For the Birds: Our Avian Friends Compile Amazing Flight Records, While Most Humans Remain Grounded by COVID-19

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Dear readers, I hope you are safe and well on this July Sunday, on what should be a fine summer’s day throughout the northern hemisphere.

For today’s post, I have chosen a feel-good topic. I don’t know about you, but the relentless drumbeat of depressing world news weighs on me – as I’m sure it does on many if not most of you.

COVID -19 continues to spread – lin part because countries have failed to absorb the best practices followed in Asia, and too many – I’m looking at you, big Tech and big Pharma- are more interested in grifting that quelling the pandemic. Not to mention that various aspects of the world economy are in the process of collapse. And civic unrest proceeds in the US — whether it be mask scofflaws, or riots in our cities: Louisville, Portald, Seattle. Having just finished compiling the daily Links for today, I’m well aware there’s precious little good news to report.

The Guardian, however, yesterday published a cheery piece, British birds’ long-distance feats and longevity are revealed, discussing some amazing feats of British birds. Although a small quibble: I am not sure it’s kosher to appropriate human nationalistic labels and apply them to birds. Surely the disease of nationalism is a human construct, and it is ludicrous to assign birds a nationality, particularly in a piece that discusses their remarkable geographic flying range?

But I digress. Back to the article.

Britons love their birds. And in fact, IIRC, at least 1 out of ten is ’twitcher’ – what they call birders or bird watchers on the eastern side of the pond. I picked up the hobby from my English husband back in the 1980s and I always port my bins with me wherever I may happen to go.

Over to the Guardian:

Flying around the world may have become an unappealing prospect or a distant dream for most people during the coronavirus crisis.

If you are a Manx shearwater, however, there is no limit to your long-distance travel, and one of these small seabirds from the Hebridean isle of Rùm was last year clocked journeying more than 7,564 miles from its Scottish breeding colony to the seaside resort of Las Grutas in Argentina.

An arctic skua from Scotland flew to Brazil – a straight line of 6,845 miles – while a swallow covered at least 6,400 to reach South Africa. A sanderling and a sandwich tern also made journeys of a similar length from Britain to South Africa.

How do we know these things? Well. volunteer citizen scientists collect the information. Again, over to the Guardian:

The records were collected thanks to uniquely numbered rings fitted by volunteers to more than 1 million birds in Britain during 2019, enabling individuals to be identified for the rest of their lives.

The records, collected by the British Trust for Ornithology, provide insights into the remarkable migrations of birds but also the human and climatic pressures they face – and their longevity.

Several species set new age records in 2019, including a fulmar humanely caught on Scotland’s Sanda Island found to have a ring that was placed around its leg 41 years, 11 months and 17 days earlier. A siskin captured and ring-checked near the village of Tarbet in Argyll and Bute was found to have been ringed at the same site in 2010, making it the oldest known individual of its species.

A 50-year-old Manx shearwater caught by a ringer on Bardsey Island in Wales in 2008 holds the record as the longest-living wild bird in Britain after being ringed on the same small island in 1957.

The collection of this data is not just an idle pursuit, but allows policies to be made to protect birds. As well as allows for the publication of reports such as these, APEP 4 – Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. The thought did occur to me that this tracking may hurt individual birds. As it happens, the BTO has studied this issue, Effects of tracking devices on individual birds – a review of the evidence and found the answer depends on the invasiveness of the tracking device, and these have improved over time to reduce their impact on the birds tagged and tracked.

As twitching and surveying is an outside activity, and can be done easily while socially-distanced, it can at least in theory continue throughout the age of COVID-19 – especially on a pleasant English summer’s day. I see from BTO’s website that some of that survey work is now partially suspended and subject to government guidance about outside activities in their geographic regions. Let us hope that this type of activity can continue again at its pre-COVID-19 level, now that the UK is slowly emerging from its lockdown policy.

As to the work already undertaken and recently reported, according to the Guardian:

“Without fitting birds with uniquely numbered rings and monitoring their nests we wouldn’t be able to follow their lives and our knowledge of them would be much poorer,” said Rob Robinson of the BTO.

“The data gathered by our fantastic volunteers help us to determine whether species are in trouble and, if they are, at what point of the lifecycle the problems are occurring.”

Of 1,047,521 ringed birds, the most-ringed species was the blue tit, not known for its epic migrations. Second was the blackcap, traditionally a summer migrant which is now increasingly seen during winter because of global heating and the lure of garden bird feeders.

Crowdsourced Observations Throughout the World

It’s not just in the UK, but throughout the world, that much of what we know about birds is based on the daily observations logged and posted by local birders. People do their counts and it’s a rare birding lodge, national park, or wildlife refuge that doesn’t keep some records of such things. Many individual birders also compile their own life lists – a comprehensive count of all the species ever seen.

