Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Q&A with Tim Birkhead




Tim Birkhead is the author of the new book Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation. His many other books include Ten Thousand Birds. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Sheffield in the UK.


Q: Why did you decide to write a 12,000-year history of humans' relationships with birds, and how long did it take you to write the book?


A: After several decades of studying birds, thinking about birds and writing about the history of ornithology, I realised that what I was most interested in was people’s relationships with birds.


We interact with birds is so many different ways. There aren’t just bird lovers or bird watchers; there are scientists; people who keep birds as pets; those that hunt birds, and those that try to protect birds.


I also realised that our relationships with birds have changed dramatically over time. For many millennia birds were simply a resource to be exploited. In many parts of the world they still are. Wild birds and their eggs have — and continue to be —been important sources of food for humans.


It was not until the mid-1800s that people started to care about birds.  We take it for granted today that the majority of people have an interest in protecting birds, but it has not always been like that.


Q: Of the various fascinating stories you tell in the book, are there any that especially stand out for you?


A: Throughout my academic career I have enjoyed teaching undergraduates and was fortunate to win a few awards for my teaching.


One of these came with some prize money that had to spent on some aspect of teaching. While other award-winners used their prize money to promote pedagogical aspects of curriculum development, I decided simply to take my entire first-year class to a seabird colony.


I have lived and studied amongst seabirds for a long time, and a large breeding colony is truly extraordinary: it throbs and breathes like a giant beast. As I hoped, almost none of the hundred or so undergraduates had visited a seabird colony before.


As our boat nosed its way under the enormous cliffs on which the guillemots, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills and puffins bred, I could tell from my students’ expression that they were as excited as I was. During that day, they had formed an irreversible relationship with birds and I was thrilled by their response.


Q: Writing in The Guardian, Hephzibah Anderson says, “As [Birkhead] charts our mutual history, he considers the Egyptians’ bird-filled catacombs, the evolution of falconry, and the Victorian craze for stuffed specimens. A response that’s altogether newer is empathy, the implications of which Birkhead probes with typical fastidiousness.” What do you think of that description, and what role do you see empathy playing in the human-bird dynamic?

A: Anderson is right. I do not think many people have thought about the transition from exploitation — thinking of birds as something to kill and eat — to empathy. Caring about birds.


What I have tried to do in Birds and Us is map out the course of human empathy for birds through time. The aristocracy was obsessed by falconry from the 13th century. They cared very much for their falcons and hawks, but much less or not at all for their prey.


When anyone spoke up, and it was usually women, their concern was not so much with the falcon’s prey, but with the brutalizing effect that falconry had on its practitioners.


One of the triggers for empathy towards birds was the realisation that humans could cause an entire species to go extinct.


Two of my ornithological heroes were John Wolley and Alfred Newton, who in 1858 went to Iceland in the hope of finding at least a few great auks still alive. They were too late, the last two had been clubbed to death in 1844. Poor Wolley died soon after their return to the UK.


Newton, however, was overwhelmed by what they had discovered. Prior to this, extinction was thought to something that happened naturally and long ago — to dinosaurs, for example — and not something that humans could do. In response to this realisation, Newton became one of the first bird conservationists.


Q: Given the issues surrounding climate change, what do you see looking forward for the relationship between birds and humans?


A: The point of Birds and Us is that our current caring relationship with birds is an extremely fragile one. It is also relatively recent. To know how fragile and precarious our present approach to birds is, we need to know about our past relationships.


Birds are in desperate need of protection. Bird populations are in steep decline all over the world and we are the cause: too many people. We are responsible for climate change, for deforestation, for bird flu and much else. A world without birds hardly bears thinking about. A world with 50 percent fewer birds is a poorer place too.


In my lifetime I have witnessed a 50 percent reduction in the abundance of birds, so I know what that reduction feels like. My task in Birds and Us has been to create greater awareness of the value of birds.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Alfred Newton was the greatest of Victorian ornithologists. He was obsessed by the great auk, and I am too. I have studied other auks, guillemots (murres in North America), razorbills and puffins for over 50 years.


They are among the most extraordinary birds. They live in colonies and watching a group of guillemots as I have done on the Island of Skomer, Wales, for many years, is like watching a soap opera.


Many of “my” birds are individually banded so I can recognise them individually and their long lives are as fascinating and complex as our own.


Not surprisingly, then, I have fantasised about their large, flightless and extinct cousin: the great auk. A few years ago I was given exclusive access to the papers of someone who over his lifetime collected more great auk specimens — eggs and stuffed birds — than anyone before and since.


I became intrigued by this man’s obsessive quest to obtain these specimens and, crucially what those specimens can tell us about a bird that no ornithologist ever saw alive. It is a biological detective story.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As a scientist I wanted to do several things in Birds and Us. The first was to show, I hope, that scientists are not devoid of feelings. Yes, to be an ornithologist you have to be rigorous and objective, but that does not preclude a real passion for birds.


Linked to that I also wanted to provide some clues as to how someone might, like me, enjoy a career studying birds. To do that, I have related stories from my rather unpromising early life, and recounted how they melded together to allow me to become a very content educator and researcher.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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