When one sees a bird, either alone or in a flock, it’s easy to imagine that what one is seeing is representative of its population. So the flock of house sparrows that always seems to be squabbling in the bushes beside the entrance to my local supermarket suggest that all is well with house sparrows in general. Likewise, the lapwings I see gathered in their scores in a local nature reserve remind me of the large flocks I seem to recall from my childhood. When I read of the decline of the yellowhammer I think of the three or four birds I saw last year while walking on a footpath across open fields, and wonder at the meaning of the word decline. I see blue tits, great tits and coal tits aplenty on my feeders: there are greenfinches and goldfinches chattering sweetly in the trees a dozen or so yards away. I can see easily two or three robins strategically placed at the tops of leylandii trees nearby in full throated combat over territory; and last week I saw a red kite just a few miles south of my home in Warwickshire. So perhaps I can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about when I read of the decline of certain bird populations. If I recall much larger numbers in my childhood, surely that’s an effect of my memory lending everything a nostalgic glow, isn’t it?
The evidence of decline in many populations is strong, often irrefutable, but for most of us it is divorced from our daily experience. The slow drip-drip of diminution generally goes on elsewhere, unnoticed. If for example the turtle dove is now near extinction, how am I supposed to know? I suppose I could go looking for one. Birders, like trophy hunters, seek out rare sightings. But the search for rarities obscures the fact that they are rarities. In a recent TV programme on the River Taff in South Wales the presenter celebrated the fact that he caught a salmon, which is an indicator of the revived health of the river, but the fact that the number of salmon in UK and European rivers generally has declined dramatically over the last few decades was not the point of the programme.
It’s an irony not lost on some of our finest nature writers that the popularity of the genre has risen with the decline of the very things they are writing about; yet it seems to be not the loss that is the focus of interest in many readers’ and viewers’ minds. Rather, the thing that attracts people is a desire for a form of escapism into another world, a ‘natural’ world, very different from that in which most of us seem to live. No jobs, no debts, no traffic jams, no politics, no complicated social relationships: just an imagined impression of the wind and the thrill of the chase. Or else we anthropomorphise birds and animals so that we see them as something like pets. The pages of Facebook are stuffed full of people’s experiences of encounters with animals that make them look just like us.
They’re not, of course. When we see a picture of a creature apparently doing something we would do – play a game, bestow a kiss, share a meal – we are engaging in a very selective and distorted outlook on the natural world. It isn’t like that. But as long as we seek ways to imagine that it is, we won’t see what it is like or what is happening to it.
The fact is, the greatest dangers facing many parts of the natural world come from the consequences of our own society. Not just the burning of fossil fuels but the expansion of housing, roads, parks. Our massive consumption of food demands farming is done on an industrial scale. We love our pets, but the ingredients of pet foods are often foods that other creatures depend upon.
Take the sand eel, a key ingredient in the manufacture of pet food and also of fertilisers that are spread on the land. The same creature is a vital source of food for many bird populations including terns and puffins. Most of us don’t see terns and puffins very often, and so have no reason to be aware of the consequences of feeding our pets fish-based foods. When we do see them, as in Adam Nicolson’s excellent series recently on the Atlantic seabirds, we smile at their pretty features and sigh at his impassioned account of their demise, and move on.
It’s hard to do anything else. If, say, cars and the car industry are major sources of pollution lading to climate change, would it help if I gave mine up? I wouldn’t be able to earn a living then, or at least not any I can reasonably conceive of at the moment. What would that achieve? If electricity is created by gas-burning power stations, would it help if I used only locally sourced wood for heating, cooking and light? Of course not. If I choose to buy organically reared locally produced meat, for example, is that going to worry the massive meat production companies whose animals roam over areas cleared of rain-forests? I think not.
The problem is too big and too complex for any of us to contemplate. And in the end, it usually seems too remote. I read today of the decline of certain bird species due to de-forestation in Amazonia. It tells of the threat to creatures such as the gloriously named Alagoas Foliage-gleaner. I’m not responsible for this, not directly. But indirectly I am. What can I do that is no more than a token gesture, and probably a rather smug, self-satisfied one at that?
Meanwhile, I saw my first house martin of the year this week. It’s early, I think, and it seems to be on its own. But soon others will come. Not in such numbers as once they did, but they’ll be here. Nature does have the capacity to win through, in some form. Even if, when we’re all gone, only cockroaches and bacteria remain.
Image Michael Islove, Flickr Creative Commons