Onithologists, like the birds they love, tend to flock together. This is understandable, as there are few things more pitiful than watching a twitcher waxing lyrical to a non-twitcher about spotted flycatchers, lilac-breasted rollers or little bustards. If you’ve no interest in our feathered friends, not only will the conversation fly clean over your head but you’ll probably look on the ornithologist as some kind of loon. Most twitchers, being nothing of the sort, can detect this (a keen eye for observation being one of their strong-points) and quickly learn to confine their enthusiasm for birds to company that shares their interest.
I speak from personal experience, as I did my PhD in the bird group at Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. It was a great, great group and with the exception of me was absolutely rammed with great, great students who were birders through and through. Like them, I studied bird behaviour, but unlike them I could not recognise a sparrow when I saw one and could not understand their passion. I have a fondness for birds now that I would never have had were it not for those brilliant years, but I don’t and can’t get twitchy about rare or interesting migrants. I do not and will never have a list of birds I am trying to tick off. I have no hope of mastering the mysterious field-based art of binocular or telescope use.
I bring all this up because I’ve been pondering the origins of the World Wildlife Fund and many of those credited with getting the whole thing going all had an ornithological bent. I spent several hours yesterday at the Linnean Society of London, where they have a treasure trove of archival material handed over by the late Max Nicholson. This reveals four central figures and several dozen others behind the foundations of this organization.
At the tender age of nine, Nicholson had started a record of birds he’d seen. He wrote Birds in England in 1926, kick-started the Oxford Ornithological Society in 1927-8, penned The Art of Birdwatching in 1931 and was instrumental in the foundation of the British Trust for Ornithology in 1932, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1948, the British Nature Conservancy in 1949 and WWF in 1961. Not bad going. Nicholson was founding conservation organizations as though he were ticking birds off a list.
Julian Huxley presumably had natural history drummed into him from an early age by his grandfather T.H. and developed a taste for ornithology at Eton under the guiding hand of science master W.D. ‘Piggy’ Hill. “Piggy was a genius as a teacher… I have always been grateful to him,” he wrote in his 1970 autobiography Memories. Later, at Oxford University, he got interested in bird behaviour, wrote a monograph on the great crested grebe and played a mentoring role for ornithological giants Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen.
Peter Scott was also there, and in his autobiography The Eye of the Wind, he remembered how, at preparatory school his fondness for birds had already become apparent. “I had a copy of T.A. Coward’s British Birds…jammed into the slightly split pocket of my blazer,” he wrote. He had an inordinate fondness for geese and went on to found the Severn Wildfowl Trust in 1946 (roping in Nicholson to sit on the council). It’s now known as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and touts itself as “the birthplace of modern conservation”.
Guy Mountfort was “a businessman and an ornithologist of international repute”, as Elspeth Huxley describes him in her biography of Peter Scott. Indeed, he was the author of A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, published in 1954 and in 1970 received an OBE for his services to ornithology.
Outside this birdy foursome there were several other key players who could tell their marsh from their willow tit: 1st Baron Hurcomb (one-time President of the RSPB), Lord Buxton of Alsa (took up birdwatching during summer holidays in Norfolk), Phyllis Barclay-Smith (executive board of the International Wildfowl Research Bureau and the author of numerous bird books), Prince Philip (Birds of Britannica in 1962) and Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands (popped in on Scott at his lighthouse in Norfolk to watch and film, yes you guessed it, birds).
Birds are at the centre of all this because they attract bright human minds whose owners come together to discuss their obsession with feathers. Birds combine the intellectual challenge of seeking, spotting and identifying with the satisfaction of being able to collect good data on attractive species with not inconsiderable popular appeal. So I’m not really surprised to find so many birders at the heart organizations like WWF nor so many birdy organizations (like the BTO, RSPB, Birdlife International, the American Bird Conservancy, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) at the heart of the conservation movement.