Grebe in winter
We see what we want to see

One of the most attractive species of bird to live on the lakes near my home is the great crested grebe. I’ve a particular fondness for this creature in its winter dress: its silvery elegance seems to suit its sleek profile and to provide perfect camouflage on the water. But most people know it for its summer plumage, which includes a lovely russet brown and black cape.

As with so many things, its beauty has (almost) been its downfall. The birds’ neck feathers were considered perfect for decorating ladies’ hats in the 19th century; and the grebe’s dense waterproof breast feathers, known as grebe fur, were an ideal material for muffs, capes and other trimmings. Commercial exploitation led to their virtual extinction in England by 1860, an act of ecological vandalism inflicted on a species that took just nine years to complete.

The bird has an exceptional pedigree as the focus of a number of important ecological movements, and thus its history reflects something of the complicated relationships between birds and humans. It was resistance to the fashion of using grebe and other exotic feathers that led to the Plumage League in 1886, which itself was part of the Selbourne League, and eventually grew into the RSPB. The birds’ flamboyant courtship display, as elaborate as that of any bird of paradise, was first examined by Sir Julian Huxley, the famous and highly influential biologist and eugenicist, who explained it in terms of an evolved form of nest building. A paper on the subject to the Zoological Society in London led to the establishment of ethology as the science of comparative behaviour. It was also the subject of the Great Crested Grebe Enquiry in 1931, one of the first large scale population studies for a single species ever carried out. 1300 volunteers took part in surveying over a thousand British lakes. The survey was led by ornithologist and polymath T.H. Harrison, who later helped found the Mass Observation project, which recorded the everyday lives of ordinary people using film, diary and voice recordings in a way that had never been done before. The style of mass observation was influenced by the methods of recording the behaviour of birds.

It would be nice to think that general indifference to the welfare of birds and animals is a characteristic of former times, when natural resources were seen as just that, inert resources to be exploited. Human beings have a God-given right to take what is given (provided it doesn’t already belong to someone more powerful). The notion that another living creature might feel fear or pain or indeed any other emotion is inconceivable to most people – isn’t it?

Literature, of course, provides a measure of this fundamental characteristic of human thought and culture. I mentioned in an earlier post a 1914 story by Liam O’Flaherty in which he describes a group of men – adults not children – who for sport throw stones at a rookery hoping to knock down some nests. T.H.White, in his magnificent memoir of his struggle to train a goshawk in the 1930s, referred to actions against birds that would seem outrageous to many people today: he considered using bird lime – a sticky substance that is smeared on a branch and to which a bird’s foot adheres – to trap a blackbird to use in turn as bait to catch a sparrowhawk; and only desisted because the practice had recently been made illegal. Nevertheless he used the same substance to stick maize and blackberries onto a cloth as an alternative form of bait; which seems to me a duplicitous ruse in more ways than one.

Hunting has provided a rich legacy of nature stories, including Turgenev’s magnificent Sportsman’s Sketches, and those of possibly our greatest nature writer of the early 20th century, Henry Williamson, who can each record hunting without sentimentality or salaciousness. Hunting is a form of active engagement with nature and is thus a good vehicle for exploring our relationship with it and with ourselves in it. But the way we engage with nature has, to a large degree, changed, and now we are individually far more passive – one would like to say benign – in our relationships with species and environments than we used to be, though collectively we are, through the ways we use land, far more active.

As it happens, grebes are one of the beneficiaries of this land use, having colonised many of the flooded gravel pits that were left behind in the wake of road- and house-building booms of the last century. They were lucky. Many other species have been less fortunate: once common species such as lapwing, starling, house sparrow and yellowhammer are now on the Red List of endangered species, having suffered substantial losses over the last 25 years.

We only see what we want to see, value what we want to value. This beautiful bird was reduced to just 40 pairs at one time. Its looks were in part what saved it. Of what else can we say this?


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