And each year, various local Audobon Societies organize the annual Christmas Bird Count to observe and log local bird populations, giving us a worldwide snapshot of bird life on a particular day. No government gets involved, no funds change hands, but still, millions and millions of volunteer birders show up to survey local bird populations. When I can, I’ve participated in counts wherever I might happen to be on the day – various places in the US, Peru, India, and on a couple of memorable occasions, Whistler, British Columbia.

That was doing my ski bum days, and I always took time off the slopes to help the locals record bird life on count day. The treks were difficult, as much of the valley was submerged under deep snow at that time of year and most of the routes forced a slog through deep snow. The bird life was scant. And a good thing it was. Because the leader of the local birding group was a mad partisan of black Russian Mix. So his convention was to make everyone down a shot of his favourite tipple at day’s end when we gathered to compile that year’s count and whenever we found a bird that hadn’t been seen before on the Christmas count. Each year, we logged no more than a couple. I can down a shot when necessary – and actually enjoy it -provided it’s something I like to drink: single malt, armagnac, cognac, vodka. I was happy we never recorded more than one or two new birds during our evening report. Black Russian mix is well and truly vile!

I envied the people who got to do the Christmas count down the hill in Squamish – a winter roosting site of American bald eagles. That was an easy count, strolling along the river, where thousands of pairs of bald eagles could be spotted. What a sight! And I doubt there was any black Russian mix involved.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Though I like looking at birds, I am in no way a twitcher. Having said that, my wife mentioned earlier this week that a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo – the same type that we have visit our paddock – lived to be 83 years old. This I had to check out and she was right. “Cookie” was sent from Toronga Park Zoo in Sydney to Brookfield Zoo near Chicago back in 1933 and lived until 2016. I would have not believe that they would have lived for so long. But wait, there’s more-

    Birds are amazing.

  2. T

    Been wondering if reduced human activity in some spots has made migration easier for birds who’ve been detouring around city sprawl – which means fewer birds survive the trip.

    1. JWP

      While not explicitly answering you, T, I’ve noticed at least a tenfold increase in mallard and wood ducks roaming the neighborhood. Bringing their chicks for walks through the streets and lawns was customary and safe for them. Made my day when out on a walk to see such number of our feathered friends among us.

  3. Nix

    Side note: as a Hertfordshire-born, I always thought ‘birdwatching’ was the British English term for this, and ‘twitcher’ a vile Americanism (surely it’s crucial *not* to twitch: if you twitch, you’ll frighten them off)…

    … but it turns out I was wrong. Wikipedia sez: ‘Twitching is a British term used to mean “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.” In North America it is more often called chasing. The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list. The term originated in the 1950s, when it was used for the nervous behaviour of Howard Medhurst, a British birdwatcher.’

    i.e. twitchers are the box-tickers. People interested in bird behaviours or as birds as something other than trainspotting targets to be ticked off a list are definitely birdwatchers over here, not twitchers.

    There is also a fairly rarely-used term ‘birding’ over here: some of it is the US meaning, but it also applies to those vile sorts that *shoot* birds rather than watching them. (Half of those seem to poison birds too, the rarer the better. British gamekeepers are scum. There is a strong class division here: the middle class are birdwatching-mad, the upper class are more interested in killing everything that moves, which is violently unpopular among the middle class. If you bring the hunting predilections of the upper class up when polling on the monarchy etc, support for the monarchy *plunges*.)

    1. anon in so cal

      So,”twitchers” are those always seeking “lifers” to add to their lifetime list.

  4. Alex Cox

    Sorry to stray, but I want to call you on the ‘disease of nationalism’. Nation states are supposed to be entirely sovereign, and able to care for the needs of their citizens as they see best. In the current crisis the citizens of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Vietnam (to give only three examples) are doing much better than the citizens of certain larger and louder states.

    I would much prefer to live in Bolivarian Venezuela than under a world government organized by the oligarchs who run the US!

    Now, back to the crows outside my window…

    1. John Zelnicker

      @Alex Cox
      July 26, 2020 at 12:15 pm

      Nation states are, indeed, supposed to be sovereign, although taking care of all of the needs of their citizens can be problematic, especially in our interconnected world.

      I don’t want a world government organized by oligarchs either, but you might want to do a bit of research into living conditions in Venezuela before you move there. Right now, it seems to be a complete mess. It’s also being subjected to a broad-based attack by the US government and the oligarchs who control our government.

      More importantly, I want to support Jerri-Lynn’s characterization of nationalism as a disease.

      The concept of nationalism has been weaponized, especially in the past several years, to such an extent that, in the US (and perhaps other countries like Hungary and Brazil), it has become a dog whistle for, and synonymous with white supremacy.

      Under the circumstances, I don’t think calling nationalism a disease is off base at all. People have been attacked and some have been killed by folks who subscribe to the current usage of the term.

