Flight Lines: Interview with Mike Toms

The Flight Lines Project is a collaboration between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). Using a unique combination of art, stories and science, this project aims to explore the lives of migrant birds and to highlight the challenges they face in a rapidly changing world.

In this interview with Flight Lines author, Mike Toms, we talk about the relationship between art and science, the importance of volunteer ornithologists and cultural differences in our attitudes to birds.


Flight Lines author, Mike Toms

I’m curious about the perceived division between the arts and the sciences. While it’s true that many artists portray images of the natural world in their work, there are not many situations where artists and scientists are required to work together towards a common aim. Flight Lines is obviously a wonderful example of this – where did the idea for the project come from and what do you consider to be the most important thing that came out of it?

There is growing evidence that audiences exposed to science and conservation messages through the creative arts are more likely to show meaningful change in their understanding, which suggests that those of us working in research should seek now opportunities to communicate the impact of our work. Flight Lines was made possible by the generous legacy left by Penny Hollow and the kindness of her executors. Penny, a long-standing BTO member was a regular at the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) exhibitions, a great supporter and a lay member of the SWLA. The bringing together of artists and scientists to raise the profile of our migrant birds was a fitting tribute to her interests and something that we had been looking do alongside our programme of research into migrant birds. Not only has the project enabled us to tell the stories of our summer visitors to new audiences but it has also helped to underline how art and science can work together to effect change.

Flight LinesOur knowledge of where our migrant birds disappear to each year has vastly increased with the development of ever smaller and more advanced tracking devices and locators. What do you think will be the next big technological advancement in the study of bird migration?

It is the arrival of smaller and smaller devices that has revolutionised our understanding of the movements of migrant birds. The level of information that can now be collected through the use of GPS-tags and satellite-tags means that we can identify the sites and habitats used by migrant birds throughout the year. In some cases, such as with those tags that communicate via the mobile phone or satellite network, the information collected can be presented to the public in near real time, greatly adding to wider engagement with the science that is being undertaken. For the smallest birds, the tags used have to be retrieved the following year in order to download the data. As miniaturisation continues, we will soon be able to track the movements of Swallows, House Martins, Whitethroats and other small migrants in near real time. That will be a significant advancement for our understanding.

Whinchat, Blakeney by Richard JohnsonIn the UK I think it would be fair to say that we have an above average obsession with birds and their welfare. This is in stark contrast to many of the countries you discuss in the book, where birds are often viewed mainly as food or hunting trophies. What do you think is responsible for this difference in attitudes?

It is incredibly important to recognise the cultural differences that exist between countries in terms of how birds are viewed. Many of these are deeply rooted and extend back through generations, each shaped by local beliefs and opportunities, by living conditions and by trade. The hunting of migrant birds in North Africa, for example, is shaped by at least three different drivers: some are hunted for food by people living in very poor communities; others are hunted because of cultural beliefs, and many are hunted because there is a sizeable market for such commodities within the Middle East. It is important that we recognise how attitudes towards birds differ across the globe so that we can deliver approaches to conservation that are sensitive and appropriate.

Flight Lines trip to Senegal, West AfricaThe subject of supplementary feeding is currently a hot topic with the recent publication of an article in Science showing how great tits’ beaks have changed size due to the use of garden feeders. However, the messages we receive about feeding our garden birds are very mixed. Do you think the amount of supplementary feeding that occurs in the UK is a good thing overall?

The provision of supplementary food is one of the most common deliberate interactions between people and wild birds, supporting a wild bird care industry within the UK worth an estimated £210 million each year. Despite the huge amount of supplementary food provided in gardens we know surprisingly little about its impacts, which is one of the reasons why the BTO has been funding research into this topic over many years. Supplementary feeding may increase the overwinter survival of small birds, shape the communities of birds living alongside us and alter migration patterns and behaviour. It may also change the dynamics of competition between species or aid the spread of new and emerging diseases. Before we can say whether or not it is a good thing we need to improve our understanding of the associated costs and benefits, and look at these in relation to other human-bird interactions, such as climate and habitat change.

Scissor stone curlew by Harriet MeadCitizen science schemes are an incredibly powerful force in terms of obtaining large quantities of data and you frequently mention in your book how much of our knowledge about bird populations comes from the tireless efforts of volunteers. Do you think that being involved with a citizen science project is also empowering to the individual and can help to break down some of the boundaries between “professional” scientists and amateurs, making science and research more accessible to them?

The terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ are often used incorrectly, suggesting that staff are professionals while volunteers are amateurs, when what is really meant is that staff get paid and volunteers don’t . Many volunteers are experts in their field, sometimes the expert, and the right approach to citizen science should recognise this. We know from various research studies that volunteers participate in citizen science for a whole host of different reasons, some linked to internal values – such as feeling good about yourself – and some to external – such as sharing expertise, contributing towards charitable objectives. A well run citizen science project should make the science being carried out more accessible to participants, enabling them to see how their contribution is being used to answer a particular research question and empowering them to recognise the impact that their involvement is facilitating.

Do you feel that your art is influenced by your love of birds and wildlife and, conversely, do you feel that your art affects your appreciation of the natural world?

Some of my writing – the prose and poetry – is influenced by the natural world and by the sense of place. This feeling for the natural world is equally evident when I am participating in BTO surveys, especially the Nest Record Scheme, where significant time is spent immersed in nature, watching birds and their behaviour in order to find and monitor nesting attempts.


Flight Lines is published by the British Trust for Ornithology and is available to buy from NHBS.

