Colin Bibby

Ornithologist and authority on bird censusing techniques
Click to follow

Colin Bibby was one of Britain's most influential and multi-skilled ornithologists. A senior administrator with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and BirdLife International, he contributed much to the understanding of birds and the problems they face.

Colin Joseph Bibby, ornithologist and conservationist: born 20 November 1948; research staff, RSPB 1971-86, Head of Conservation Science 1986-91; Director of Science and Policy, BirdLife International 1991-2001; married (three sons); died Cambridge 7 August 2004.

Colin Bibby was one of Britain's most influential and multi-skilled ornithologists. A senior administrator with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and BirdLife International, he contributed much to the understanding of birds and the problems they face.

Independent-minded and unwilling to accept conventional wisdoms without questioning their validity, he helped to place the work of the RSPB on a much firmer scientific footing. He was ahead of his time in developing action plans for rare species, and became a recognised authority on bird censusing techniques. In June he received the RSPB medal for his contributions to bird conservation worldwide.

Bibby's first job when he joined the research staff of the RSPB in 1971 was to take charge of the Beached Bird Survey, in which volunteers combed the coast recording the washed-up corpses of sea-birds. Characteristically, Bibby not only collated and analysed the records as required, but asked himself how far the bodies had travelled. He took to travelling on cross-Channel ferries and quietly tipping ring-tagged bird corpses overboard. The rings were subsequently recovered from as far away as North Africa, indicating that sea-birds can meet their death hundreds of miles from the places where their bodies are found.

He also asked himself how birds sustained themselves during their long migration journeys. By studying the birds in their stop-over areas - the places where birds feed and refuel for the next stage in their journey - he and his Cambridge colleague Rees Green shed light on one of the great mysteries of the bird world. The solution of the pied flycatcher, he found, was to set up temporary territories and fight off rival birds. The strongest, most aggressive birds were the winners. Sedge warblers, on the other hand, were precariously dependent on a particular kind of aphid. When the aphid was plentiful, the birds fattened quickly. When not, they lost condition. Today, influenced by such findings, many zoologists are now working on what has become known as "stop-over ecology".

Colin Bibby was born on the Wirral in Cheshire in 1948. A keen field naturalist from boyhood, he was educated at Oundle School, and went on to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge. Aged 20, he undertook a now classic study of the Dartford warbler, "The Ecology and Conservation of the Dartford Warbler". His work, for which he obtained a PhD, looked carefully at the status and habitat needs of the bird, and translated them into a plan for its conservation.

He showed that Dartford warblers are dependent on dry, open heathland, and need the right management to thrive. Later Bibby extended this work to merlins, finding that they too were commonest on well-managed heather moors, and declined when these were over-grazed.

In 1986, Bibby was promoted to become the RSPB's Head of Conservation Science. Among other things he oversaw the production of the first UK Red Data Book for birds ( Red Data Birds in Britain: action for rare, threatened and important species, 1990). This summarised the current populations of 117 rare or rapidly declining species, along with details of their known ecology, the threats they face, legal protection and conservation measures in force. He also extended bird censusing projects, introducing the annual bird counts now used by government among its "quality of life" indicators of sustainability. He was co-author of Bird Census Techniques (1992) which has set a new standard for good quality, well-designed survey and monitoring work worldwide.

In 1991, Bibby left the RSPB to head a small research team at BirdLife International, a body which works with partner organisations in over 70 countries around the world. One of the projects he took over was a major work, Putting Biodiversity on the Map (1992), on the distribution of endemic birds, which showed that 80 per cent of the world's birds lived on less than 20 per cent of the world's surface - and that the true biodiversity hotspots were smaller still. This and related work on bird biodiversity led to the award of the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences to Bibby in 1994.

Bibby was fascinated by island birds, especially apparently "lame duck" species, like the bizarre flightless kagu of New Caledonia or the lonely Azores bullfinch. He made three visits to the Azores in pursuit of its mysterious bullfinch, but his interest in the principles of island biogeography was also brought to bear on his studies of reedbed birds back at home. Bibby showed that, as with islands, the bigger the reedbed, the more species they support. This is the reason why the RSPB is now developing large reedbeds in the Fens and elsewhere.

Colin Bibby was a tall man with a slightly donnish air, relieved by a friendly twinkle; he had, it is said, "an enthusiasm for enthusiasts". He was that useful colleague, an intellectual with a practical bent. He had a certain presence, characteristically leaning backwards slightly and with his eyes focused somewhere above head level - the legacy perhaps of countless hours behind binoculars. He was a good public speaker and a clear and interesting writer, with over 50 papers in refereed journals.

Bibby left BirdLife International in 2001 to use his experience to help conservation bodies and international companies develop strategies for biodiversity.

Peter Marren