Vote Bird!

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It’s surprising what you can find on the ‘net! I’d never really given this much thought before but, it’s true – we don’t have a national bird. You’ve got emus, bald eagles and even something quite exotic, like the Himalayan Monal. But before we all jump up and start looking for the nearest feathered creature to give the title to, perhaps we ought to stop and think. First of all, we don’t need to worry, a website has got it all covered. Using Kitchener’s famous dictum, we are urged to vote for our national bird! Maybe slightly more worrying, Wikipedia thinks we already have one – the Robin! To be fair, the voting site does says it has been taken as a national bird but never really subjected to any competition (until now!). Before we dismiss this as a piece of fluff, perhaps we should think a little more closely about this.

Leaving aside why we need a national bird, what does such a competition imply? Browse the Wikipedia list. Consider the trophic level of each one. What pattern do we find? From the list, 12 are raptors. However of those, 5 are Golden Eagles and 2 are Fish Eagles so that really only 7 birds of prey are noted! A few nations are happy with carrion-eaters whilst most of the rest choose something more along the lines of seed-eater or highly decorative plumage. These would be protected species (hopefully) but their presence indicates a certain acceptance. They are aesthetic – and this is the key issue – don’t be ugly!

Years ago, one of the science journals published a small article on why certain species had more conservation effort than others. They put it down to the responses of the people – psycholovability – the idea you get a warm-and-fuzzy feeling over a bear cub more than a spider or snake (generally speaking, of course!).  Why does the WWF have a panda as its masthead? There’s a lot of empathy for this creature possibly out of proportion with its ecological value. For WWF, this is a good move – get money using a panda and spent it where needed. The question remains – is this the best way to raise awareness, to raise money and to conserve species. Can we only conserve what we like the look of? Does an ugly landscape deserve to be built on, whilst a mountain scene needs preserving? Think about it – all of Britain’s early National Parks were uplands! Even the original legislation talked about “beautiful and relatively wild”. In the US, early interest focussed on mountainous areas rather than plains. Do we need to be careful of what we promote in an era of social media and instant images? Are we allowing the aesthetic to take over from the ecologically important or is it fine to use their appeal to garner support? Possibly, but perhaps we need to be more open about what needs support and why. As science moves towards public debate in ever growing numbers, we need to think about our message.

If it helps, I’ll come clean! I voted! What does your bird say about you?

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