 

Bowland Beth: An Interview with David Cobham

Bowland Beth dramatises the short life of an English hen harrier between 2011 and 2012 and immerses the reader in the day-to-day regimen of her life. Interweaved with her story is the larger tale of the species fight for survival under the constant threat of persecution. In this article our book specialist, Nigel Jones, talks to the author, David Cobham, about the plight of the hen harrier and his hopes for the future of this glorious bird.


David Cobham
The Author of Bowland Beth, David Cobham.

There are numerous organisations and NGOs in the book who want the same outcome for the hen harrier, but who seem to be in conflict as to how to achieve their aims. What strategy do you think would enable all these groups to speak with one voice; do you think this would help when confronting powerful lobby groups such as the landowners and their connections in government?

The problem lies in some organisations wanting an outright ban on driven grouse shooting. That is not going to happen as has already been demonstrated. What we all have to work for is a system of licensing driven grouse moor shooting. Controlled by DEFRA a driven grouse moor would be licensed to operate and granted the subsidies that are substantial.  If a case of illegal killing was proven in court the license for driven grouse shooting would be revoked for 3 years. I believe this would get a majority backing.

The hen harrier in your book is named Beth. I encounter some people who disapprove of naming animals, they claim this is anthropomorphism and inappropriate to conservation.  What would you say to those people?

Mark Avery in his review of my book saw exactly what I was trying to do. Ring numbers or tag numbers are impersonal. By giving them names it makes us feel closer to the birds. The news that Bowland Beth has died is much more heart wrenching than that 834759 has died.

Sadly, I have never seen a hen harrier. Your description of them is written with such a passion akin to awe that I am now determined to see one of these birds for myself. What chance does an everyday person like myself have of seeing a hen harrier in the wild?

A survey last year reported that there were 4 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England – none of them on grouse moors. The best time to see hen harriers is in the winter when there is a considerable influx of hen harriers from the Scandinavian countries. They pitch up from October on the east of England and can be seen as they come into roost in reed beds on the coast or in damp areas with shelter from silver birches inland. They return north to breed in mid-March.

The landowners say they need to make an income from the moors, and driven grouse shooting is the only way they can do this. They will put the case for local employment and, like the debate around foxhunting, accuse opponents of not understanding ‘the countryside.’ Do you think a ban on driven grouse shooting is the only way to force the landowners hand, or do you think working alongside landowners to assist with techniques such as brood management and diversionary feeding is the best way to proceed?

Brood management is just one of six measures in DEFRA’s save the hen harrier project. It is a concession to the grouse moor owners. This is how it will work. First, when a nest is found on a grouse moor, diversionary feeding must be tried. This involves feeding day old chicks during the six week period when hen harriers take grouse chicks. They are placed on a plank supported by trestles about 30 metres from the nest. Trials at Langholm showed that this method reduces chick predation by 86%. If another hen harrier nests within 10 km of the original nest then brood management comes into play. The clutch of eggs is removed and hatched in an incubator. They are taught to feed. When they can feed themselves they are placed in an aviary out on the moor. Monitored by experts they will be given a “soft” release and continue to be fed until they are self sustaining.

If the trial is shown to fail due to illegal killing it will cease immediately.

I’m quite cynical about this. I think a lot gamekeepers won’t allow a hen harrier to nest on their moor and furthermore there are not enough hen harriers breeding on grouse moors in England to justify this procedure.

There are some conservationists that advocate adopting a more laissez-faire approach to extinction, moving priorities to bio-abundance rather than biodiversity and accepting that extinction and invasive species are part of the evolutionary process. What are your thought regarding this way of thinking?

I quote directly from my book. An extract from The Diversity of Life by Professor Edward O. Wilson: “We should not knowingly allow any species or race to go extinct. There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the ages of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us”. The hen harrier was extinct as a breeding bird in England in 2013. Its fate lies in our hands now.

Despite the hen harrier being a totem and emblematic of a battle between conservationists and those wishing to preserve a ‘rural way of life;’ a quick straw-poll I conducted indicated little knowledge of the bird. However, with more knowledge, I believe the majority would care about the hen harrier. How can the plight of the hen harrier compete in a media blizzard of often superficial and meaningless content?

When Bowland Beth was shot we believe she had just found a mate. Her femur was fractured, six of her tail feathers cut through and her femoral artery nicked. She picked herself up and flew unsteadily off, streaming blood behind her. Her vision blurred and she crashed into heather. Don’t tell me that birds don’t feel pain. She must have been in exquisite pain. I know about pain. I broke my femur last October, and lay there for six hours before I was found. That is the bond I have with Bowland Beth.

Do you believe satellite tagging is a good way to monitor hen harriers, and if so why?

Illegal killing of hen harriers continues. There is an arms race – sophisticated satellite tagging versus state of the art weaponry. Since 2007 36 hen harriers satellite tagged by Natural England have “disappeared”. Bowland Beth was one of them. The Hawk and Owl Trust satellite tagged two hen harriers last year. The male, Rowan, was shot last October in the north of England. His leg was smashed and he was able to fly some distance before collapsing in the heather. Sorrel, a female, is alive and well and flourishing in Scotland.

Protecting the hen harrier requires dedication, passion and commitment to the cause of conservation, often from volunteers working long hours in all weathers. What would you say to inspire a future generation of conservationist to take up the baton?

To watch a young hen harrier successfully fledge from her nest and set out into the unknown is the start of a Great Adventure. Sharing this knowledge with other weary volunteers who have probably not seen anything all day re-invigorates them, gives them the impetus to go out again and search for that elusive V-shaped image of a hen harrier, searching up and down, for its favourite prey, short-tailed field voles.


Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier, written by David Cobham and illustrated by Dan Powell, is published by William Collins and is available in hardback.

 

Best Bird Boxes for Different Species

This guide is designed to help you choose the best bird box, based on the species of bird that you are hoping to attract, or that you know can be found in your garden or other outdoor space. Species are organised alphabetically by common name, and for each one we have included information about the preferred type of box and siting location. You will also find a handy list of suitable boxes available from NHBS.


Barn OwlTyto alba

• Box type: Large box with entrance hole measuring at least 150 x 200mm. An exercise platform for young owls is also beneficial.
• Siting guidelines: At least 4m high in an undisturbed area, away from roads. Boxes can be installed inside a barn if there is a clear flight path to the entrance.
• Suitable boxes:
Barn Owl Nest Box
Eco Barn Owl Nest Box
Triangular Barn Owl Nest Box
Schwegler Barn Owl Nest Box 23
Interior Barn Owl Nest Box


BlackbirdTurdus merula

• Box type: Medium box with platform-style front.
• Siting Guidelines: At least 1.5m high and preferably within a bush or shrub.
• Suitable boxes:
Blackbird FSC Nest Box


Blue TitCyanistes caerulus

• Box type – Small box with 25mm entrance hole. Will also use boxes with a larger hole if there isn’t competition from larger birds.
• Siting guidelines – Trees and walls in gardens and woodland. 1-5m in height with a clear flight path. Avoid direct sunlight and busy areas of the garden.
• Suitable boxes:
Traditional Wooden Bird Nest Box with 25mm hole
Small Bird Nest Box with 25mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 25mm Hole
Schwegler 1B Nest Box with 26mm Hole


Black RedstartPhoenicurus ochruros

• Box type: Small box with open front.
• Siting guidelines: At least 3m high in an urban area.
• Suitable boxes:
Schwegler 2HW Nest Box
WoodStone Build-in Open Nest Box


Coal TitPeriparus ater

• Box type: Small box with 25mm entrance hole. Will also use boxes with a larger hole if there isn’t competition from larger birds.
• Siting guidelines: Site boxes low to the ground unless predation from cats is a problem.
• Suitable boxes:
Traditional Wooden Bird Nest Box with 25mm hole
Small Bird Nest Box with 25mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 25mm Hole
Schwegler 1B Nest Box with 26mm Hole


Crested TitLophophanes cristatus

• Box type: Small box with 28mm entrance hole. Will also use boxes with a larger hole if there isn’t competition from larger birds.
• Siting guidelines: Trees and walls in garden or woodland. 1-5m in height with a clear flight path. There is some evidence to suggest that crested tits will only utilise boxes if they are filled with sawdust or wood shavings.
• Suitable boxes:
Vivara Pro Seville 28mm WoodStone Nest Box
Small Bird Nest Box with 28mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 28mm Hole


DipperCinclus cinclus

• Box type: Medium box with open front.
• Siting guidelines: Adjacent to natural moving water.
• Suitable boxes:
No. 19 Schwegler Dipper and Pied Wagtail Nest Box
Eco Dipper and Wagtail Box


Great Spotted WoodpeckerDendrocopos major

• Box type: Medium box with 50mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree at a height of 3 – 5m. Boxes should be stuffed with soft material such as rotten wood or bark.
• Suitable boxes:
Woodpecker/Starling Nest Box
Woodpecker Box


Great TitParus major

• Box type: Small box with 28mm entrance hole. Will also use boxes with a larger hole if there isn’t competition from larger birds.
• Siting guidelines: Trees and walls in gardens and woodland. 1-5m in height with a clear flight path.
• Suitable boxes:
Vivara Pro Seville 28mm WoodStone Nest Box
Small Bird Nest Box with 28mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 28mm Hole


Green WoodpeckerPicus viridis

• Box type: Medium box with 60mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree at a height of 3 – 5m. Boxes should be filled with soft material such as rotten wood or bark.
• Suitable boxes:
Large Bird Nest Box


Grey WagtailMotacilla cinerea

• Box type: Medium box with open front.
• Siting guidelines: On a wall (e.g. a bridge) near to fast flowing water.
• Suitable Boxes:
Grey Wagtail Nest Box
Eco Dipper and Wagtail Box
Vivara Pro Barcelona WoodStone Open Nest Box
Traditional Open Fronted Wooden Bird Nest Box


HobbyFalco subbuteo

• Box type: Nesting Basket 40-50cm in diameter
• Siting guidelines: In the top of a tree near the edge of a wood, preferably overlooking farmland or wetland.
• Suitable Boxes:
Long-Eared Owl and Hobby Nesting Basket
Schwegler Nesting Baskets for Large Birds: 40cm Diameter


House MartinDelichon urbica

• Box type: Bowl with narrow entrance.
• Siting guidelines: Directly beneath the eaves. Locations above windows and doors are often preferred, so a droppings board may be necessary.
• Suitable boxes:
House Martin Nests
Schwegler 9A-1 House Martin Single Box
Ceramic House Martin Bowl
Slide Out House Martin Nest


House SparrowPasser domesticus

• Box type: Small box with 32mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: On trees or buildings at a height of 2m or above. House sparrows are colonial nesters so multiple boxes can be sited near to each other, or terraced boxes used.
• Suitable boxes:
Schwegler 1B Nest Box with 32mm Hole
Schwegler 1MR Avianex
Traditional Wooden Bird Nest Box with 32mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 32mm Hole
Vivara Pro WoodStone 32mm Oval Nest Box
Starter Nest Box with 32mm Hole
Schwegler 1SP Sparrow Terrace
Sparrow Terrace Nest Box
House Sparrow Terrace FSC Nest Box
Build-in Terraced Sparrow Box


