information I described earlier. Autistic people are often “bottom-up thinkers”. The American scientist, Temple Grandin describes:
“I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then pick out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all of this resource down into one short paragraph… That’s something that I’m good at doing… I’m a bottom-up thinker—I take the details and put them together.”
Suppose you see a bird that you can’t name. Very often people will tell me they have seen a brown bird that was probably a type of sparrow. They hand me the bigger picture information, and this is usually followed by a time consuming and tricky process of me asking lots of questions about things they haven’t noticed. Whereas, a person who describes small details accurately, helps me identify the bird much quicker, even when there are key bits of information missing. A member of a Facebook wildlife group I set up, reported seeing a bird she didn’t recognise – and with only a handful of very specific details I could identify it instantly, show her a picture and have the id confirmed. She described it as thus: Cornish coast, size and shape of a tit, black head and wings, white collar and under wings and a reddish underside. It was in July. I pieced these bits of information together and knew what it was straight away.
I used the visual information and then checked off whether the following were likely: habitat – coast, and time of year – summer, location – South West England.
Checking the likelihood is always important – a Golden eagle in the skies above Wales is almost undoubtedly a buzzard.
A cuckoo seen in the winter is probably a sparrowhawk, like this one that took a blackbird down in my garden back in the winter of 2010. The cuckoo is a brood parasite that uses its resemblance to a sparrowhawk to frighten away the parent birds when it is hoping to lay its eggs in their nest in the spring.
When birds look very similar, like the curlew and whimbrel, you can use your knowledge and senses to help with id. If you listen, whimbrels make a rapid tittering of very short whistles, whereas a curlew’s call has a much more ringing tone and the male in displaying flight in spring has an almost liquid sounding song that crescendos into a bubbling trill. UK based whimbrels only breed in Northern Scotland and is seen elsewhere in the country as a passage migrant in spring and autumn. It can take off and fly from a standing start, whereas a curlew will take a run at it. Although side by side, the beak length is a giveaway, it is unlikely you will ever have the luxury of seeing that, so understanding how they behave helps.
Of course, we must always be careful of how we interpret things and remember that all sorts of creatures can turn up in odd places – like the Tregaron golden eagle, or the bearded vulture currently roosting in the English Peak District. Vagrant, escapee, albino, and hybrid animals are frequently spotted. Whilst this can feel exciting for some bird watchers or nature spotters, the outcome is rarely positive for the animal – a raccoon dog (tanuki) was destroyed in Carmarthenshire only last week and I still feel distress at the hunt killing an albino stag in Somerset where I grew up.
On a lighter note, Bill Oddie tells a story about identifying a bird, that reminds me that even when using common sense and a bottom-up approach, you may still be surprised: Bill’s friend works for the RSPB and received a telephone call from a lady asking for help identifying a bird. He gleaned information about the bird’s buff colouring, and the bit of black and a bit of red on its head. This bird had been feeding at her bird table. The RSPB chap considered the information, matched it to the most likely suspects, and confidently told the lady it was a goldfinch. But she was not in agreement at all! He asked her to describe what the bird was doing, and she explained that it was stood by the bird table pecking at seed. He enquired whether it was able to reach up and get the seed, and the lady informed him that this large, heron shaped bird was actually stood next to the bird table and was leaning down pecking at the food. The bird was not a goldfinch – it was a crane!
When I smell a stinkhorn, I look out for signs of a badger sett or other badger activity like a latrine. If I am on the Ceredigion coast looking out to sea for dolphins, I’ll scan the skies for feeding seabirds. These may indicate a shoal of fish and dolphins could be close behind them. I was listening to a dunnock outside the doctors’ surgery this week. This small, brown and grey bird had a most beautiful song that suddenly turned into a short staccato cheep-cheep-cheep. This type of noise is an alarm call used by lots of different small birds. I knew it wasn’t me that had alarmed it, we were both well aware of each other and keeping a safe distance. So I looked to the sky, and lo and behold, a buzzard had started to circle and soar above the carpark.
The signs that animals use a local area may not be obvious, but if you keep noticing things with all your senses, then it is surprising what you may find. Here are some photos from my walks…
I recommend finding a local wildlife patch that you can visit and get to know at different times of the day; in different weathers; and across the seasons. If you use all your senses to notice your environment, I guarantee you will never ever get bored of what you find because no two visits will be the same. Take photos; learn what the plants are and have an educated guess at which butterflies and birds they may attract and see if you’re right! Learn all you can and enjoy going off down those internet rabbit holes researching whatever takes your fancy. As for equipment, buy the best you can afford. But remember, equipment is no substitute for noticing and learning. I deliberately leave my phone, binoculars and camera at home for at least one of my daily walks. I realised once, when I started to feel disappointed that I didn’t have a camera to record something, that I was beginning to digress from what it is about the natural world that brings me such pleasure. Similarly, I do not need to name or classify every species I come across – I take an awesome pleasure in knowing that for that moment, it is just me noticing whatever it is, and that makes that moment special and never to be repeated.
Get out there and have some moments!
This is the first of my blogs to be featured in both my wildlife and my autism blog. If you’d like to check out my other blog, please click below…
Many of us have been enjoying tending our gardens and have been busy harvesting the various salad crops and veg that have had their recent midsummer growth spurt. It’s not just us humans that appreciate a well-stocked garden – caterpillars are aplenty, and all four stages of the butterfly and moth life cycle may be observed if you look closely.
I have a lifelong passion for butterflies – some may call it an obsession! They are remarkable creatures and I can spend many an hour transfixed by the way they fly in such seemingly random ways from flower to flower – if you’ve ever tried to photograph a moving butterfly, you’ll know how tricky it is. Many butterflies fly a deliberately complex and unpredictable path in order to avoid predators. That’s not surprising considering how big, bright and attractive some of them appear, they need their erratic flight paths in order to reduce the risks of being eaten by a hungry bird!
Butterflies also keep themselves safe by making use of camouflage or mimicry. Speckled Wood butterflies can be seen on my local walks at the moment, but when they are resting, camouflaged against the leaf litter on the woodland floor, they blend in so clearly, you’d hardly notice they are there. Mimicry can take several forms – some moth caterpillars resemble twigs; there are butterflies that look like more poisonous butterflies; and others that have markings in the shape and colour of flowers, stripes and even eyes!
In Wales we have 42 species of butterfly, plus some migrants too, like the Painted Lady. Last year was known as a “Painted Lady Year” – a particularly good year for migrants, with millions of them being spotted across the UK. Moths on the other hand – well, why not go out and start taking a look at moths too? There are over 1700 species of moths to be found in Wales and not all of them only come out at night! The Hummingbird hawk-moth is often spotted in Carmarthenshire gardens, and can be seen in the daytime, hovering form flower to flower like a tiny hummingbird drinking the nectar using its long proboscis.
Just like people, butterflies and moths are diverse in their appearance, habits, and needs. Many are also polymorphic, which means the same type of butterfly can have different variations. (Polymorphism is common in nature – consider the Jaguar: you get spotted ones and black ones; or the sexual dimorphism in birds: like the Mallard drake with his iridescent green head and the duck with her mottled brown one.) Making our environment attractive to insects is relatively easy. Some butterflies prefer trees; others love the brassicas we grow for our dinner; and of course, we are all familiar with the sight of a beautifully coloured Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell butterfly landing on our buddleia.
My garden has a variety of species, I spotted a brown butterfly in the apple tree yesterday – I’m not sure of its name, but then again, I don’t expect it knows mine either! There are lots of white butterflies too – the ones that enjoy laying eggs on my cabbages so that the young caterpillars have food when they emerge. Tortoiseshells are instantly recognisable, and the Comma is making a comeback in Wales too. As the summer progresses, we will hopefully see our other favourites – the Peacocks and Red Admirals.
