'Independent' writer is top of the pecking order

From sparrows to puffins and sea eagles to macaws, every bird needs a hero. And Mike McCarthy has been there for them all. Now our environment editor has been awarded the prestigious RSPB medal. Here he explains how the campaigning took flight
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The Independent Online

Seven-and-a-half years ago, The Independent did something that – in a modest way – made Britain sit up. We revealed that the house sparrow, the most familiar of all our birds, a creature as taken for granted as the leaves on the trees, was rapidly disappearing from our large towns and cities, and in London, had virtually vanished.

Why? Nobody knew. To this day, nobody knows. Go to Paris, go to New York, cities very similar to London in pollution levels and urban density, and you will find Passer domesticus still flourishing.

To highlight this mysterious phenomenon, in April 2000 we launched a £5,000 prize for the first proper scientific paper to explain satisfactorily the house sparrow's disappearance – it's still unclaimed, by the way – and this attracted attention around the world.

But what was most remarkable, seen from inside The Independent, was the reader response. It was just before email became the ubiquitous way of corresponding, and people were still writing letters, a fairly time-consuming process which means you have to have a certain level of concern to get you going. Yet in the two weeks after we launched the Save The Sparrow campaign, we received 323 letters – a huge amount correspondence.

Through many of them ran a consistent theme, which might be categorised as "Thank God that somebody else has noticed, I thought it was only me," we weren't the only ones who had spotted the sparrow's demise. This small but significant change in the natural world had been picked up by many people, who found it discomforting, but did not feel able to articulate their discomfort. In psychobabble terms, they needed it validating. Yet once it was validated, by being taken up by a national newspaper, the floodgates of emotion were opened.

It was clear that the disappearance of this small, humdrum bundle of feathers, this titchy little avian street urchin, mattered enormously to a considerable chunk of the population. But why? Would they have cared if it was the house mouse that was vanishing, the sparrow's mammalian equivalent? What is it about birds? Why do they have the ability to excite such feeling? For in the UK they certainly do; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more than a million paid-up members, more than all the political parties combined.

To put it in zoological terms, why, out of all the teeming life of Earth, should this particular group of medium-sized vertebrates be able to inspire such strong feeling in human beings?

Of course, other inhabitants of the natural world inspire strong reactions: the big game animals of Africa, for instance, and even more, their great predators, trigger in us an awe that is deep in the tissues and doubtless dates back to when we also hunted the game, and the predators also hunted us.

And the beauty of flowers such as wild orchids can fire real passions. But the love of birds seems more widespread, more generalised and more intense than our feelings for any other parts of nature, in Britain at least. It has been commented that, while most mammals exist in a world of dark and smell, we are an exception in that we exist in a world of light and sound, as do birds – and so our sympathies for them are instinctive and immediate.

That's true as far as it goes, but maybe birds do something more. Perhaps they tap into one of the deepest longings of the human psyche – the longing in us to be free spirits.

Freedom is a notion that in recent years has almost entirely dropped out of the public discourse. When did you last hear it discussed? It doesn't seem to be on anyone's agenda in political terms, perhaps because political freedom, in Britain at any rate, is regarded as established. But in personal terms, the question of freedom is enduring. Our personal freedom is circumscribed in millions of ways, from the routines of work and the demands of family to the very process of ageing, and we rail against them. It sometimes feels as though birds, however, transcend these human limits: they are the fastest of all organisms, they defy gravity, they can travel on a whim from one end of the Earth to the other (the arctic tern does exactly that). WB Yeats, looking as he grew old at the wild swans at Coole Park in County Galway, seemed to think enviously of them as eternally free.

"Passion or conquest," he wrote, wander where they will, attend upon them still" – this at a time when passion or conquest no longer attended upon him.

Freedom, in fact, seems almost to be the defining characteristic of wild birds, so much so that when it is taken away, we instinctively feel the situation to be unnatural.