JackdawCorvus monedula

• Box type: Large box with 150mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: As high as possible on a building or tree (minimum 3m). Jackdaws are colonial nesters so several boxes may be placed close together.
• Suitable boxes:
Tawny Owl, Jackdaw and Stock Dove Nest Box
Schwegler Jackdaw Nest Box 29


KestrelFalco tinnunculus

• Box type: Large box with open front.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree or building at a minimum height of 5m with a clear flight path to the entrance.
• Suitable boxes:
Kestrel Nest Box
Schwegler Kestrel Nest Box 28
Kestrel Open Nest Box


KingfisherAlcedo atthis

• Box type: Tunnel with rear nesting chamber.
• Siting guidelines: Buried in a vertical bank beside a slow moving river or lake. Only the entrance should be visible and it should be at least one metre above the maximum water level. Filling the tunnel with sand will improve the chances of occupation. If possible, two tunnels should be placed together, at least 70cm apart.
• Suitable boxes:
Schwegler Kingfisher and Sand Martin Nest Tunnel
Vivara Pro WoodStone Kingfisher Tunnel


Little OwlAthene noctua

• Box type: Tubular box with a 70mm entrance hole and internal baffle to reduce light.
• Siting guidelines: On a horizontal branch at a minimum height of 3m.
• Suitable boxes:
Wooden Little Owl Nest Box
Schwegler Little Owl Box 20
Schwegler Little Owl Box 22
Little Owl Apex Nest Box


Long-eared OwlAsio otus

• Box type: Nesting basket 30-40cm in diameter.
• Siting guidelines: Wire the basket into a tree at a minimum height of 4m. Line the bottom of the basket with small twigs.
• Suitable boxes:
Long-Eared Owl and Hobby Nesting Basket
Schwegler Nesting Baskets for Large Birds


Marsh TitPoecile palustris

• Box type: Small box with 25mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: Site boxes low to the ground unless predation from cats is a problem.
• Suitable boxes:
Traditional Wooden Bird Nest Box with 25mm hole
Small Bird Nest Box with 25mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 25mm Hole
Schwegler 1B Nest Box with 26mm Hole


NuthatchSitta europaea

• Box type: Small box with 32mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree at a height of at least 3m and with a clear flight path.
• Suitable boxes:
5KL Schwegler Nuthatch Nest Box
Schwegler 1B Nest Box with 32mm Hole
Schwegler 1MR Avianex
Traditional Wooden Bird Nest Box with 32mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 32mm Hole
Vivara Pro WoodStone 32mm Oval Nest Box


Pied FlycatcherFicedula hypoleuca

• Box type: Small box with 28mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: In a woodland, preferably overlooking a glade. Boxes should be installed at a height of 2-4m. If competition with earlier nesting tits is a problem, the holes of several boxes may be blocked up until the flycatchers arrive.
• Suitable boxes:
Vivara Pro Seville 28mm WoodStone Nest Box
Small Bird Nest Box with 28mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 28mm Hole


Pied WagtailMotacilla alba

• Box type: Small box with open front.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree or building at a height of up to 5m. Areas close to grassland and water preferable.
• Suitable boxes:
No. 19 Schwegler Dipper and Pied Wagtail Nest Box
1HE Schwegler Brick Box
Apex Robin Box
Vivara Pro Barcelona WoodStone Open Nest Box
Traditional Open Fronted Wooden Bird Nest Box


RedstartPhoenicurus phoenicurus

• Box type: Small box with 40mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: On trees near woodland or parkland at a height of 1-3m.
• Suitable boxes:
1N Schwegler Deep Nest Box
2HW Schwegler Nest Box


RobinErithacus rubecula

• Box type: Small box with open front.
• Siting guidelines: Bury the box in thick vegetation. Boxes can be low to the ground if predation by cats is not a problem.
• Suitable boxes:
2H Schwegler Robin Box
Robin and Wren FSC Nest Box
Robin Nest Box
Traditional Open Fronted Wooden Bird Nest Box


Sand MartinRiparia riparia

• Box type: Tunnel, approximately 100mm in diameter
• Siting guidelines: Tunnels should be filled with sand and buried into an artificial or natural sandbank. (Banks should be vertical or slightly overhanging).
• Suitable boxes:
Sand Martin Nest Box
Schwegler Kingfisher and Sand Martin Nest Tunnel


Spotted flycatcherMuscicapa striata

• Box type: Small box with open front. Front panel should be fairly low.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree at a height of 2-4m and with a clear outlook (e.g. next to a lawn or woodland clearing). Alternatively on a building, nestled within ivy or other climbing plants.
• Suitable boxes:
Flatpack Bird Box – Open Front
Robin Nest Box


StarlingSturnus vulgaris

• Box type: Medium box with 45mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree or building at a minimum height of 2.5m. Starlings nest colonially so several boxes may be placed close together.
• Suitable boxes:
Woodpecker/Starling Nest Box
Large Bird Nest Box
Woodpecker Box


Stock DoveColumba oenas

• Box type: Large box with 150mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: At least 3m high on a tree overlooking open fields or in an open barn.
• Suitable boxes:
Tawny Owl, Jackdaw and Stock Dove Nest Box