The beauty of the natural world is you can study it in its most intricate detail and you can stand there and just enjoy it for the most simple sensory pleasures its brings without needing to think at all.
http://www.magicoflife.org/ This butterfly house near Aberystwyth is one of my favourite places. They have exotic species indoors, as well as stunning gardens and local walks. They’re a charitable educational trust and do some fantastic conservation work. Well worth a visit in person, or to their website where you’ll find information on bee and butterfly friendly gardens.
Shakespeare wrote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. He was probably describing people coming together through shared experiences and emotions, but I like to consider this quote using another use of the word “nature”. The pandemic situation we find ourselves in is global, and it has also united us around the world in our love of nature and the outdoors. I have found many kindred spirits in the Facebook group I created, Carmarthenshire Birds and Wildlife. People are enjoying their gardens more than ever – so much so there is a shortage of compost at garden centres around the county! We are noticing more wildlife and also destroying less with our cars.
The beauty of wildlife gardening is you don’t need much space, lots of specialist equipment, or expert knowledge. The internet is full of advice and tips and most of the wildlife trusts have downloads and pages dedicated to making the outside areas of our homes more welcoming to wildlife
Our garden has some extremely overgrown areas that we’ve left fairly wild, so that our resident hedgehog has somewhere to snuffle and look for worms. We have a hedge boundary so it can come and go as it likes, and live its best hedgehoggy life all around the village – even turning up on a neighbours decking during a late night barbecue!
Our garden has evolved with our family. A pond wasn’t a priority when our son was small but he once he outgrew his sandpit we put it to good use as a pond. . We’ve added some stones to enable anything that ventures in to get out safely and a kindly neighbour has given us some native plants from their established pond. Hopefully the oxygenating effect will clear some of the algae and enable us to get even better views of the frog and newts that call it home. Our first two newts were a ‘gift’ from a neighbour who had found them and asked if they could be homed in our garden, they’ve been here for seven or eight years. Newts enjoy ponds for part of the year and use them for breeding; they need dry land too – logs, stones, wooded areas – anywhere safe to hibernate for the winter.
Last year in the spring we found some frogspawn in a puddle in the middle of Brechfa forest, nowhere near a pond or stream. I scooped it up in my travel mug and brought it home, where it lived in an old fish tank while we studies it, before being added to the murky pond, which at that time had no plants but hopefully offered a better chance at life than a puddle – and if all else failed, the newts would be fed!
Wildlife rarely needs to be brought into your garden, if you make your garden attractive to wildlife, it will usually find its own way. We have the mammals and amphibians I’ve just described, along with the occasional reptile and plenty of bird species to delight me in the early morning with their chorus. We’ve kept an area of nettles next to our compost bin and we have a buddleia that is about to bloom. Plenty of butterflies are already checking it out in anticipation! Butterflies have been a lifelong interest and passion of mine and I’m always a little disappointed by the contradictory values many gardeners have. Some seem to love a butterfly but hate a caterpillar. Hopefully this year’s caterpillars will enjoy the nettles and wild plants and leave our veggies alone. It can always be fun to have a caterpillar collecting competition with your family and throw them over the hedge to your neighbour when you’ve finished! No, I’m joking. Definitely don’t do that, put them in your wildlife area so they can grow and become butterflies or be fed to birds who will have plenty of young to feed.
An average garden accommodates more than 2,000 species of insect. Most of them benefit our gardens by eating the other insects that can damage plants, and acting as food for other animals. And of course, they are essential for pollination. We’ve built our garden’s insects a new bug hotel that we’ve named ‘The Biolblitz Ritz’
Thank you to Gary Reynolds for the featured photograph.
Mad as a March Hare! This idiom has been in use since the 16th Century and was popularised in Lewis Carroll’s famous book ‘Alice’s adventures in wonderland’. I’ve yet to witness a hare’s mad antics in the spring and although I see them fairly regularly when driving through Carmarthenshire’s lanes, they are certainly a less common sight than in the past. When Lewis Carroll was writing about the Mad March Hare in 1865, there were around 4 million hares in Britain, but numbers have sadly declined by 80%.
But why do we associate them with madness? On a March moonlit night, if you are very lucky, you may get the opportunity to witness hares preparing to pair up and mate. Males will chase the larger females, who will sprint away with their infamous speed – some have been recorded to reach more than 45 mph! Males will fight off rivals in the chase, and the females will box and send any unsuitable suitor packing if they don’t have the speed, stamina and strength to meet the female’s expectations.
Hares are able to breed several times a year and can in fact mate and then store a fertilised embryo whilst still pregnant. Once the litter is born, the embryo implants ready for the next litter. These icons of fertility are said by some people to have given rise to the legend of the Easter bunny and its associations with new life. The hare has some other interesting biological adaptations to enable it to be resistant to high speed, it is the only mammal with a jointed skull. This helps absorb the shock of hitting the ground at such force when jumping.
Within Carmarthenshire, there was a study in 2012 that looked at a number of priority species and the effects of Welsh agri-ecology schemes. The data from this research and other records in the county show that most of our county’s hares are found on the edges of uplands – the areas where there are rushy fields and sheep grazed areas.
These areas provide a safer base for their nests, called forms, and they can lie up out of sight in the rushes and use the open fields to graze. A hare’s main defence is its speed and open fields where predators can be spotted easily, with clear lines of escape are preferable. These are safer than lowland silage areas where young leverets can be killed by silage cutting. Rabbits give birth to their young safely underground where they are born blind and helpless whereas a hare’s young need to be able to fend for themselves to increase their chance of survival in their forms above ground.
People have been mesmerised by the hare since early times and it holds a place in the folklore of many cultures. The hare’s association with the moon is well known and in Japan, Mexico and China, people talk of the ‘hare in the moon’ rather than the ‘man’ when they gaze into the night sky and make shapes from the dark patches on the lunar surface.
The hare holds a special place in the hearts of Celtic people and the Mabinogion story of Ceridwen and Gwion tells how Gwion transformed into a hare and was chased by Ceridwen in her guise as a greyhound. She eventually caught him when he had further transformed into a grain of corn and was devoured by Ceridwen, who was by then a hen. This grain of corn developed inside her and was born as Taliesin, the legendary bard. Thus new life came about and this brings us back neatly to the hare’s associations with fertility and our own town and Black Book of Carmarthen in which Taliesin features.
I’ve often wondered why rabbits are kept as pets whereas hares are not generally domesticated. I researched the history of both species and found that of the three types of hare found in the British Isles, the Brown hare was introduced – and is now considered naturalised, whereas the Mountain hare in Scotland and its subspecies the Irish hare are native to our shores. Rabbits are said to have been introduced as a food source during the Norman Conquest. The European rabbit which was originally used for food and fur has been domesticated and selective breeding has been used to create more than 300 different rabbit breeds. I considered whether the precocial nature of hares was significant in them not being domesticated, hares are born relatively mature and mobile with hair and good vision, while rabbits are altricial, born hairless and blind, and requiring closer care. Is a rabbit easier to tame because it is more dependent when young? Hares live a relatively solitary life in a simple nest (form) above the ground, while most rabbits live in social groups in burrows or warrens, perhaps this less social nature of hares also makes then less suitable as pets?