      Perhaps some day the common understanding of nationalism will revert to the non-lethal definition you mentioned.

      I certainly hope so.

      1. Fritzi

        Seeing the powerful, violent streak shown by nationalism since the 19th century, I’m not sure there ever was a non lethal historical nationalism one could recover.

        In fact, most of today’s nationalisms are FAR less lethal than their historical forebearers.

        Does not mean a version better than either isn’t possible, but that would be something new.

        Wasn’t the ideology nationalism very much joined at the hip to the last great, rapacious hurrah of european, capitalist imperialism?

        Basically total mobilisation of the nation’s power and resources in the service of the nation’s capital, to grab as much of the world to exploit as possible, by hook of crook?

        A resurgence of this kind of hypermilitarized, archpredatory, capitalist, imperialist nationalism would indeed be pretty nightmarish.

        Would be the same ideology that went out of vogue in europe when Nazi Germany started to use it’s practices historically reserved for brown people/savages on other white europeans.

        Of course the “winners” of this brutal game would not be the same today as back then, with some exceptions.

        1. John Zelnicker

          July 26, 2020 at 4:07 pm

          You’re right, it’s been going on a long time. I was mostly thinking of the extremism of recent years in the US which is a definite escalation of weaponized nationalism being used to divide us and set us against each other.

          Basically total mobilisation of the nation’s power and resources in the service of the nation’s capital, to grab as much of the world to exploit as possible, by hook of crook?

          A resurgence of this kind of hypermilitarized, archpredatory, capitalist, imperialist nationalism would indeed be pretty nightmarish.

          That sounds an awful like the US right now, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree.

          1. Fritzi

            One of the big advantages of european colonialists was that back in the day was that there were big chunks of the planet that were technologically backwards enough to be overpowered even by small countries with modern weaponry and ocean going ships.

            Small european countries could afford to play big, global power for a brief historic moment.

            That would not work the same way today, you have to be a large country with enormous resources and endless cash to project power globally.

            I’m not convinced any future player post US hegemony will again be able to project power on such a scale.

            But that is not necessary for a lot of vicious nastiness.

            I could see a lot more of the more localized imperialism and interstate wars of aggression that have been with us for millenia.

            Less bombing a country in the other side of the globe to rubble with overwhelming hightech force, more using a slight and perhaps temporary advantage to pillage and/or subjugate your neighbours.

            Think perhaps more of what Israel and occasionally Turkey are doing or attempting today, or if the US, less what it is doing today and more historical things like taking Texas from Mexico.

      2. Alex Cox

        John Z
        I haven’t been to Venezuela in a few years, but from what I read I would not characterize it as a complete mess. The US embargo, sabotage, creation of a fake parallel government and theft of money and CITGO have all taken a terrible toll, but the Bolivarian project continues regardless of what the US political class and media desire for the Venezuelans.

        The reason I’d prefer to live in Venezuela, or Nicaragua, or Cuba, rather than a world state designed by Larry Summers and administered by Tony Blair and Bono, is that socialist countries attempt to provide basic levels of health care, locally, and make genuine efforts at preventive medicine, at the poorest levels of society.

        The nation state entails sovereignty and autonomy. If a nation or a national government chooses to prioritize, say, food self-sufficiency rather than maquiladoras and resource extraction, they have the right to do so.

        The neoliberal paradise allows no autonomy, as oft observed here: 1. because markets, 2. go die.

        1. John Zelnicker

          @Alex Cox
          July 26, 2020 at 6:11 pm

          I’m glad to hear the the project has been able to continue. I agree that it’s a lot better in many important ways than what we have here. I guess I’m more familiar with the US interference than with how the general population is doing.

          I’ll omit my opinions of those men you mention so my comment isn’t deleted by the moderators.

          Edit: LOL. I wondered if mentioning the words comment, deleted, and moderator might send this comment to them for review. My apologies for adding to your work.

  5. John Zelnicker

    This post was a breath of fresh air. I’m glad Jerri-Lynn does these on occasion.

    It’s kinda weird how the comments quickly got off track and I apologize for contributing to the digression. However, it’s been interesting and I learned some things.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Great video! Much liking for birds among the NC commentariat, judging from comments on the antidotes I post – which all just happen to be birds.

      1. St Jacques

        Brought up with cats and dogs and loved them but I refuse to have any because I love to see and hear birds though I’m no regular bird watcher. Though I live in a metropolis with another five million people, I’m fortunate that I live in Melbourne’s suburbs that are filled with the sights and sounds of native and introduced species. No need to go bush to see the comical antics of a flock of gallahs, hear currawongs calling as they fly gracefully, watch the incredible acrobatics of wattle birds, or just watch common doves cooling off in the bird bath, among many others. Always look forward to the photos of animals, all of them, but especially birds. They bring light, colour and song to my day.

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