SwallowHirundo rustica

• Box type: Open cup.
• Siting guidelines: Under ledge or rafters inside an outbuilding. Swallows nest colonially so several cups can be placed near to eachother.
• Suitable boxes:
No. 10 Schwegler Swallow Nest
WoodStone Swallow Nest Bowl
Ceramic Swallow Bowl
9A-1 Schwegler House Martin Single Box


SwiftApus apus

• Box type: Medium box with oval entrance (approx. 30 x 60mm). Where starlings are present, ensure the hole size is a maximum of 28mm in height.
• Siting guidelines: As high as possible either under the eaves of a building or in a loft space with access to the entrance through a wall or vent. A nesting mould or ring of plaited straw can be put into the box to encourage nest building.
• Suitable boxes:
WoodStone Swift Nest Box
No. 17A Schwegler Swift Nest Box (Triple Cavity)
FSC Wooden Swift Box
WoodStone and Timber Swift Nest Box
Vivara Pro Burgos WoodStone Swift Nest Box
No. 17B Schwegler Swift Nest Box (Single Cavity)
No. 16 Schwegler Swift Box
Schwegler Lightweight Swift Box Type 1A


Tawny OwlStrix aluco

• Box type: Large box or chimney-style box with 150mm entrance hole.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree at a height of at least 2.5m with a clear flight path (particularly below the box).
• Suitable boxes:
Tawny Owl Nest Box
Tawny Owl, Jackdaw and Stock Dove Nest Box


Tree SparrowPasser montanus

• Box type: Small box with 28mm hole.
• Siting guidelines: On a tree at a height of at least 2m. Tree sparrows will nest in groups so boxes can be placed near to one another.
• Suitable boxes:
Vivara Pro Seville 28mm WoodStone Nest Box
Small Bird Nest Box with 28mm Hole
Apex Bird Box with 28mm Hole


WrenTroglodytes troglodytes

• Box type: Small box with open front.
• Siting guidelines: Well hidden in thick, preferably thorny, undergrowth.
• Suitable boxes:
Robin and Wren FSC Nestbox
Schwegler 1ZA Wren Roundhouse
Vivara Pro Barcelona WoodStone Open Nest Box


 

Top 10 Bird Boxes for New Builds and Developments

Vivara Pro House Sparrow Nest BoxThis is the final post in a three part series, designed to help you choose from our bestselling bird boxes. All of the boxes listed below are suitable for building into the masonry of a new build or development.

The previous two posts provide suggestions of boxes suitable for positioning on a tree in a garden, park or woodland, and for siting on a wall or fence.

For each box we have provided a quick guide to the material that it is made from, the entrance hole size and the species that the box is suitable for.


Schwegler 1SP Sparrow Terrace1. Schwegler 1SP Sparrow Terrace

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 6 x oval (32 x 50mm)
• Suitable for: House sparrows, redstart, spotted flycatchers

Vivara Pro House Sparrow Nest Box2. Vivara Pro WoodStone House Sparrow Nest Box

• Made from: WoodStone
• Entrance: 2 x oval (32 x 50mm)
• Suitable for: House sparrows, tree sparrows

Schwegler No. 16 Swift Box3. No. 16 Schwegler Swift Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 70 x 30mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

4. Schwegler Brick Nest BoxesSchwegler Brick Nest Boxes

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 32mm, small oval (55 x 33mm) or large oval (110 x 80mm)
• Suitable for: 32mm – great tits, blue tits, marsh tits, coal tits, crested tits, redstart, nuthatches, tree sparrows and house sparrows; small oval – swifts; large oval – redstart, pied wagtail, spotted flycatchers

Build-in WoodStone Bat Box5. WoodStone Build-in Swift Nest Box A

• Made from: WoodStone
• Entrance: 65 x 30mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

 

Swift Box Smooth Brick

6. Swift Box – Smooth Brick

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Entrance: 65 x 33mm
• Swifts

 

Ibstock Eco Habitat for Swifts7. Ibstock Eco-Habitat for Swifts

• Made from: Concrete
• Entrance: 52 x 30mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

 

Sparrow Box Smooth Brick8. Sparrow Box – Smooth Brick

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Entrance: 32mm
• Suitable for: House sparrows

 

Terraced Sparrow Box Smooth Brick

9. Terraced Sparrow Box – Smooth Brick

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Entrance: 3 x 32mm
• Suitable for: House sparrows

 

Starling Box Smooth Brick

10. Starling Box – Smooth Brick

• Made from: Concrete and brick
• Entrance: 45mm
• Suitable for: Starlings

 

Browse our full range of build-in nest boxes.


The full range of nest boxes can be found in our online shop, as well as a useful nest box price list which can be downloaded as a pdf.

 

Top 10 Bird Boxes for Walls and Fences

Vivara Pro WoodStone House Martin NestWelcome to the second in a series of three posts designed to help you choose the best bird box for your garden or other outdoor space.

This article includes a list of our top 10 bird boxes for positioning on a wall or fence. The first and third posts cover the best options for installing on a tree in a garden, park or woodland and for building into a new build or development.

For each box we have provided a quick guide to the material that it is made from, the entrance hole size and the species that the box is suitable for.