I searched for examples of domesticated hares and was directed to an article about the English poet, William Cowper (pronounced Cooper). He also wrote hymns and is said to have changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry. Cowper was admired by William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge rated him as the “best modern poet”. He was a man who struggled with self-doubt and overwhelming feelings of depression. He was passionate about anti-slavery and was anti-hunting and he was also responsible for the oft quoted line “God moves in a mysterious way” which came from his poem, Light shining out of darkness. I didn’t think I was familiar with Cowper when I was told about him, but soon found I was aware of many of his hymns and also another of his famous lines, “Variety’s the spice of life”. Cowper had three pet hares that brought him much joy in the many hours of darkness he endured in his life. He described them in a series of letters and I’ve attached an article that reproduces some of them and which is well worth a read. I can’t do justice to his work by describing his hares to you, Cowper has such a wonderful way with words that captures the nature of these animals alongside the nature of the time it was written.
What is apparent is hares have individual personalities much in the same way as other mammals do and they can clearly be tamed and live with humans and other animals as pets. I’m jealous of Cowper and his original therapy animals, but I’m relieved that hares aren’t regularly kept as pets; because for me, they will always have a sense of mystery and a special place in mythology.
I started my Red Kite diary just one week ago. I had gone down to the village hall a couple of miles from home, to see if I could watch and photograph the pair of Kites that I knew had a nest in a field by the playground.
What a difference a week makes.
Last weekend the scenes were shocking. Covid-19 was recognised as a very real risk to the health of people in the UK, yet the local beauty spots were teeming with visitors, desperate to pack in one last day out before isolating themselves. My local wildlife watching patch is by Dryslwyn castle and I have spent many, many hours down there observing the river and the meadows nearby. They were once a popular over-wintering ground for white fronted geese – in fact, back in the 1980s this part of the Towy Valley was home to 10% of the population of Siberian white-fronted geese that visited Britain and was one the country’s top three sites with up to 2500 of this species being counted here in the 1970s.
The only geese I regularly spot there nowadays are Canada geese, plenty of Greylags and occasionally others, including the escapee Bar headed geese that hung around the river around 10 years ago. Bar headed geese are fascinating and are not birds that visit the UK as part of their usual travels. Their physiology is such that they are able to fly at extremely high altitudes over the Himalayas as part of their migration. This pair was seen up and down the Towy, as far as the estuary at Llansteffan where they were officially counted in a BTO count one winter. I wonder if they moved on to the River Teifi? There was a report in the local paper ‘The Tivyside Advertiser’, of a Bar headed goose being killed by a swan in 2018. It was one of a pair regularly seen there. Most recently around Christmas last year, I spotted a single Bar headed goose back in amongst a mixed flock on the meadow near the Towy. I wonder if this is the remaining partner?
On my way over the bridge to the village hall on my morning trip to visit the Kite’s nesting area, I spotted several Little Egrets roosting in a tree and I decided to take a closer look on my return home from collecting information for my Red Kite Diary blog. Sadly, the carpark was full. I have never seen it so busy and people were trailing up to the castle and sitting on the picnic bench and wandering around all over the riverbank. I decided not to stop and thought I’d come back and observe the roost early the next morning instead when I planned to visit the Kites too. I returned home, wrote my blog entry and enjoyed my weekend, tending to our polytunnel and preparing the beds for growing vegetables in our garden.
I haven’t visited the Kite’s nest since and it seems unlikely that I will see that pair again this summer. Technically, the location is within my usual exercise area and I could nip down on my bicycle, but this is someone else’s village, someone else’s local patch and local dog walking area, and I will leave it to them and stick to my own village until it is safer to travel further afield. It’s a shame and I will miss those Kites, but I have a familiar bird that soars above my house most days and I can get see plenty of other wildlife from my garden. I had hoped to share the story of Red Kites through this particular pair, but that is not to be this year. Instead I will continue sharing some personal reflections and some information about the Red Kite in Wales.
Red Kites first breed when they are two years old, although there are exceptional circumstances where younger birds have bred. They are monogamous, and pairs tend to stay around their territory over the winter – this usually results in resident populations pair-bonding. The Red Kite’s nest is normally placed in a fork of a large hardwood tree at a height of between 12 and 15 m above the ground. The pair that I had been watching enter and leave the tree had chosen a nest in the branches. Often, the previous year’s nest will be used and both the male and female bird take part in rebuilding this. The male brings twigs to the female who places them on the nest. The lining is made from grass and also sheep’s wool. Just before egg laying, the birds decorate their nest with all manner of things like crisp packets and toys and anything they can find that takes their fancy. Both sexes continue to add material to the nest during the incubation and nestling periods. Sometimes Kites will use a discarded Raven or Buzzard’s nest.
I have been outside enjoying a cup of tea and I could hear a Red Kite calling about half a kilometre away. This morning I observed three Kites flying over the field from my bed. How lucky am I?! There are three nests that I know of within our village and I’ve observed the Kites courtship displays for a few weeks now. I like to walk around the edge of my village on a Sunday morning. This walk takes in country lanes and a bridleway and covers parts of each of the three nesting pairs territories. The first breeding/courtship related behaviour I observed this year was on the 23rd of February. I watched a pair of Kites regularly swoop towards each other and spring apart, one of them chasing the other briefly before they reverted back to circling the fields, keeping a fair distance from each other but clearly well aware of what each other was doing. I’ve seen and heard pairs frequently since then and this morning the three birds were clearly engaged in some type of courtship display.
The collage of photos above are from two of the Red Kite feeding centres I’ve visited in Wales. The bird with the double forked tail was photographed by me in around 2001 at Gigrin Farm, Rhayader. The RSPB had observed the farmer feeding the Red Kites regularly in 1992/1993. At that time, they were being fed in the field with the sheep. This clearly demonstrates there is no risk to live sheep from Kites. They prefer carrion and are not particularly strong birds for their size so even when faced with a sheep carcass, they still need to wait for the strong jaws of a fox or raven to break open the bones before the Kites can eat. There were around 6 Red Kites roosting on Gigrin farm at that time and the feeding was providing a valuable service to the Red Kites. These birds were rare back then and chicks were being lost because of disturbance be people trying to view nests. The RSPB hoped that if the successful livestock farm opened to the public, it would reduce disturbances and loss of chicks at the nesting sites. The centre is a success story and by 2006 the numbers of visiting Kites had risen to around 400.
Red Kites feed in the mornings when they wake up and most Red Kite centres provide food around 2 or 3pm depending on whether it is British Summer Time or not. The centres provide a useful top up service and it is common to see the birds gathering from far and wide in anticipation of their meal.
I will include some links to Red Kite centres at the end of this blog. Back to the courtship and breeding antics of the birds. The three birds I saw this morning were an unusual spectacle. More commonly I see pairs displaying. I wonder if it is because the birds are now more common? I have never had a repeat viewing of the breath taking aerial display I witnessed in 1995. This was one of the most special days of my life.
We had just moved to Lampeter in Dyfed (now in Ceredigion). Mal had enrolled at the University in the town. I had been studying in Bristol and had decided to transfer to Aberystwyth University instead. Sadly academia wasn’t for me but it brought to us to the most beautiful part of the world and it has been our home ever since. Lampeter Uni is quite unusual. It is the oldest university in Wales and offers some fascinating courses which attract some equally fascinating students. Subjects like Ancient History; Medieval Studies; Religion; and Buddhist Textual Studies. Bristol’s student union had clubs that did things like review plays they had seen at the theatre or debate politics. Lampeter’s students dressed up as knights and whacked the hell out of each other with realistic looking swords!
Mal had made friends with a large, forthright, Yorkshireman called Dave. They had met on the first day of term and instantly hit it off. Dave had a big moustache, a bawdy sense of humour, a larger than life physique and personality … and a dress! Well, it wasn’t an actual dress as he frequently told drunk locals who were using his taxi service. It was his robes. Dave was a Buddhist and he had another name, but to me and Mal he was always Dave and we have many fond memories of our time together and with his children and he is sadly missed by us. He died in 2015 – or was reborn – depending on your viewpoint. I messaged his son a couple of years ago and we reminisced about our days out in Mid Wales.
