Why birds are making so many Brits twitch with excitement

Subject: Why birds are making so many Brits twitch with excitement
Date: Fri, 18 Mar 2005 15:06:36 +1100
Mar 17th 2005 
>From The Economist print edition

WHICH organisation, founded by a group of Manchester ladies worried about
the use of feathers in the hat trade, has more members than the three main
political parties in Britain put together? The Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds (RSPB), which was created to publicise the plight of
egrets and great crested grebes, is by far the largest organisation of its
type in the world, with over 1m members. Not content with lobbying for
birds, the RSPB also runs 30 large bird sanctuaries in Britain, and is in
the middle of creating a big new one in Cambridgeshire. The reasons for the
RSPB's anomalous success-a mixture of geography, history and plain
happenstance-illustrate some ways in which Britain is different.
First, Britain has little spare countryside for birds to flit around in. In
France, where hunters have been known to demonstrate for their right to
shoot migrating birds, the notion that bird habitats could disappear seems
laughable: there's just so much space. In densely populated Britain, where
there are 246 people per square kilometre, compared with 110 in France, the
spare land tends to be used for agriculture. Some birds live happily with
that. But others have found intensive farming impossible to cope with, and
the number of species has declined. Shrinking numbers get birds publicity,
so there may be a causal relationship between their declining numbers and
growing popularity (see chart).
Second, Britons are atypically enthusiastic about animals. Last weekend,
around 5m tuned in to watch Crufts, a competition for dogs which involves
manicured pooches trotting around an astroturf arena, interspersed with
heart-warming tales about hero dogs rescuing people. When it comes to
getting people to fork out, animal charities do better than charities for
the blind, the deaf and the elderly put together. In France, schoolchildren
sing a nursery rhyme encouraging them to pluck feathers from a lark. A tiny
tot doing the same in Britain would probably be referred to the social

Third, Britain's geography makes it a particularly eventful place for
bird-lovers. With one toe dipped in the Atlantic and another in the North
Sea, Britain is a refuge for birds that get blown off course while
migrating. The Isles of Scilly (off the south-west coast) can snare birds
from Bermuda, while Fair Isle (off the north-eastern tip) gets visits from
birds that belong in Siberia. Of the 400 different birds that a dedicated
birdwatcher may hope to see in Britain and Ireland, only 220 are regular
residents. The arrival of a rare one is a little like a visit from a movie
star: in Hollywood a sighting barely interrupts the slurping of a
milk-shake; in Sheffield it would stop traffic.
A whole subculture-that of the twitcher, as the most dedicated birdwatchers
are known, to the annoyance of some of them-has grown up around these
celebrity appearances. There are a few thousand twitchers in Britain,
according to Stephen Moss, author of a social history of birdwatching.
Alerted by pagers or e-mail, they will travel long distances to see a rare
bird. Like all successful subcultures, twitching has its own rules, language
and demi-gods. A "dip" is a failed "twitch", meaning that the bird flew off
before the twitcher arrived, preventing him from "ticking", or recording,
it. A UTV (untickable view) refers to a sighting too fleeting or hazy to be
counted. "Suppression", which is when news of a rare bird's arrival is kept
quiet until after it has left, is a sin.  Those who dedicate themselves to
twitching can hope to join the 400 Club, whose members have all seen at
least that number of species in Britain and Ireland.
The reasons why twitching appeals to white British males (there are few
female or ethnic-minority twitchers) are not clear. Popular explanations
include the Protestant work ethic (people feel guilty about lying around
doing nothing, and so fill their leisure time with pseudo-useful things),
Freudian psychology (a repressed male sexual urge leads to compulsive
behaviour) and neuro psychology (type-S brains, more common among men, like
making lists and cataloguing things; type-E brains, more common among women,
don't). If the Freudians are right, perhaps twitching is just trainspotting
for the post-industrial age.

Alastair Smith
Cargo Controls
Australian Customs Service

Phone: 02 6275 6367
Mob:   0439 737 658
Fax:    02 6275 5745


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