Monday 23 October 2017

Who should lead our national flock?

Ireland doesn't have a national bird, something that has long rankled those who love our feathered friends. The United States has the bald eagle. In Iran, the common nightingale holds a special place in people's hearts while in Sweden the blackbird is king. Here Niall Hatch, of BirdWatch Ireland, lists some of his favourites - a potential shortlist for our national bird

Curlew (Abi Warner Photography)
Roseate Tern (Bill Byrne / Design Pics Inc.)
House Martin
Barn Owl
Peregrine Falcon
Swift (Artur Tabor)

Niall Hatch

Being asked to pick my favourite Irish birds, which I often am, is rather like asking a parent to choose their favourite child. I always include the caveat that my answer is liable to change on a whim: it's almost impossible to decide, and I frequently change my mind.

That said, I have definitely found that there are certain species that make my heart beat a little faster when I see them. The following birds would be, in no particular order, the ones that particularly strike a chord with me, for a variety of reasons. Ask me again next week and my answers could be completely different!

1. Robin

If robins didn't exist, conservation organisations like BirdWatch Ireland would have to invent them: cute, confiding and easy to see, they are the perfect advertisement for the natural world.

I remember vividly as a small child watching the antics of our garden robins; tamer and more trusting than any other bird I knew.

It is this tameness that has given robins their reputation for friendliness. In fact, the robin is one of our most aggressive and pugnacious birds of all: it reacts violently to any other robin that dares to enter its territory, sometimes even fighting to the death. "Antisocial" would be a better description than "friendly": just think, when was the last time you saw a flock of robins?

Arguably, robins have managed to adapt to our surroundings and to take advantage of our parks and gardens better than any other species. Rather than friendship, their relationship to us humans is one of exploitation . . . and I admire them all the more for that. It's refreshing to see exploitation of nature going the other way for a change.

2. Peregrine Falcon

The peregrine falcon is perhaps Ireland's most impressive bird of prey. I clearly remember my first one, seen by my awestruck seven-year-old self perched on a roadside cliff in Co Wexford. Although I had never seen one before, I knew all about it. It had already been etched into my brain by the books I pored over. I felt unbelievably fortunate.

Peregrines are birds of superlatives, you see. "What's the fastest animal in the world?", I always ask when I visit a school classroom. "The cheetah!", shout back the pupils in unison, usually with a nod of approval from the teacher.

Not even close. The cheetah may be the fastest animal running on land, reaching speeds of around 110kmh in relatively short bursts. The peregrine leaves it for dust, easily exceeding 300kmh when it stoops through the air in pursuit of its prey.

I've been fortunate enough to witness this twice. The air whistled, like the sound of a cartoon bomb falling, and I swear my heart skipped a beat. Exciting doesn't even begin to describe it.

3. House Martin

House martins are summer migrants to Ireland. They build elaborate mud nests under the eaves of buildings, and now appear completely dependent on manmade structures for their reproductive needs. What they did before we humans came on the scene is a mystery.

That is not the only thing about house martins that is a mystery, and I think that's why I am so fond of them. Despite the fact that they live in closer proximity to us than any other bird, we still have no idea where they spend the winter. Presumably somewhere in Africa, as they fly south on migration, but that's all we can say. Their wintering quarters have never been found. I love that a tiny bird can maintain such secrecy in our modern information age.

There's more. Almost all birds have bare, unfeathered legs. House martins are one of very, very few species which have feathers all the way along their toes. Why? No one has a clue.

4. Curlew

The cry of the curlew is, for me and many others, the sound of wild Ireland. Walking in the Wicklow Mountains as a child, its plaintive, piercing whistle was the very distillation of Irish nature. It is a sound often used in film and on television and radio to convey a sense of "wilderness".

Alas, it is a sound we no longer hear across much of the country. Curlew populations have plummeted, mainly due to the destruction of their bogland and upland nesting habitats. So dire is the situation that a national curlew crisis conference is being held on November 4 to demand action to save this unique bird, an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage.