Dave’s son was at school in the town and the four of us would frequently get in Dave’s car (Mal and I had motorbikes at the time) and set off on adventures all over the place. One sunny spring day we headed up from Lampeter towards Tregaron. The bog there is an incredible spot for watching wildlife. It always feel bleak and remote. The water is black and the bog stretches for miles – it is a great spot for dragonflies, adders and glow worms. There’s a heronry within a couple of minutes walk from the carpark too. We continued north into the realms of places with names we struggled to pronounce. I’m proud to say, these names now roll off the tongue. We drove through Pontrhydfendigaid, Pontrhydygroes and Cwmystwyth. Dave’s dream was to open a Buddhist centre in Wales and we stopped that day in what could have been the perfect spot. The Cambrian mountains are simply stunning and totally under-rated in my opinion. I am secretly glad of this because whilst tourists are flocking to climb Pen y Fan in the south or Snowdon in the north, the Cambrians are quiet and peaceful and an escape from everyday life. We stood in the derelict and unrestored grounds of what we now know to be the Hafod estate. The sky was blue and the air crisp. It was 1995 and most of the UK’s Red Kites were around Mid Wales, around 100 pairs in all. It was a treat to see one (I described my first encounter with a Kite whilst riding my motorbike in my earlier blog).
With so much beauty all around us it was a good job we looked up, because high above us in the sky were five Red Kites. None of us had seen that many birds together before. These were the days of getting really excited and pointing at them out the window on the rare occasion you saw one on its own. We were absolutely transfixed. The five birds were clearly in a group and were stacked like planes circling while waiting to land, pairs taking turns to glide slowly then swoop at each other, occasionally touching talons, before parting and taking their position back in the stack while other birds took up the aerial display. Red Kites will pass food to each other but rarely lock talons and tumble like other birds of prey. But some of these birds were pairing up and tumbling, wings bent double and almost wrapped up in each other whilst hurtling towards the ground but breaking apart suddenly and gracefully, and soaring back to their circle to wait their turn for the next battle in the arena of the sky.
I have searched the internet and my books for information on Red Kite courtship and I have found very little. I have never seen so many birds behave like this before or since. It was a truly magical moment. I wonder whether there is less competition for partners now the population has increased? I see that my blog has been read in India, maybe readers can contact me with their observations both here in the UK and further afield?
I have never seen Red Kites mating. I’ve never seen photos either. The Chiltern’s AONB (area of outstanding natural beauty) website says if you are lucky in April you may see Red Kites copulating in trees. I suppose we all define luck differently! After a successful mating, the clutch of one to three (up to a maximum of five) eggs are laid at three-day intervals. The eggs are matt white with red-brown spots and were prized by egg collectors in the past, which led to further reductions in Red Kite numbers. The average egg size is similar to a hen’s egg that you would buy from a supermarket. They are mainly incubated by the female, but the male will relieve her for short periods while she feeds. The male will also bring food for the female. Incubation starts as soon as the first egg is laid and each egg takes 31 to 32 days before hatching. Because the eggs are laid at three-day intervals, incubation continues until all the eggs are hatched so could take as long as 40+ days Both parents care for the chicks. First of all, the female takes care of them and the male brings her food for herself and for the chicks that she feeds. Later on, both parents bring items of food to the chicks that they place in the nest to allow the chicks to feed themselves. Fledging takes place after 48-50 days and the nestlings will begin climbing about on branches a few days before this. In the first two to three weeks after leaving the nest, the fledglings hang around and continue to be fed by their parents. Red Kites raise one brood per year but will re-lay if eggs are lost. A Red Kite can live for over 20 years and a bird was found in Wales in 2012 that was almost 24 years old.
So there we have it – the life cycle of the Red Kite. They still fill me with awe and I have to dedicate this to blog to Dave because I always think of him when I look at Red Kites. I am not a Buddhist, I practice no specific religion. I do practice mindfulness and one of my favourite meditations is on loving kindness. This meditation is also a Buddhist metta. There has never been a better time to contemplate on and project its meaning inwards to ourselves and outwards to the rest of the world.
I went down to the field earlier, hoping to get the chance to see Red Kites around the nest or engaging in courtship displays. It was fairly quiet, a single Kite was around and was flying in a large circle over the village and car park where a family were unloading their bicycles. I stayed for a while but didn’t hold much hope of seeing any activity. I expected the Kite to be preoccupied with the goings on in the car park rather than getting busy with any courtship or breeding. I drove back home and saw at least 4 other Red Kites and one flying directly above my house. This is a familiar bird to me and I recognise its individual voice. I know where it nests but it isn’t in a public place like the Kites I’ve been following so I smile to myself and wonder whether it will breed this year and keep me company with its mewling, whistling call over my garden through the summer.
My husband and I moved to the county of Dyfed in 1994. Mal had enrolled at Lampeter University as a mature student and we rented a small cottage in the middle of nowhere with no electricity at all – not even a generator, and our water came from a spring. The only thing I would miss if we were to return to that way of living is the internet and the ability to research any topic I wish without having to leave my house.
They were wonderful days and we spent our time between the University, work and riding around on our old Japanese motorcycles. It was in 1995 that we saw our very first Red Kite as we were riding along on our motorbikes down the back lanes from Llyn Brianne. I love the Cambrian Mountains and the fact that they are so peaceful and not busy with tourists. A Kite flew alongside us as we rode along the mountain road. I’ve always wanted to be able to fly and I imagine that motorcycling is as close as you are going to get without leaving the ground. For a while, the bird and the two of us on our bikes travelled together at the same speed, I cannot describe the feeling other than a total connectedness and oneness with the planet. Robert Pirsig in his famous book ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ written back in 1974 describes perfectly how when you travel in a car you are an observer looking at the world through a screen, much like watching television. But on a motorcycle you are part of the scene and the whole experience is never removed from your immediate consciousness.
Anyway, that was a very special moment that still brings me a whoosh of pleasure, not just for the experience of ’flying’ with a Red Kite but because I had never seen one before as they were extremely rare back then.
The Gower Peninsula has some wonderful archaeology and Red Kite bones dating back 120,000 years have been found in caves there along with elephants, hippopotamus, mammoth, rhinoceros, cave bear and lion. This was before people had come to Britain and Wales was joined to Somerset and Devon by a wooded valley rather than the Bristol Channel.
The Red Kite was clearly a common bird and was described in the writings of Chaucer in the Knight’s Tale and later in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The king’s daughter Goneril is described as a ‘detested kite’ and he also wrote “when the kite builds, look to your lesser linen” in reference to them stealing washing hung out to dry in the nesting season. These days, Kites still adorn their nests with people’s washing – including underwear, but also crisp packets and other items of litter as well as toys or any other plastic item that takes their fancy.
In the 15th century, James the second of Scotland decreed that the Kite should be killed wherever possible, but it remained protected in England and Wales along with the Raven for another hundred years, as it served the purpose of cleaning the streets of carrion.
