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Birds Britannia on BBC4: Waterbirds

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Stephen Moss Stephen Moss | 17:08 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    I found the first episode of the series (garden birds) very good. It was very interesting to find out about the history of Garden birds, which is a topic that is very rarely discussed on Nature programmes. I agree with you Stephen, the Great Crested Grebe is surely one of our most wonderful birds. I love it when they come on land.. they looks so ungainly.
    Check out this....

  • Comment number 2.

    Did you write a book about Garden birds. If so, I am reading it!!!!

  • Comment number 3.

    i love grebes, they are such fascinating birds.

    I've recently observed Little Grebes performing mating rituals that i haven't seen mentioned in most books - one pair dived to surface with grass/weeds/etc and placed the 'gifts' on the water between them before swimming away. another pair swam together in parallel and then stopped, side by side and then ran across the water for about 50ft or so. they then repeated the process a couple of times before swimming away together.

    Another good thing about Great Crested Grebes - they predate the mitten crabs! i got some shots of one eating a crab a few years ago and it was identified as a mitten crab. let's hope they start munching the invasive crayfish too.

  • Comment number 4.

    The first two programmes have been excellent. I like the concentration on changing human interactions with and attitudes to birds. Both have raised some interesting questions about our current approach to them, even if the message I took from the first show seems largely to have gone over the heads of those who refer to their garden visitors as "my birds".


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