With its curious down-curved beak, the curlew is also a special bird to look at. For me, though, it's all about that sound. On the rare occasions now when I hear it, I am instantly transported back to childhood: it's like an avian time machine.

5. Roseate Tern

The roseate tern is, for my money, Ireland's most beautiful seabird. With its salmon-pink chest, smart black cap and almost ribbon-like tail streamers, it cuts quite a figure.

But that's not why I've chosen it. The roseate tern is the rarest breeding seabird in Europe, and the vast majority of the European population breeds here in Ireland.

Europe's largest colony is on tiny Rockabill Island off the north Dublin coast, where over 1,500 pairs now nest.

Once on the brink of extinction, decades of hard work by BirdWatch Ireland, funded by NPWS, have saved it and helped it to thrive: an all-too-rare conservation triumph, and a real source of hope. All of us in Ireland should be much prouder of this remarkable bird: how many readers have even heard of it before?

6. Barn Owl

The "Late Late Show owl", as people often call it, is a truly gorgeous bird. It's also a superbly adapted hunter, with superhero-level hearing that allows it to pinpoint its rodent prey in total darkness, as well as wing feathers that beat in complete silence so that its targets never hear it coming. It has long been cherished as the farmers' friend.

Barn owls are regrettably scarce in Ireland now, with only a few hundred remaining, scattered across the country. Rodenticides (ie, rat poisons) have taken their toll, contaminating the owls' food chain and inadvertently killing them: collateral damage in a war in which they were once our main ally. Let's hope that the decline can be stopped and that more of us get the chance to marvel at this astonishing creature.

7. Swift

No Irish bird has keener flying abilities than the swift. A summer migrant whose high-pitched screams fill our urban skies, it spends more time on the wing than any other species.

Swifts hate landing, and really only do so in order to nest. Everything else is done on the wing: eating, mating and even sleeping. They don't even come down to drink: they get all the water they need from the flying insects on which they feed. Their legs are so underdeveloped that they can't walk or even stand.

For most baby birds, their first flight lasts mere seconds; for the swift, it can last up to three years - that still blows my mind!

8. Waxwing

The waxwing resembles a child's drawing more than a real-life creature. With red beads and yellow stripes on its wings and an outlandish crest atop its head, it looks positively tropical.

Its origin couldn't be further from the tropics, however; waxwings come from the Arctic. Every few years, when the wild berry crop in northern Europe fails, they fly south en masse to gorge on our berries instead. They are especially partial to rowan berries and have little fear of humans (a creature they rarely encounter), so they tend to turn up in housing estates where their bizarre appearance literally has the power to stop traffic.

Waxwings eat up to three times their own weight in berries every day. Berries contain sugary juices. Over time, those juices ferment. This often leads to waxwings getting seriously drunk. What's not to love about them?

9. Blackcap

I adore the dawn chorus. Each May, I look forward to this extraordinary natural concert, as different species of bird sing to proclaim a territory and attract a mate. To our human ears, some sound like virtuosos and others tone-deaf, but one stands out above all the others.

That star performer is the blackcap, a small member of the warbler family that boasts a seriously impressive voice. Rich and melodic, its song sounds full of the joys of spring. I could never tire of hearing it.

10. Pintail

We all know what ducks look like, right? Most people are familiar with the mallard, but Ireland is actually home to many different duck species, especially during the winter when thousands flock to our lakes and estuaries from their Arctic breeding grounds.

Of all of these, it is the pintail that I most look forward to seeing again each winter. The drake, in particular, is a bird of breathtaking beauty. Wary and skittish, it is a difficult bird to get close to, making good views all the more special. If I see a pintail, it's a good day's birdwatching.

For more information about Ireland's birds or to join BirdWatch Ireland as a member, visit or call (01) 281-9878.

Sunday Independent

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