Red Kite numbers appear to have been getting out of hand by the 16th century and a law was passed that placed a bounty on the head of many different species of birds including ‘one penney for the head of every kyte’. The name ‘Kite’ comes from the Old English ‘cyta’ (unknown origin) and by the early 15th century was written as ‘kyte’ and then later on ‘Kite’. The use of the word ‘kite’ to refer to the toy that is flown on the end of a string was first recorded in the 17th century. As the bird became more rare, its eggs became more attractive to egg collectors that could make good money from selling them. This added to the Red Kite’s decline.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there was only around a dozen Red Kites in Britain, and these were mainly found in central Wales. A conservation programme was established in 1903 to try and protect the Red Kites and this is now the longest continuing conservation programme in the world. Dr J.H. Salter from Aberystwyth University persuaded the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to set up a ‘Kite Committee’ to protect the few remaining pairs found in the upper Tywi Valley and the RSPB got involved too a couple of years later in 1905. I dream that the bird I rode alongside near Llyn Brianne was a descendent of one of these Welsh birds and not one of the introduced Red Kites. Figures had dropped considerably by the 1930s and some quote that there was only a single breeding pair of Kites in Wales at this time, whereas other figures are more hopeful and quote 20 birds in total. Whatever the figures, the Red Kite had become extremely rare in Wales and extinct in England and Scotland. Genetic tests have shown that the entire Welsh population of Red Kites has descended from just one, single female. I do hope “my” Red Kite was one of them.
The population of Red Kites did not exceed 20 pairs until the 1960’s, when it started to slowly increase. Recovery was slow because the birds inhabited an area where the climate conditions and food availability was poor and this depressed breeding success and prevented the Kites from expanding their range. Although Red Kites were a protected species there were up against a number of factors: Illegal poisoning by gamekeepers and landowners who mistakenly believed that Red Kites predated their livestock; egg collecting was a popular money making business and hobby; and shooting of adults for taxidermy were severely affecting the population.
The 1950s rabbit myxomatosis outbreak devastated a main food supply of the Kites. This was followed by poor breeding success in the early 1960s, thought to be caused by effects of organochlorine pesticides. I will have to quote another of my favourite books here too: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – a book left to me by my Grandfather and given to me by a friend of his after his death. This book inspired and motivated me and fed into my intense passion for the natural world. Sadly this treasured copy was lost along the way but I was given another copy recently by a good friend and look forward to rereading it, but also feel disappointed in the human race for having learned so little despite intelligent people pointing out the facts of what we are doing to damage our planet. There are many parallels with the Climate Crisis and the awareness raising that another strong, intelligent woman, Greta Thunberg is doing 50+ years later.
As the population of Red Kites increased and spread out to more productive land at lower altitudes it became apparent that the difficulties they were facing in successfully reproducing were almost entirely due to poor habitat conditions. By the mid-1990s there were more than 100 breeding pairs in Wales, and 350-400 pairs by 2003.
The Welsh population of Red Kites appeared to be unable to spread out of Wales to recolonise its former range across the UK because they were unable to produce enough chicks. The re-introduction programme run by the RSPB, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, amongst others, started in 1989 and helped to establish Red Kites in several areas of England and Scotland.
In 1989, six Swedish birds were released at a site in north Scotland and four Swedish and one Welsh bird in Buckinghamshire. Altogether, 93 birds of Swedish and Spanish origin were released at each of the sites, with the last birds released in 1993 in Scotland and 1994 in England. The first successful breeding was recorded at both sites in 1992, and two years later Kites reared in the wild themselves reared young for the first time. Successful breeding populations have become established in both locations.
Throughout the mid-1990s, Red Kites were released and successfully bred in the East Midlands and central Scotland (these Scottish reintroduced birds were from Germany). Further releases took place in Dumfries and Galloway and the Derwent Valley in the hope that the English and Scottish populations would join up.
By 2011 the RSPB no longer counted the number of breeding pairs in the UK on an annual basis because there were so many. This is a fantastic success story and proves that scientific, consistent, committed conservation work can pay off. It is unusual for me to go out without seeing a Red Kite now, and their distinct call; their elegant flight; beautiful colours and instantly recognisable forked tail are a familiar sight in the skies above Carmarthenshire.
This morning, like most Sunday mornings, Blaze – my scruffy dog, and I took our walk around the village to check on what’s what. I get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing the ‘regulars’. The pair of magpies that look like they may nest in the tree next to the school; the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker, noisily staking its territory in the woods by the bridge; the red kites busy re-establishing their pair bond ready to mate and hopefully raise chicks in last year’s nest.
This Sunday, the same as last week and the week before, a skein of loud, honking geese came flying overhead on their way – I expect, to the river by the castle to graze on the floodplain meadows and gather with all the other hundreds of geese that congregate there each day. I drive over the bridge by the river several times a week and I haven’t seen the huge flocks for a couple of days. I wonder if they’ve left for the summer to go back north to Scandinavia. My Sunday birds may be joining them or maybe they are like many of the Canada geese in the UK and resident here?
What tells them that it is time to migrate? Why even bother?
When we think about migration in animals and birds we are typically considering seasonal migration from north to south (or vice versa) as a reaction to resource availability. Food availability changes depending on seasonal fluctuations, and this influences migration patterns. Different species, like some fish, may migrate in order to reproduce. Cenarth Falls on the River Teifi is the first barrier the Salmon and Sewin have to leap whilst traveling upstream to mate before returning to the sea. It is a fantastic and picturesque spot for watching this incredible natural phenomenon. Temperature is also a driving factor of migration and many birds migrate to warmer locations during the winter to escape poor environmental conditions.
Migration isn’t the only solution to living on a planet that has changing seasons. Some animals stay put and hibernate like the hedgehog that uses our garden. I have had my trail camera out waiting for it to reappear and I expect it could come out of hibernation any time now. Other animals adapt to their environments – stoats living in very cold areas may turn white in winter and their ermine coats help them stay camouflaged in the snow. Jays and squirrels cache food for leaner times and foxes change their diet to take advantage of fruit and insects in the warmer months and rodents in the winter.
Migration can be obligate – where animals “must” migrate; or facultative, meaning they can “choose” to migrate or not. Not all animals in a species migrate – sometimes it is complete; sometimes it is partial; and sometimes it is differential, here the difference between migratory and non-migratory individuals is based on age or sex. While most migratory movements occur on an annual cycle, some daily movements are also referred to as migration. Think of the tide coming in and out each day, filling the rock pools and creating a food rich intertidal zone. Typically we think of migration taking place over large areas like the intercontinental migration of the Arctic Tern, or should that be the Antarctic Tern? Who is to say where its ‘home’ really is when it flies up to 50,000 miles each year! There are smaller migrations too and some animals like the earthworm don’t travel across the land or sea, but downwards into the deeper earth away from the cold frosts each winter.
Although animals frequently adapt to change by moving from one less advantageous area to an area with more advantages, it is not always because of migration. There are key differences between migration and dispersal. In migration, an animal is moving under some sort of pattern, influenced by seasonal, tidal, or circadian cycles for example. Triggers such as changes in the amount of daylight or in hormones sets them on their way. Dispersal is different because the animals are moving to a new location and not returning to the original site. Dispersal is heavily reliant on chance and the animal’s ability to find a home with the necessary resources to survive. It may look at many places before picking a home.
Humans have described bird migration for thousands of years and prehistoric people from Micronesia and Polynesia are thought to have used their knowledge of bird migration, as well as their skills using stars, currents and clouds to navigate the seas and find new lands. Aristotle, on the other hand – who in my opinion appears to have spent too much time indoors thinking and not enough time outdoors enjoying nature – suggested that swallows and other birds hibernated. He also proposed that robins turned into redstarts when summer arrived. The barnacle goose was explained in Medieval manuscripts as either growing like fruit on trees, or developing from goose barnacles on pieces of driftwood. Another example of a misunderstanding involving the swallow is that it hibernated underwater, buried itself in muddy riverbanks, or in hollow trees. This belief persisted as late as 1878 when there were no less than 182 scientific papers dealing with the hibernation of swallows.