Traditional Wooden Bird Box1. Traditional Wooden Bird Nest Box

• Made from: European redwood (FSC)
• Entrance: 25mm or 32mm
• Suitable for: 25mm – blue tits, coal tits, marsh tits, crested tits; 32mm – great tits, nuthatches, tree sparrows, house sparrows

2. Schwegler 1SP Sparrow TerraceSchwegler 1SP Sparrow Terrace

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 6 x oval (32 x 50mm)
• Suitable for: House sparrows, redstart, spotted flycatchers

House Martin Nests3. House Martin Nests

• Made from: WoodStone and plywood
• Entrance: 70 x 30mm
• Suitable for: House martins

WoodStone Swift Nest Box4. WoodStone Swift Nest Box

• Made from: WoodStone
• Entrance: 70 x 30mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

 

Schwegler 9a House Martin Nest5. Schwegler 9A House Martin Nest

• Made from: Woodcrete and chipboard
• Entrance: 70 x 25mm
• Suitable for: House martins

Sparrow Terrace Nest Box6. Sparrow Terrace Nest Box

• Made from: Exterior grade plywood (FSC)
• Entrance: Three, 32mm
• Suitable for: House sparrows, tree sparrows

FSC Wooden Swift Box7. FSC Wooden Swift Box

• Made from: Softwood (FSC)
• Entrance: 28 x 65mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

 

Schwegler 17a Swift Nest Box

8. No. 17A Schwegler Swift Nest Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 32 x 70mm
• Suitable for: Swifts

Eco Barn Owl Nest Box9. Eco Barn Owl Nest Box

• Made from: Recycled plastic
• Entrance: 120 x 130mm
• Suitable for: Barn Owls

 

Vivara Pro Seville Nest Box10. Vivara Pro Seville 32mm WoodStone Nest Box

• Made from: WoodStone
• Entrance: 32mm
• Suitable for: Coal tits, blue tits, marsh tits, crested tits, redstart, nuthatches, pied flycatchers, house sparrows, tree sparrows

Browse our full range of nest boxes for external walls and fences.


The full range of nest boxes can be found in our online shop, as well as a useful nest box price list which can be downloaded as a pdf.

 

Top 10 Bird Boxes for Trees and Woodland

So, you have the perfect space in mind for a bird box but don’t know which one to buy? No problem – this is the first in a series of three posts designed to help you make the right choice.

This article includes a list of our top 10 bird boxes for positioning on a tree in a garden, park or woodland. The following two articles will cover the best bird boxes for positioning on a wall or fence and for building into a new build or development.

For each box we have provided a quick guide to the material that it is made from, the entrance hole size and the species that the box is suitable for.


1. Schwegler 1B Nest Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 26mm, 32mm or Oval (29 x 55mm)
• Suitable for: 26mm – blue tits, coal tits, marsh tits, crested tits; 32mm – great tits, nuthatches, tree sparrows, house sparrows; Oval – redstart

2. Traditional Wooden Bird Box

• Made from: European redwood (FSC)
• Entrance: 25mm or 32mm
• Suitable for: 25mm – blue tits, coal tits, marsh tits, crested tits; 32mm – great tits, nuthatches, tree sparrows, house sparrows


3.
Barn Owl Nest Box

• Made from: Exterior grade plywood (FSC)
• Entrance: 120 x 130mm
• Suitable for: Barn owls

 

4. Traditional Open Fronted Nest Box

• Made from: European redwood (FSC)
• Entrance: Open-fronted
• Suitable for: Robins, wrens, grey wagtails, pied wagtails, spotted flycatchers

 

5. Schwegler 3S Starling Nest Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: 45mm
• Suitable for: Starlings and overnight shelter for woodpeckers

 

6. Woodpecker/Starling Nest Box

• Made from: Exterior grade plywood
• Entrance: 45mm
• Suitable for: Great crested woodpeckers and starlings

 

7. 2GR Schwegler Nest Box

• Made from: Woodcrete
• Entrance: Oval (30 x 45mm) or three hole (27mm)
• Suitable for: Oval – nuthatches, redstart, tree sparrows, house sparrows, pied flycatchers; Three hole – blue tits, marsh tits, great tits

8. Tree Sparrow Nest Box

• Made from: Exterior quality plywood (FSC)
• Entrance: 28mm
• Suitable for: Tree sparrows, great tits, blue tits, crested tits, pied flycatchers

9. Robin and Wren FSC Nest Box

• Made from: Softwood (FSC)
• Entrance: Open (80 x 60mm)
• Suitable for: Robins and wrens

 

10. Starter Nest Box with 32mm Hole

• Made from: Softwood (FSC)
• Entrance: 32mm
• Suitable for: Great tits, blue tits, house sparrows, nuthatches

Browse our full range of nest boxes for trees and woodland.


The full range of NHBS bird boxes can be found in our online shop, as well as a useful nest box price list which can be downloaded as a pdf.

 

Orison for a Curlew: Interview with Horatio Clare

Orison for a Curlew takes us on a pilgrimage in search of the slender-billed curlew; once a common sight in its breeding grounds of Siberia, but now diminished to a handful of unconfirmed sightings. In this article, one of our book team Nigel Jones, talks to the author, Horatio Clare, about conservation, environmentalism and his hopes for the future of the titular bird.


The author, Horatio Clare

Despite the rather gloomy prognosis for the fate of the slender-billed curlew, your book seems to me about hope. Are you optimistic that conservation will gain ground due to stories such as the plight of Numenius tenuirostris, or do you think this story is more of a prelude of things to come?

It is about hope. I do think the hunger for watching nature footage, and writing and reading about the natural world will translate, given the unavoidable nature of climate and environmental awareness as the world changes, into action. My sense of my generation, currently in our forties, is that we came out of an easy time – the nineties – well aware of how lucky we were, and how things were going with the planet and capitalism generally – and that we have not seen the best of us yet. We have been getting it together, I know of great people in powerful positions, and others doing tremendous work, and I hope things will change for the better. Brexit and Trump are shattering reversals for the world and nature, but not insurmountable. Moreover, it seems the slender-billed curlew may not be on the way out! A population may breed in Kazakhstan and the birds may have been seen and filmed a few years ago in Holland.

