Birds Britannia on BBC4: Waterbirds
I have always had a soft spot for waterbirds – ducks, geese and swans, herons and egrets, kingfishers, and the two birds that started me off birdwatching as a child – the coot and the great crested grebe.
I was brought up on the outskirts of West London, where the map is covered with little blue patches – the River Thames, gravel pits and reservoirs. When I was just three years old my mother took me down to the river to feed the ducks. Puzzled by the identity of some of them, I asked “what are those funny black ducks?” She didn’t know, but at home we looked them up in The Observer’s Book of Birds (remember that one?!) They were coots, of course.
Later on, while out on a school nature walk, I saw my first great crested grebes – surely one of the most beautiful of all our birds. I was hooked on waterbirds – and now, at my new home on the Somerset Levels, am enjoying seeing them on a daily basis.
The great crested grebe has an extraordinary part to play in the history of our long – and often turbulent – relationship with Britain’s birds. We didn’t eat them (unlike most other waterbirds) but during the Victorian era we did persecute them in the name of ladies’ fashions. Their feathers were used on hats, muffs and to trim coats and dresses, and the grebe almost went extinct as a result. Only the intervention of a group of determined ‘posh women’ turned the tide, and saved the grebe forever – and in the process, started off the RSPB!
Later the grebe went on to kick-start two branches of science: ethology, or the study of animal behaviour, which began in 1912 when a young scientist named Julian Huxley observed their amazing breeding behaviour for the first time. Later, in the 1930s, grebes helped start the social science movement Mass-Observation. This was when its founder Tom Harrisson, a keen birder, realised he could apply the same techniques he had used to survey grebes to study the habits of another species – us!
These are just three of the fascinating stories in this week’s Birds Britannia. I’d love to know what you think of the series, so do add your comments below. In the meantime thanks for all the feedback so far…
Birds Britannia: Waterbirds is on BBC Four from Wednesday 10 November, 9pm.