Many bird populations migrate long distances along a flyway. The most common pattern involves flying north in the spring to breed in the temperate or arctic summer and returning in the autumn to wintering grounds in warmer regions to the south. Swallows are a common site in the UK and I await the annual return of ospreys with great excitement, hoping to spot one stopping off on its journey to the nesting sites in mid Wales. These routes typically follow mountain ranges or coastlines, sometimes rivers, and may take advantage of updrafts and other wind patterns or avoid geographical barriers such as large stretches of open water. The specific routes may be genetically programmed or learned to varying degrees. The routes taken on forward and return migration are often different to take advantage of ocean currents and trade winds. My blog ‘Belonging…or what’s in a name?’ describes the epic journey by Manx Shearwaters and how they follow the Atlantic gyre when they leave Wales for South America, just like those Welsh people setting out on the Mimosa in search of “a little Wales beyond Wales” back in 1865.
The geese I saw this morning flying overhead and the other waterfowl down by the river will no doubt be getting ready to head off to their breeding grounds if they haven’t already left. On a physiological level, animals undergo massive changes in readiness for migration. Some will be able to forage along their migratory routes, but for many, food will be scarce. Internal circannual rhythms can trigger intensive feeding behaviour for some animals, and they will stock up on fat stores to use as fuel for their journeys. Migratory birds kept in controlled conditions with no seasonal variation will still experience this internal biological rhythm that tells them to stock up on food even without environmental cues. Some birds can double their body weight in order to prepare for migration. Of course, carrying additional weight uses energy so other adaptations take place such as an increase in size of their hearts and flight muscles and a decrease in size of their stomach, gut, liver and kidneys. These organs return to their normal size once the bird’s journey is over. Insects adapt in a similar way and Monarch butterflies only develop sexual organs once they’ve made their migration journey.
When they are about to leave, animals will exhibit particular behaviours. House Martins gathering in flocks and lining up on telegraph wires are a familiar sight in autumn. Individual whooper swans will use intricate head and neck movements to indicate they are getting ready to form a flock and fly so that their mates recognise it is time to go and don’t get left behind. Traveling in groups can make migration safer and species may migrate with others of their type or take part in mass migrations like the Serengeti annual ‘great migration’ that include around 1.7 million wildebeest plus hundreds of thousand of gazelles, zebras and other animals.
I have always been amazed by how animals can make their way back to the same spot year after year. How do they navigate such huge distances? There has been much research done on this topic but knowledge is still very much in its infancy and it is a fascinating area that we know very little about.
Navigation uses a variety of senses. In particular, the senses of sight and smell. There is another sense that is involved called magnetoreception (also magnetoception). It is a sense which allows an organism to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location and is used by a range of animals for orientation and navigation, and as a method for animals to develop regional maps. Migratory animals use magnetoreception to detect the Earth’s magnetic field.
Magnetoreception is present in bacteria, arthropods, molluscs, and members of all major taxonomic groups of vertebrates. Humans are not thought to have a magnetic sense, but there is a protein (a cryptochrome) in the eye which could serve this function. I personally believe that some humans do have an awareness of this sense but I have no scientific evidence of this and am reluctant to share my thoughts in case I sound mentally ill or a conspiracy theorist! There is evidence that large mammals including red deer and foxes could be using magnetoreception. Foxes tend to jump onto prey in a north-south alignment and their most successful attack direction is clustered around north. Grazing deer and cattle tend to align their bodies in a geomagnetic north-south direction in the absence of other influencing factors. If magnetic fields are altered e.g. under power lines, these grazing mammals will realign themselves randomly. Birds are understood to use a sun compass and they can even make compensations based on the time. When I was at school, I was told that there were 5 senses. These are the senses we were told that humans have: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Years later at work I learned about 2 more senses: proprioception (knowing where your body is) and vestibular (balance). More recently, it is recognised that there is an 8th sense: interoception (knowing what you are feeling). Of course, these are the human senses and animals may have many others we don’t share. We already know that other animals have magnetoreception and electroreception and I wonder whether these senses and any others we haven’t named yet exist in humans. It will be interesting to know how many senses we recognise in 20 years time.
Migratory birds may use two electromagnetic tools to find their destinations: one that is entirely innate and another that relies on experience. On its first flight, a young migratory bird will use the Earth’s magnetic field to set it off in the correct direction. But it obviously doesn’t know how long the journey is. It is similar to going for a walk and having a compass but no map. As it undertakes its journey, the bird uses its other senses to recognise landmarks by sight and smell and also by using magnetoreception. Magnetites (magnetically sensitive crystals found in biology and geology) located in the trigeminal system (if you’ve experienced trigeminal neuralgia you’ll know where I’m talking about – those nerves that go through your jaw, face, eyes and ears) tell the bird how strong the magnetic field is in a given place. This means they can use lots of different sensory information to make a visual, an olfactory and a magnetic map of their journey. Birds tend to migrate along a north-south route and the Earth’s magnetic field is at different strengths at different latitudes. The bird is able to use this information to ‘know’ when it has arrived at its destination, regardless of whether the visual landmarks have changed. There is research being undertaken to identify if birds can actually “see” the magnetic field of the Earth (there is a neural connection between a bird’s eye and the part of the brain used during migrational navigation).
As well as using a sensory map to know they have arrived at their destination, young birds form attachments to particular breeding and overwintering sites. My blog ‘The Ugly Duckling’ explores some of the themes around attachments. Birds will use cognitive skills as well as sensory information to guide their journeys and older birds are better at making corrections to their journeys e.g. to account for wind drift. Migration routes can be taught as part of reintroduction programmes and cranes and geese have both been conditioned to follow microlight aircraft and learn safe migration routes. Birds can still get lost though and ‘overshoot’ their destination and some birds have neurological or genetic differences which means the innate programming used in migration doesn’t work as it should and these birds end up as vagrants thousands of miles out of range – this is known as reverse migration. The bird confidently sets off on its journey, oblivious to the fact it is going in a different direction to the rest of its flock. (That would be me then!) There is also a phenomenon called abmigration. This is where birds join similar birds and follow them back on their migration routes. I saw a snow goose one winter with the flock of overwintering geese down by the castle, I imagine something similar happened to that bird – it got in with the wrong crowd and ended up miles from home!
I started this blog with a poem. It is by Mary Oliver, a poet I only discovered recently. I have often found poetry too abstract and the symbolism passes me by but I love Mary Oliver’s work and her relationship with the natural world. Wild Geese is one of my favourites because it captures the personality of geese so well in my opinion. Harsh and exciting, over and over announcing their place in the family of things. When I watch the geese down by the river, something I have done for decades now (and written about frequently) I am always filled with their confidence. They don’t care one bit about anything else, they just do their goose thing and that’s it, no excuses, no pretending to be anything other than a goose. Some people seem to dislike that and I have at least one conversation with a random stranger each winter on the bridge overlooking the Towy where they ask me what I’m looking at, then ask me if they’re rare (and are disappointed that they are not) and then ask me “aren’t they vermin?” I have never said that if the criteria for being vermin is having an increasing population and being noisy and requires you to be culled, then people had better look out! But I think it every single time and try to smile and just say “mmm”, slowly raise my binoculars to my eyes and go back to looking at the geese.
As I watch the overwintering birds come and go each year I wonder whether they have a sense of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. I explored how we think of migratory birds like the Manx Shearwater as “our” birds when they are on Skomer each summer and I wondered whether someone else sees them as “their” birds down in the Southern Hemisphere. I never know whether the geese have come home each winter to the Towy valley or whether they are going home now, back to Iceland or wherever they have travelled from. Do they even think of it as home?
People anthropomorphise animals all the time – in fact I have always thought people anthropomorphise people too but I know that isn’t the correct term to use. There is certainly a very particular way of attributing human and animal characteristics to each other but that can wait for another blog. Some humans still live nomadic lives but less so nowadays. Historically we would have followed food and moved with the seasons to take advantage of weather and resources. I wonder how important the sense of belonging to a place was then? People can spend their lives searching for their ‘home’ or where they belong and I have certainly wasted my time, like many others, trying to figure out where I fit in, where is my flock, what is home? I choose to be like the Manx Shearwater. I too have made a long journey. I am sure the Manx Shearwater doesn’t spend the British winter worrying because it is hanging out with penguins in South America and it isn’t really a penguin or the British summer looking at the puffins and wondering whether it is ok that it is hanging out with them now. It has no need to identify where it belongs because it belongs where it is. The Earth is a big place thank goodness and there are times when I question if there is anywhere on it that is for me and where do I fit in? And that is when I think about Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese and I remember that I too must announce my place in the family of things.
Swans are the largest living members of the waterfowl family and fossil records of the genus Cygnus date back to the late Miocene epoch which means they have been on earth for well over 5 million years. They were swimming in ‘our’ rivers before gorillas had even evolved and long before Australopithecus, let alone more modern women and men had appeared. Fossil records of prehistoric swans found on Mediterranean islands reveal a bird that was 2 metres long from beak to tail – which makes it bigger than the local dwarf elephants that were also around at the time!
It comes as no surprise that these magnificent creatures have filled mythology and legend through the ages and swans hold a special place in many cultures; including stories of Norse swan maidens and the holy, pure birds that drank from the Well of Urd in Asgard, the home of the gods. Helen of Troy was described in Greek mythology as being conceived by Leda and Zeus who was disguised as a swan and the Irish legend of The Children of Lir is about a stepmother who transforms her children into swans for 900 years. The swan’s beauty and tendency to mate for life has captivated the imaginations of people and they symbolise elegance, true love, and longevity.
I can’t discuss the role of swans in storytelling without mentioning that most famous of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales ‘The Ugly Duckling’. This tale describes the trials and tribulations of a young swan hatched from an egg in a duck’s nest. Most of us are familiar with the story of how the young swan was humiliated and mistreated for being different until in the end he left and tried to find a place where he could belong and be accepted. Sadly he couldn’t find a place to fit in while he was still young; whether that was with the wild ducks and geese, the old woman and her cat or the farmer and his noisy children, so in the end he hid in a cave next to a frozen lake for the winter. When the swans arrived in spring, the now fully grown duckling decided he could not live a life of solitude any longer and threw himself to the mercy of the swans, expecting to be rejected, but as we all know, he was immediately recognised as one of them and when he saw his reflection in the lake he realised that he too was a beautiful swan.
There are many critiques and much analysis of this popular fairy tale and it has been said that the story may be autobiographical. Hans Christian Anderson is described in a biography by British journalist Anne Chisholm as such: “Andersen himself was a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet, and when he grew up with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for the theatre he was cruelly teased and mocked by other children”. Speculation also suggests that Andersen was the illegitimate son of Prince Christian Frederik (later King Christian VIII of Denmark). It is said, but certainly not proven, that he found this out some time before he wrote the story, and that being a swan in the story was a metaphor not just for inner beauty and talent but also for secret royal lineage. Hans Christian Anderson is often described as being on the autistic spectrum and whilst the word autism wasn’t in use during his lifetime (1805-1875), it has certainly always existed as a type of neurodivergence (or difference in brain neurology such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD amongst others). It feels safe to assume that the author clearly understood how it felt to be different and it draws up some interesting questions about how belonging and fitting in can be so difficult for people.
Christa Holmans is a business professional from Texas who blogs as ‘The Neurodivergent Rebel’ (She is rebelling against a culture that values assimilation over individuality, if you were wondering). Christa is happy for me to use her quote and I think it sums up the story beautifully: “The ugly duckling grew up believing – falsely – that he was an ugly or defective duck. Eventually the “duckling” learned he wasn’t a duck at all. In the end, the duckling was a perfectly “normal” “average” swan and this knowledge set him free.”
This also ties in nicely with the thoughts of social scientist and author Brené Brown (she has the fourth most-watched TED Talk of all time. It’s called “the power of vulnerability” and it has nearly 31 million views.) “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in”.
Brown says that when we “fit in” as opposed to “belong,” we acclimatise to the situation instead of standing for our authentic self.
So how did the ugly duckling not know that he was actually a swan, I wonder? How do any of us ‘know’ that we are human or what our gender or sexuality or opinions are? What seems like an obvious question to start with is actually extremely complex when you explore what identity is. There is an interplay of many complicated themes such as attachment, personality, free will and conditioning and the whole nature-nurture debate.
In the animal world, some birds don’t innately recognise their parents or even their own species. They will use environmental cues to identify and attach themselves to a parent figure. This type of imprinting happens shortly after birth and the parent figure does not even need to be the same species. It is called filial imprinting. This type of imprinting tends to take place in precocial birds (otherwise known as nidifugous birds) – they are developed enough to leave the nest and feed when they are very young, so the ability to identify a parent that will keep them safe is important for survival. There are other types of imprinting: sexual imprinting, where an animal learns the characteristics of a desirable mate and limbic imprinting, where very early experiences contribute to lifelong psychological development. I remember watching cartoons as a child and filial imprinting was a fairly common topic, with hilarious consequences.
These cartoons are from a time when behaviourism was a very dominant school of psychology and it was widely viewed that behaviour is influenced by the environment and you can pretty much train anyone to do anything if you punish or reward them hard enough. Less emphasis was placed on internal mental, emotional or sensory states. The 1955 Tom and Jerry cartoon called ‘That’s My Mommy’ is a fine example. A baby duckling imprints on Tom the cat and develops an attachment to him as its mother. Despite Tom’s far-fetched schemes to cook and eat the young bird, the duckling continues to love Tom and see him as his mother, and violently reject Jerry’s attempts at rescue. The cartoon ends with Tom setting up an elaborate plot to cook the duckling in a pan on the stove top. The poor bird is so attached to its mother figure that it tearfully walks up a spoon and attempts to plunge itself into the boiling pot – but at the last minute, Tom has a change of heart and grabs the duckling and they go outside and the cartoon ends with a view of Tom swimming in the pond with his young charge happily copying his every move whilst saying ‘that’s my mommy’.
Humans have exploited filial imprinting in birds to create fantastic wildlife documentaries where they have been able to fly in hang gliders alongside great flocks of geese. They have also used imprinting as part of conservation projects to teach birds that were bred in captivity how to fly and follow migratory routes. Imprinting has also been used to ‘prove’ that chickens can count! I’m not sure why this is important and I hope that scientists aren’t trying to create a master race of maths genius chickens. It is known that the chicks of domestic chickens prefer to be near large groups of objects that they have imprinted on – safety in numbers perhaps? In a series of experiments, the chicks were made to imprint on plastic balls and could work out which of two groups of balls hidden behind screens had the most balls in it.
Alongside imprinting, attachment also takes place. This is the important process of forming bonds so that social and emotional development can take place. Attachment theories have changed over the years and people form different types of attachments or connections to each other. Some of these connections are reciprocal e.g. between adults, and some aren’t e.g. a baby and its care giver. Back in the days of Tom and Jerry, attachment was viewed as a learned response i.e. a baby learns (through classical conditioning) that its mother will give it milk. The baby naturally likes milk and learns to associate its mother with being fed so learns to like its mother too.
The most famous example of classical conditioning is probably Pavlov and his dogs. I won’t describe his experiment here as it is so familiar and is easy enough to research if you want more information. Instead I will tell you about a Pavolvian experiment that my dog unwittingly took part in.