Being such a delicate and ethereal creature; do you think the slender-billed curlew was always vulnerable to possible extinction, regardless of human activity; was there a more dominant species pushing it out of it’s niche?

No I am sure we are the dominant species which pushed it out, by draining marshes and polluting the water. It was surely vulnerable in that it is highly specialised.

The relentless corrosion of diminishing natural spaces is a strong theme in your book. The argument for development is usually ‘people come first’ and, by definition, wild spaces are mainly unoccupied by people. I would love to see the hundreds of white pelicans, spiralling up to find the thermals that you describe. However, most of us will only see a spectacle such as this on television, or envisage it vicariously. For me this is the paradox of conserving wild spaces for their own sake – how do we get everyone involved with conservation when only a few people ever get to experience what it creates? How do we make wild spaces matter to everybody?

Knowledge of the natural world and knowing what you are looking at can make a walk in the garden, park or road a safari. That is the way you make every space matter: put names and stories on the creatures that inhabit it. Funnily enough I have written two children’s books on the subject! Which makes me think, children’s literature being a kind of menagerie, we all begin as nature-lovers; it’s just that some adults discount the planet’s marvels, and certainly its needs. And of course corporations exist solely to harvest the planet’s riches as quickly as possible, heedless of environmental cost, if they are allowed to be, for the benefit of share-holders. I think some form of cooperativism between individuals and between nations offers the only hope for long-term sustainability.

There are some conservationists that advocate adopting a more laissez-faire approach to extinction, moving priorities to bio-abundance rather than biodiversity and accepting that extinction and invasive species are part of the evolutionary process. What are your thought regarding this way of thinking?

It is a sin to cause the extinction of a species, as Prof Kiss puts it in Orison. To fail to prevent the extinction of a species seems of a different order, if hard to enjoy. If you regard our privilege of dominance as responsibility, then we have a duty to look after all of what used to be called God’s creatures. We should not really accept anything less than bio-abundance and biodiversity, should we?

I really enjoyed meeting all the people in your book; their dedication, passion and commitment to the cause of conservation was wonderfully described, without ever reducing them to parodies or caricatures. For me they represented the ‘hope’ in your book. However, they all seemed at odds with the world, probably viewed by their relative governments as part of an ‘awkward squad’ and their work and funding was often in decline. What would you say to inspire a future generation of conservationist to take up the baton?

With journalism going through tough times, there is no better way to have the fun and the interest of being the awkward squad, travelling the world, getting up the noses of baddies and making the planet a better place than becoming an environmentalist! What a blessed and admirable profession! What adventure it offers! And…the happiest people you meet are naturalists and environmentalists, on the whole, though they deal in tragedy and folly often.

Licenced under CC BY SA 3.0, Naturalis Biodiversity Centre
Numenius tenuirostris Vieilliot, 1817

The hunting for sport, the mist nets and the bird markets make for a very threatening environment for migrating birds. However, it’s the drainage of the marshes for agriculture and the encroachment and contamination of heavy industry that you more frequently allude to as the biggest threat. Do you see hunting as a potential partner to conservation, or are those two pursuits always going to be in conflict?

Having just read Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier by David Cobham I feel hunting is unhelpful, if not abominable, but that may be a grouse-centric view. In Greece the numerous hunters are thought of with something like revulsion by some conservationists; the hunting I saw while living in Italy was an absolute disgrace. No doubt many hunters are great and ardent conservationists. Unfortunately many are not.

The slender-billed curlew sightings in recent history are difficult to verify. What are your hunches about their authenticity and when was the last recorded sighting that you believe was accurate?

The birds filmed in Holland in 2013 seem genuine but I am no expert. I believe they are seen – and recorded – now and then. I heard a report from Oman, but a confirmed sighting is a tricky thing: it seems you need two or more photos and absolute proof. My friend Istavan Moldovan is cautious about the 2013 footage – as I write he is chasing relict populations of Apollo butterflies in the Carpathians in Romania. Does that not sound like a great career?

The last question is a simple one, but maybe the most difficult to answer. I know you certainly hope so, but do you believe Numenius tenuirostris will ever be seen again?

I absolutely do. I am quite sure they are out there and it is my dream to see one! Thank you so much for your wonderfully intelligent and acute questions, quite the best!


Orison for a Curlew, written by Horatio Clare and illustrated by Beatrice Forshall, is published by Little Toller Books and is available in paperback and hardback.

Little Toller was established in 2008 with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles.

Their Nature Classics Library series was established to re-publish gems of natural history writing, with up-to-date introductions by contemporary writers. The success of the series has now developed into a publishing programme which includes a series of monographs by authors like Fiona Sampson, John Burnside, Iain Sinclair and Adam Thorpe as well as stand-alone books – all attuned to nature and landscape and aimed at the general reader.

Each Little Toller writer brings something new to the series – but it’s always characterised by a deep understanding of the subject, combined with wonderful writing.  A sense of the personal reaction to the natural world is imperative. Little Toller also pay a great deal of attention to the aesthetic of their books, using artists to complement the writing to create a beautiful object, befitting Little Toller’s high publishing standards.

