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What's eating London's songbirds?

Andrew Self's The Birds of London is a thorough and entertaining history, but far too sympathetic to predators and bureaucrats

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

The Birds of London Andrew Self

Bloomsbury/Christopher Helm, pp.432, £50

This book, with its absurdly uninformative photographs, dismal charts and smattering of charmless drawings, looks like a report. A pity, because it is a thorough and entertaining history; the first to cover the entire London area within a 20-mile radius of St Paul’s, from the earliest record, in Roman times, to the present.

A chronology lists the date when the 369 species were first recorded, from the red kite in the 2nd century AD to Bonaparte’s gull and the buff-bellied pipit in 2012. The last named illustrate the recent rise in esoteric sightings following the postwar birth of the bearded-birder brigade, with their competitive box-ticking and ever more hi-tech equipment. There are many surprises. Who would have thought the Canada goose, first imported by Charles II, would precede the house sparrow, or the Egyptian goose (1863) the mallard (1866)? And then there are the bizarre sightings: the flock of starlings which stopped a face of Big Ben’s clock, 12 August 1949; the water-rail on a window-sill of the Guildhall, 3 April 1967; the puffin in Sloane Square, September 1984.

House sparrows and starlings have suffered the most dramatic declines, as even Londoners with no interest in birds must have noticed. Gilbert White of Selborne in 1779 is the first person to mention the sparrow; and by the 19th century thousands were caught to be killed trap-shooting or, when dyed, to decorate ladies’ hats. The 1950s ushered in the decline which now makes them virtually extinct in central London. No one knows why, although the parallel rise of the protected sparrowhawk to 200 breeding pairs may be one factor. Mallard and moorhens are also cited among sparrow-killers. Starlings still hold on but have declined 40 per cent (1995–2010); and the swift seems doomed to follow suit. Again, no one really knows why these birds are disappearing, beyond the fact that all natural extinction stems ultimately from human overpopulation.

The most conspicuously successful bird is the ring-necked parakeet. The Turkish collared dove, an even greater success story, arrived in 1957, having first colonised Europe. The ring-necked parakeet is an Indian bird, its London colonisation founded by escaped pets; the 1969 appearance of a ‘wild’ example coinciding with the lifting of an import ban. There are now about 30,000 and rather more outside-London colonies than the Ramsgate one cited here.

Other notable successes have been among the raptors and scavengers so beloved of Springwatch and the RSPB; birds once killed as vermin before gamekeepers were discouraged or prohibited. That carrion crows were ‘still controlled in the Royal Parks in the late 1940s because they predated ducklings’ says it all. The crow has increased 65 per cent in London (1995–2010), 10 per cent more than in the United Kingdom as a whole.

One despairs of Hampstead Heath, where the songbird and water bird populations decline in direct relation to the rise in carrion crows, jackdaws, magpies, jays, squirrels, rats, etc, all of which cry out for the unfriendly attention of a gamekeeper. Support from Andrew Self seems unlikely. He appears firmly of the birder bureaucrat consensus, judging by his reference to bird ‘persecution’, euphemistic use of ‘predated’ and euroland imposition of hectares and kilometres.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £45. Tel: 08430 600033

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