A century before Yeats, another poet, William Blake, captured this perfectly in a couplet whose power is not lessened by what we may now feel is an initial edge of sentimentality : "A robin redbreast in a cage," Blake wrote, puts all heaven in a rage."

The freedom birds have means that they are harder to see, and so more valued when we see them; their beauty, often tremendous, is more fleeting and so more cherished. But most of all we respond to birds because of our feeling that they are fellow creatures, in the same world of light and sound as we inhabit, which can however in some way break free from that world's constrictions – the constrictions that for us begin with the first school timetable and end with the wooden box we will finally lie in.

It's an illusion, of course; but it's no less a longing for that. .

'A passion for wildlife stories'

The medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Britain's most prestigious conservation award, is normally given to a senior scientist, ornithologist or conservationist, such as Sir David Attenborough, who received it in 2000. It is "awarded to an individual in recognition of major achievement in the cause of wild bird protection and countryside conservation."

But, in the century since its inception in 1908, it has never before been given to a journalist. The RSPB's chief executive, Graham Wynne, told nearly 1,000 members of the charity at their annual meeting in London at the weekend: "So the decision to do so this year illustrates just how highly we regard this particular representative of the Fourth Estate.

"One of the things that makes Michael McCarthy stand out from the other environmental correspondents, and there are some good ones out there, is his passion for promoting wildlife stories.

"At a time when many in pubic life seem almost embarrassed to celebrate the wonders of the natural world, Mike is only too proud to talk about the beauty that birds and plants and insects bring to our lives, and because he cares so much about wildlife itself, he does a fantastic job in bringing that wonder to the general public, and in reminding other decision-makers that there are millions of people who care about the natural world."

Mr Wynne said: "Mike's coverage of the environment has been outstanding over many years. He has a special gift for making complex stories highly readable, which is only possible because his considerable writing skills are underpinned with a real depth of knowledge. It is a reflection of The Independent's strong and in-depth commitment to regular reporting of the environment as one of the most important issues of the day. The others pick up the environment and put it down, but The Independent's consistent coverage provides a hugely valuable service."

Eagle-eyed coverage

Puffin – Fratercula arctica

The Independent became the first national newspaper to give its front page over to a picture of a puffin when in summer 2004 we highlighted the catastrophic breeding failure of hundreds of thousands of Scotland's seabirds, from puffins and guillemots to great skuas – and linked it to global warming. Scientists are convinced that rising sea temperature means that small fish on which puffins and other species feed are moving northwards into cooler waters.

House sparrow – Passer domesticus

In 2000, The Independent highlighted the mysterious decline of Britain's most familiar bird by offering a £5,000 prize to explain its disappearance from major towns and cities, London in particular. The prize is still unclaimed, but the most commonly held theory about vanishing house sparrows centres on the parallel disappearance of the insects which their chicks need as food in the first few days of their lives (scraps of bread and seeds are eaten later). Why the insects might be disappearing remains a mystery, particularly as sparrows remain common in smaller towns, and in other big cities around the world.

Spix's macaw – Cyanopsitta spixii

We called it The Loneliest Bird In The World when we reported at length on the plight of the last remaining Spix's macaw, the brilliant-blue parrot from north-east Brazil, which was the rarest bird on the planet. Although there were several dozen birds in captivity, this individual, a male, was the last one remaining in the wild, and it clung on determinedly for more than 10 years while conservationists bickered about a reintroduction programme. Three months after we highlighted its plight, the last bird disappeared.

Sea eagle (white-tailed eagle) – Haliaeetus albicilla

One of the greatest wildlife success stories of recent years has been the reintroduction of the majestic white-tailed eagle, or sea eagle, into Scotland, where it had been persecuted to extinction at the start of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1970s, young eaglets were brought from Norway and released from the Hebridean island of Rum; the first pair bred and raised young on the island of Mull in 1984. Now there is a thriving population across the Hebrides, and The Independent has prominently featured a scheme so successful that it is now a major tourist attraction.