Little Toller is now preparing its books for the latter part of the year, notably the first ever biography of the legendary but enigmatic J A Baker, author of The Peregrine, and access to the new Baker archive has led to important new insights into his life. 2018 will see new books from Tim Dee on Landfill, a book about Ted Hughes and fishing called The Catch, and an examination of the landscape of the north of the Irish republic from Sean Lysaght. Little Toller’s sister charity Common Ground is also working on a large exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park next year, for which there will be a raft of publishing.

 

The Importance of Nest Sites for Birds and Bees

Changes in land use can result in strong competition between species that have historically survived alongside eachother, such as goldfinches and chaffinches. Goldfinch by Tony Smith is licenced under CC BY 2.0.

Over the last century, land use in the UK has changed drastically. Small mixed-crop farms, traditionally separated by lanes, hedgerows and wild meadows have been replaced with larger, more specialised facilities. At the same time, the density of grazing animals such as sheep and cattle has also risen substantially. This combination of land-use change and agricultural intensification has contributed significantly to habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, and has led to huge, often dire, changes for the wildlife that call these places home.

Understanding these processes is of huge importance to conservationists, and a considerable amount of research has been conducted into the broad scale effects of land use changes on biodiversity. It is less well understood, however, why seemingly similar species can be affected to a different extent by local changes in their habitat.

A recent study, conducted by Dr Andrew Higginson at the University of Exeter, suggests that competition for nesting space may be a key factor in the differences observed. His study used a mathematical model to predict the likely outcome when populations of birds and bees are faced with a reduction in suitable nesting sites. Results indicated that larger, earlier-nesting species tend to fare better in these conditions, but at the expense of smaller, later-nesting species who, in the real world, would either fail to find a nesting site or be forced into using a poor quality or risky location.

Dr Higginson’s results illustrate that, whilst two or more similar species can co-exist together very happily when there are sufficient nesting spaces available, as soon as these become limited, competition and conflict become inevitable. In severe situations, species that have historically thrived in the same environment may suddenly find themselves battling for survival.

A key message from the study was that conservation efforts should ensure that priority is given to the creation and maintenance of suitable nesting sites. Conservation practices often focus on provision of food for wildlife, such as planting wildflowers for bees and providing food for our garden birds. Preserving and creating safe and accessible places for these animals to nest, however, is just as critical if we are to ensure their continued survival.

Head over to www.nhbs.com for our full range of bird nest boxes and insect nesting aids, or download our full nest box price list.

 

How to choose a nest box camera

Nest box cameras provide an excellent way to observe the exciting nest building, egg laying and chick rearing behaviours of your local birds.

Deciding which nest box camera to choose can be confusing and several questions should be considered before you make your choice: Do you need a wired version or would a wireless option be best for you? Do you want a camera that you can fit into an existing box, or would you prefer to buy everything already assembled? Will you be able to view your footage on your PC or laptop? Do you want to stream your footage to a website? In this article we will address all of these FAQs and offer some simple advice to make sure that you get the best out of your camera.

Do you want a wired or wireless system?

Wired systems have a cable running from the nest box back to your house or classroom. This cable carries both the power to the camera and the signal from the camera to your TV. A wired setup offers excellent image quality but may not be ideal if you have children or pets in your garden or if a cable running to your bird box will interfere with the gardening. You will also need to feed the cable into your house, either by drilling a hole in the wall or by feeding it through an open window.

Wireless systems do not require a cable between the bird box and the television but instead transmit images to a small receiver situated inside the house. For some cameras, such as the Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit, a power supply will still be required for the camera (i.e. from a shed or outbuilding). Other cameras, such as the battery powered Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit have solved this problem by adding a battery box, allowing the camera to run off D-cell batteries. An advanced version of this camera system is also available. This includes a solar panel which will power your camera while the sun is shining, only switching to battery power at night or on dull days.

Another thing to consider with a wireless system is that the signal can be compromised by other wireless devices in the area or by trees and other structures between the nest box and the house. In some situations this can severely affect your image quality.

Do you want a complete kit or just the camera?

If you are new to this particular aspect of watching and listening to birds, a complete kit, such as the Nest Box Camera Starter Kit or the Wired Camera Bird Box, provide an excellent and economical choice. These kits include a bird box which has a camera ready mounted in the roof. An attached cable plugs into your television and supplies the camera with power. Alternatively, if you want a wireless option, the Wireless Camera Nest Box is a great choice and doesn’t require any complicated assembly processes.

For the handyman or woman who wants to put a system together themselves, either in a bespoke or existing nest box, the Nest Box Camera with Night Vision is a good choice. The camera comes with a 30 ­metre cable and extension cables are available to purchase separately. The Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit or the battery powered Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit are good options if you want to fit a wireless camera into your own bird box.

If you decide to go for one of these options then you will need to attach the camera to the ceiling or inside wall of your box yourself using small screws. A small file can be used to file down a part of the side wall to make a space for the cable to pass through. Alternatively you might consider buying a Camera Ready Nest Box which has a clip inside for attaching a camera, as well as a perspex window in the side which helps to improve the quality of daytime images.

What about watching on your computer?

All of the cameras and kits that we sell come with either a cable or wireless receiver that will connect directly to your television. If you want to view or save your footage onto your computer then an additional USB capture device is required. These allow you to connect your camera/receiver to the USB port of your computer and come with viewing software which allows you to watch and record your footage. Available for both Windows and Mac operating systems.

Can I stream my footage to a website?

There are lots of online services which allow you to stream a live feed from your camera online. Many are free if you are happy having adverts on your stream, or you can purchase a monthly or yearly ad-free plan. Our current favourite is Ustream (www.ustream.tv). Take a look at their website for lots of great resources to help get you started.

 

 

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.

 

Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS