Forever Young

Grey-hooded Kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephala). Kichwa Tembo, Maasai Mara, Kenya. © Duncan Butchart, 2012

Much has been written about why people watch birds. It all began with our ancestors, of course, all of whom were hunters –  and hunting (or at least shooting) remains the primary interest for many bird ‘watchers’ today. If you want some evidence of this, take a look at the July 2013 edition of National Geographic magazine which features an article by Jonathan Franzen on the slaughter of migratory birds in the Mediterranean countries for human consumption or, more often than not, just for the plain fun of it. Many Albanians, Italians, Cypriots, Egyptians and Syrians  (to name just a few) regard the shooting or trapping of birds such as Golden Oriole, Blackcap Warbler or European Robin as a right no different to hooking a fish in their local pond. It’s a manly pursuit and a great way to pass the time. BirdLife International estimates that around 500 million migratory birds – from storks and vultures to warblers and buntings – are killed each year by such ‘hunters’ in the Mediterranean region. It is obvious that these folk just don’t make a distinction between birds and fish the way some of us do.

I’m no fisherman, and can’t stand the sight of some poor trout flapping around helplessly as it gasps out its final breath. There is clearly some self-deception going on, however, because I just don’t feel as protective about fishes as I do of birds (I admit to having eaten both). I do not believe that I am alone in this view, and I would wager that a large number of BirdLife, RSPB or Audubon Society members enjoy casting the odd line or two.

Perhaps it is because birds are so charismatic, athletic, colourful or just so gorgeous to look at?  We certainly know them better than fishes because they are all around us, in our gardens, on our farms and in every scrap of wild country under the sun. And, of course, their voices fill the air.

Thinking about this, I have come up with two reasons as to why I get so much pleasure out of watching birds and why I feel protective of them.

Firstly, birds represent wild nature to me – even though a great many of them are now living in landscapes somehow modified by man. Each bird is a fragment of a bigger ecological picture. The sighting of a lark in a cornfield reminds me of the intact grassland that the farmer ploughed over, but the lark is singing – and maybe even raising a brood – so its presence offers hope (albeit vain in most cases) that the landscape may be healed.

Secondly, birds appear to be ageless. One never encounters an old kingfisher, barely clinging to its perch, waiting for the grim reaper. It’s simple, of course, the law of nature is survival of the fittest – any organism that cannot keep up is preyed upon, whether by disease or by some larger beast. They are rapidly recycled. So it is, that you can walk down a path you took as a child and see a flycatcher on the same perch of the same tree, forty years later. It is perfectly healthy and vibrant, unlike the balding birder with stiff neck and aching shins. Naturally, it is not the same bird seen decades earlier, but it APPEARS to be. So, as somebody who is in hopeless denial of the ageing process, I’ve lately come to thinking that watching birds is a way of staying forever young.

If  YOU want to help birds, become a supporter of BirdLife – a highly effective global organization with representatives in over 100 countries including South Africa, Thailand, USA, Kenya, Cyprus and Australia.

Here is the last verse of Bob Dylan’s anthem after which this piece is titled:

May your hands always be busy

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful

And may your song always be sung

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young

May you stay forever young.

0 Responses

  1. This is a gorgeous article! I absolutely identify with your reasons for enjoying watching birds – I would add also that so many of them are so intensely and brilliantly coloured – they are little gems of the natural world – I guess the butterfly watchers share this pleasure too!

  2. I get ridiculous pleasure from feeding and watching the birds in our garden. Louise was horrified when I told her I was thinking of not repairing the hole in the swimming pool but adding some fish, because a Brown-Hooded Kingfisher had been eye-ing the murky depths from the washing line! A first for us!

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