Last summer my family and I were in New Quay, West Wales. We had been on the beach looking in the rock pools and had found some awesome creatures including periwinkles, shrimps and a venomous weever fish. We’d wandered back up near the harbourside to look out to sea for dolphins and to avoid the crowds that had come on holiday and/or to see Chris Packham who was there as part of his Bioblitz project around the UK. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Chris Packham also appeared to be avoiding the crowds that had come to see him and was enjoying a piece of cake in peace. We had an interesting chat and he made a big fuss of our dog Blaze and gave her some of his lemon drizzle cake. Blaze is quite spoilt and thinks that everyone should adore her and feed her. Blaze and Chris were quite taken with each other to be honest. Roll on to October and Autumnwatch on TV. Blaze is a lazy dog in the house and not at all interested in television or anything other than sleeping or occasionally raising her head if she hears a kitchen cupboard door open, just to check. She may even get up and investigate if she hears the biscuit tin lid being removed. Anyway, Chris started to introduce the programme and Blaze was bolt upright and up on the sofa watching him. He has a distinctive voice and Blaze had learned to associate it with lemon drizzle cake. She now expects to have a piece every time Chris is on the TV!
Prior to meeting Chris Packham, Blaze liked cake – we can describe the cake as an ‘unconditioned stimulus’. Blaze already had an ‘unconditioned response’ i.e. she got excited by the smell and sight of cake – this was innate, she didn’t have to learn it. She had previously seen Chris Packham on Springwatch but had shown absolutely no interest in him. Chris could be described as a ‘neutral stimulus’. By pairing Chris with the cake, Blaze now experienced him as a ‘conditioned stimulus’ and whenever she has seen him since, a ‘conditioned response’ occurs regardless of whether he has cake or not – Blaze is excited because she associates Chris Packham with lemon drizzle cake!
Of course, behavioural approaches to understanding why humans and other animals do what they do aren’t the whole picture. I remember briefly studying biology and psychology as A levels and it all seemed a bit disappointing because experiments were frequently about being horrible to my fellow living creatures in order to find out how they worked. Whether that was dissecting a frog to examine its intestines when there were plenty of amphibian anatomy diagrams readily available instead or hearing about sleep deprived cats or baby monkeys that were taken from their mothers and given a wire ‘mother’ instead to see what happened. Personally, I didn’t need to do an experiment to tell you the result. They didn’t like it and it screwed them up long term – particularly the frog! As a professional I often describe behaviour and analyse behaviour to try and work out why people do what they do (the negative things usually – or rather the things that are most annoying to other people – I frequently feel that an individual’s difficult or challenging behaviour tells you more about the person observing or being on the receiving end of it than the motives of the person exhibiting it – but that’s a topic for another article). Learned responses aren’t everything and psychology has moved on since Tom and Jerry’s days. Attachment is now recognised as far more than a learned response and innate features like biology, genetics and neurology have a major part to play too. The way living things relate to each other isn’t just based on very early experiences and I hope that means the Ugly Duckling in the story got to experience some fulfilling relationships with his fellow swans despite his early experiences.
I was delighted to see that one of my very first childhood friends was involved in some animal training herself. Moira and I lived in the same street, and attended the same playschool, primary and secondary schools. Although we live a fair way from each other these days, we are in touch via social media and I frequently feel a pang of jealousy when I see her Facebook posts. Moira works at the medieval Bishop’s palace in Wells and among her roles is my personal favourite job title – Swan Trainer. Moira’s job is to teach any new swans how to carry on the 150 year old tradition of ringing a bell by the Gatehouse for food. The old cob Bryn died in 2018 and his mate Wynn and her cygnets departed from the moat later that year, probably to set up a new home on the Somerset levels. Swans tend to mate for life and if a partner dies, like Bryn did a couple of years ago, the pen will often seek out a new mate. The palace acquired some new swans named Gabriel and Grace, from a rescue centre in South Wales and Moira’s task was to train them to be good tourist attractions and ring the bell. She did this by repeatedly feeding them at the window and ringing the bell and throwing them food. Moira slowly introduced them to the rope and they learned to ring it themselves and immediately receive food in response. The trained swans then trained their cygnets to do the same. I would love to know what approach the adult swans used to teach their youngsters and whether they feel that it is actually them conditioning Moira to throw some food whenever she hears a bell?
The swans in Wells are the UK’s only resident swan, the mute swan. These birds weigh around 10kg on average and are pretty heavy for something that can fly. The heaviest flying bird of any species on record was a male Polish mute swan that weighed 23kg (51lb). Mute swans have a reputation for aggression – I have been told “they can break a man’s arm” but have no idea of whether that’s true or not – probably not, their bones have a honeycomb type structure to make them lighter so they can fly more efficiently. They do give impressive displays when under threat and can rise up with wings outstretched and hiss and attack other creatures in order to protect their nest. This display is called busking. Swans also give a nasty bite with what feels like teeth but are in fact jagged lumps on the serrated edges of their bills that are used for catching slippery food like algae, frogs, fish and aquatic plants. Mute swans do make vocal noises but are quieter than other types of swan and they don’t call when in flight but their wings make a loud swoosh that can be heard half a mile away and is used as a form of communication.
The other two types of swan found in the UK are winter visitors – the whooper swan and the Bewick’s swan. Whoopers are the noisiest of the three species and have a yellow and black bill rather the orange bill with black knob of the mute swan. They are large birds that migrate from Iceland to overwinter in the UK and they are often found grazing in fields near large expanses of water. Whoopers use some very sophisticated communication including flapping their wings, bobbing their heads and shaking their necks. This is done to signal to other birds to form a flock and take flight and seems to serve a purpose for getting mates to recognise that their partners are going to take off and ensures they keep to the same flock.
The Bewick’s swan is smaller than the whooper swan and comes to the UK from northern Russia. Like the whooper it has a yellow and black bill but it has less yellow than the whooper and to my mind looks less clumsy too. The beak patterns on Bewick’s swans can be used to identify them individually and Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust would sit with his family in their home at Slimbridge and paint the visiting swans. The family learned to recognise each individual bird and gave them names.
So we’ve learned how animals imprint on things and form attachments that give them a sense of identity and we know that good observers like Peter Scott and his wife and children can even tell different swans apart. So why did the Ugly Duckling not realise something as obvious as his differences? There’s an interesting theorem proposed by Japanese theoretical physicist Satosi Watanabe who was one of the fundamental thinkers on pattern recognition, and its named after the Hans Christian Andersen story. The Ugly Duckling Theorem argues that classification is not possible without some sort of bias. Basically, it shows that a duckling is as similar to a swan as two ducklings are to each other. All differences are equal unless we have some prior knowledge. It is the weighting we put on the categories we put things in that dictates what we view as a similarity. I’ll try and describe it without using complicated equations. Take these 3 objects: An orange, a banana and a ginger cat, like my favourite old tom cat Mojo. Most people would say that the banana and the orange were most similar because they are fruit. That’s because people tend to put a higher weighting on ‘fruit’ as a category than they would on say, ‘colour’. Maybe in a world where fruit is not significant, Mojo and the orange are more similar because of their colouring. If you took another category such as ‘ability to write’ then none of them would have anything in common. To try and find the similarities, you need to make more categories, and the list will be infinite and for every category where you find a similarity, there will be another where there is nothing in common. It is impossible to say which two of these three things are the most similar unless you introduce some bias about what is important to you. And that bias is totally subjective. And that is why I love the Ugly Duckling Theorem – as a lifelong pain in the backside to teachers and all-round smart arse I am thankful to Satosi Watanabe who perfectly describes my total disregard for the biased categories that people usually choose to put things in with maths! I like to think that some of the other people mentioned in this blog may enjoy the theorem too. Many autistic people are great at seeing patterns that other people don’t see and frequently find the neurotypical biases in society puzzling and baffling. Just as baffling as one of my old teachers would find it if I said a cat is more like an orange than a banana is because they’re both orange.